Donkey Kong Land: A Retro Review
When going through my archives, I noticed this old post about Donkey Kong Land had been mysteriously deleted and was no longer available on the site. I actually really liked that post, so I’m restoring it from my Google Docs backup. I’m being lazy and assuming the backup is the final draft without any proofreading, so I’m hoping there aren’t any embarrassing typos or errors.
Long before Rare revived the Donkey Kong character with their watershed, Silicon Graphics-infused Donkey Kong Country, Game Boy actually got a pretty rockin’ renewal of the classic arcade game in the form of 1994’s Donkey Kong. DK94 (as its commonly distinguished today) was an amazing game that stood out among platformers at the time with a fairly unique focus on puzzle platforming in creatively condensed level designs. Despite being a legendary DK title today, at the time, it was quickly overshadowed by the SNES release of Donkey Kong Country which appeared later that year. DKC’s impact on the gaming landscape was immense, and the the series it spawned went a long way toward keeping the Super Nintendo not just relevant but dominant until preparations were finished for the N64’s release. Rare would churn out two infamous SNES sequels in the same number of years, but perhaps less known is the series of similarly annualized Game Boy Donkey Kong Land games which have faded into obscurity behind the DKC trilogy, as well as the beloved DK94. Fortunately for gamers though, both the SNES DKCs and Game Boy DKLs have recently made a return via Virtual Console for Wii U and 3DS.
The big hook of Donkey Kong Country is, of course, the use of CG pre-rendered 3D sprites and environments that were widely regarded as “tubular” in the dialect that dominated the mid-1990’s. In an age when real time polygonal graphics were still very crude, the pre-rendered graphics of DKC were colorful, detailed, and well-realized and were made all the more incredible by being available on the Super Nintendo machines that had been available for years. Rare was a company that was well-known for its technical wizardry and revitalizing gamer’s admiration for the capabilities of the SNES hardware simply wasn’t enough for them, and, consequently, 1995’s Donkey Kong Land, a monochrome Game Boy game sporting the same pre-rendered 3D graphics as its console parallel, was concocted.
Donkey Kong Land is contradictorily both one of the most impressively designed and most poorly thought out games to come out during the long lifespan of the portable platform. Rare largely succeeded in bringing its impressive pre-rendered graphics to the handheld, but it came at a huge cost. The simple truth is that the tiny, dimly lit, monochrome, low-res, heavily motion blur-afflicted LCD screen of the system complimented the intricately-detailed DKC-style exceptionally poorly. The level of detail is such that it’s just hard to tell what’s happening on screen sometimes. This may not be as apparent on the 3DS VC releases, as the 3DS features a far brighter and crisper screen than the old brick, but the complex grayscale shading of the pre-rendered graphics just makes everything sort of blur together in many scenes. This is easily the most commonly cited criticism I’ve heard against the game.
When I originally played this game around the time of its release, I was definitely amazed by the graphics, but there was something off about them that I couldn’t quite put my finger on until the underwater sections in the second world. I think those underwater levels are actually some of the hardest to follow because of the busy visual design, and they were also the point I finally realized that the graphics were just too elaborate to display clearly on the primitive Game Boy LCD. Back then, my young brain couldn’t immediately comprehend how something could be a technological leap but also a hindrance. Today, I feel like so many people are cynical toward advances in video game technology, insisting that we’ve hit a point of diminishing returns, but back in the ‘90s we were exhilarated by the rapidly advancing state of hardware. Sometimes, it was hard for us to grasp that there would be missteps along the way of progress, and more technically sophisticated graphics weren’t always better by default. I think Donkey Kong Land first provided that realization for me.
While I agree that the graphics were a hindrance, I don’t want to give the impression that they completely ruin the game. When first playing it, I remember I eventually adapted my eyes to focus such that I could keep up with the action more easily. Actually, I think the game has some far bigger problems than graphics. The game has an incongruous difficulty level for the platform that I think is its real flaw. The platforming in this game requires very tight maneuvers which can at times be unfairly arduous, since due to the size of the Game Boy screen, you can’t see very far ahead of the character. You don’t really want to be running because its easy to bump into an enemy you haven’t seen yet, but many of the jumps require you to be at the elevated speed to successfully land. To exacerbate the issue, the collision detection is often unpredictable. Often times, you’ll feel as if you’re about to land a jump but slip through the edge of the platform, or you’ll get struck down by an enemy you could’ve swore you landed on top of. I think this kind of graceless platforming design is a far bigger issue for the game. Also, to top it all off, the save system really does not compliment the portable experience very well. In DKL, the save screen is only accessed after collecting all four Kong coins in a level. Collecting the coins is fairly easy in the early goings, but in the later stages, you often go a fair few levels without finding all of these collectibles, meaning your cut off from saving. Such extended periods between saves just aren’t suitable to an on-the-go experience (which is the on-going theme of this game’s design).
With all that said, I do think Donkey Kong Land has some strong points. Although only really explained in the manual, the story has always struck me as somewhat clever. Although you ostensibly fight the Kremlings and K. Rool, the actual villain seems to be Cranky Kong who, out of jealousy for the success of DKC, schemes with the Kremlings to create an 8-bit challenge for Donkey and Diddy that has the banana hoard on the line. Consequently, DKL features an entirely new set of levels divided across 4 worlds: a pirate ship, a sunken ruin, a mountain, and a city. Several of these levels have themes, enemies, and gimmicks that I’m not sure have been done in other DKC games. For instance, there are levels that take place up in the clouds, on construction sites, on mountain cliff sides, etc. For all of its flaws, there’s a fair bit of originality on display in the game. And of course, on top of all that, the music is excellent. (David Wise was credited as a composer.) When replaying the VC release, I realized just how many tunes that have been stuck in my head for years were heard from this game.
Two sequels would follow DKL, both released across the two subsequent years that followed the original. Honestly, I never played the sequels when they were originally released, but after having a go at the VC releases, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for the first DKL. The sequels are unlike DKL in that they are actually just miniaturized versions of their DKC counterparts (Diddy Kong’s Quest and Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble!). As far as I can tell, the levels in these games are Game Boy-ized facsimiles of those found in the console games, very closely similar in layout and design with some small changes made to accommodate for the differences in hardware. Definitely, the lack of originality was a bit of a bummer in light of the completely unique DKL.
More interestingly, however, is that the graphics are greatly simplified from Donkey Kong Land. The backgrounds are not fully computer rendered and instead have a “penciled in” quality to them. This definitely raises the visibility of the on-screen action, and, presumably, that was the intention. I have some doubts, however. It’s not just the backgrounds that have been “reduced,” the sprites also have this sort of lower quality feel to them. I think its easy to see what I mean when you compare the KONG tokens, as I’ve demonstrated below. I’ve always wondered if the real reason for the changes to the backgrounds was that Rare appropriated a lower budget to sequels. These games came out in the years just before Pokemon dropped, and I’ve heard that Game Boy sales were in a slump during that period, so Rare may not have wanted to invest as much effort into the platform.
As I close out this post, I’m sure I may leave some readers with a difficult impression as to whether the 3DS VC release of DKL is worth playing for those with no prior experience with the game. That’s a difficult question to answer. The massively superior 3DS screen alleviates many of the problems with the difficult to discern graphics that had to be endured on the far less crisp Game Boy display. But the erratic and fickle difficulty design, of course, still remains. Think about it, though, I realize that the first SNES DKC also had this aspect at times. Ultimately, I think fans of the SNES DKCs who might have never played this version but are looking for something new to sate their nostalgia will enjoy this game. It does put more than a few of its own twists on the DKC formula, and the availability of save states on the 3DS VC will definitely provide a less stressful alternative to the game’s original save system. Unfortunately, I think those without much affinity to the series will not gain as much fulfillment from this game, especially if they haven’t played the SNES counterparts which are superior and without question better games to check out first.