Donkey Kong Country: Pretty, but frustrating

Posted by GrantHeaslip (1524 posts) -

I never owned a Super Nintendo. Yes, that's right, even though I was born in 1989 and by all accounts should have grown up with the SNES, I skipped straight from the NES to the N64. I ended up playing a lot of SNES classics like A Link to the Past, Super Mario World, and Yoshi's Island (as well as spiritual successors like Mario Kart: Super Circuit, F-Zero: Maximum Velocity, and Metroid: Zero Mission) on the Game Boy Advance, but I've always had some pretty big gaps in the SNES era. The Donkey Kong Country series in particular is one that I just never played (at least on my own), and I decided to rectify that recently.

First of all, let me get this out of the way: Donkey Kong Country still looks pretty nice, and it's clear it was a technical achievement. I don't think it's a look that's aged anywhere near as well Yoshi's Island's or Super Mario World's — in particular, the blockiness of the sprites looks pretty rough on a sharp HD screen — but for a 19-year-old game(!), it's impressive. The music, of course, is great, even though I don't have any particularly strong nostalgia for it.

But here's the problem: I don't like playing it. I've got a number of issues, but let's get the biggest (and most underlying) out of the way: the camera is too fucking close! I mean, look at this:

This is not a minor, once-in-a-while issue — it's a problem that pervades the gameplay, as it forces you to play extremely cautiously and/or memorize every level. Donkey Kong Country is a game that punishes you for playing breezily and expects you to react to stuff before you've even seen it. Because of the camera, this problem is at its worst when an enemy is down an incline from you — there are hills on which you are essentially guaranteed to get hit if you run down them without jumping in advance.

Compare those to the level of visibility in Super Mario World or Yoshi's Island:

In both of those games, you almost always have enough information to make educated decisions, and deaths very rarely feel like impossible-to-avoid cheap shots. To my recollection, there are a few to no levels in those games that aren't reasonably accessible without rote memorization. The challenge is navigating around known threats, not knowing the game's about to blindside you with a Klaptrap or Chomp that will hit you in a quarter-second.

Exasperating the problem is the frustrating lack of platforming precision. If you look at the those screenshots of Super Mario World and Yoshi's Island, it's very clear (down to a pixel-by-pixel level) where the platforms begin and end. In Donkey Kong Country — and that minecart screenshot is a prime example — it's often not. Nothing in a platformer is more frustrating than watching your character fall through a platform you thought you'd land on. The lack of visibility clashes horribly with this weakness, as you're required to parse murky platform boundaries far faster than you would in most games.

Shigeru Miyamoto famously criticized Donkey Kong Country for being form over function, and I'll take that one step further: I think the look of the game essentially prevented the gameplay from being good. Donkey Kong Country was rendered at 256×224 — for the character and enemy sprites to look as detailed and expressive as they did, and for the game to have its famous 2.5-D look, Rare more-or-less had to bring the camera in closer than it should have been and sacrifice platforming precision. Considering the amount of attention the game got for its looks at the time, that was probably the right decision, but it made the game way more frustrating and tedious than it should have been.

I'm sure I've to some extent been spoiled by the limited difficulty of modern games, but I don't think that's my issue here. I'm all for an honest challenge — I enjoyed Super Meat Boy and VVVVVV — but I want that challenge to be derived from deliberate gameplay puzzles, not poor design and misplaced priorities. Skill in a game should be a product of mastery of its mechanics, not memorization of its obstacles.

#1 Posted by 6n00bkilla9 (149 posts) -

i'm sorry but i love this game and I even when I was a little kid thought it was super easy for the time when otehr games were almost impossible. Its so much fun and has just the right about of difficulty and this is including the sequels as well my fav gamers almost ever!

#2 Edited by Oscar__Explosion (2196 posts) -

You are right by saying that the camera is close, but I've honestly never had a problem with it and I love DKC 1 and 2.

#3 Posted by GrantHeaslip (1524 posts) -

@6n00bkilla9 @oscar__explosion: I should mention that this was written directly after repeatedly getting slapped around by the ice levels :). Again, I don't consider myself awesome at games, but I'm good enough to know DKC has some problems beyond fair difficulty.

I should also say that I draw a line between a game being easy once you've played it enough to know what's coming (as I did with my of the games I played as a kid) and a game actually being easy. I found that once I finished a level, I didn't have much trouble finishing it again, but the process of finishing it the first time wasn't enjoyable.

#4 Edited by Oscar__Explosion (2196 posts) -

@6n00bkilla9 @oscar__explosion: I should mention that this was written directly after repeatedly getting slapped around by the ice levels :). Again, I don't consider myself awesome at games, but I'm good enough to know DKC has some problems beyond fair difficulty.

I should also say that I draw a line between a game being easy once you've played it enough to know what's coming (as I did with my of the games I played as a kid) and a game actually being easy. I found that once I finished a level, I didn't have much trouble finishing it again, but the process of finishing it the first time wasn't enjoyable.

As much as I love DKC, FUCK THOSE ICE LEVELS. Greatest childhood accomplishment was the realization that I finished that world and didn't have to go back.

#5 Edited by GrantHeaslip (1524 posts) -

@oscar__explosion said:

As much as I love DKC, FUCK THOSE ICE LEVELS. Greatest childhood accomplishment was the realization that I finished that world and didn't have to go back.

So if I manage to get past those, will the rest of the game be easier/funner? If I know they're the hardest part of the game, I may try to push through and finish it.

And yeah, not to put too fine a point on it, but what were they thinking!?

#6 Posted by Oscar__Explosion (2196 posts) -

@oscar__explosion said:

As much as I love DKC, FUCK THOSE ICE LEVELS. Greatest childhood accomplishment was the realization that I finished that world and didn't have to go back.

So if I manage to get past those, will the rest of the game be easier/funner? If I know they're the hardest part of the game, I may try to push through and finish it.

And yeah, not to put too fine a point on it, but what were they thinking!?

From what I remember that was the most annoying area of the game. I don't think it get as frustrating after that.

Ice/water worlds in every game is terrible. That's just a fact of life.

#7 Posted by Icicle7x3 (1173 posts) -

#8 Posted by Oscar__Explosion (2196 posts) -

Yep this is about right. Also I really enjoyed that video.

#9 Edited by McGhee (6094 posts) -

I played this game again for the first time in at least 15 years recently and I still had a blast. Such a great game.

#10 Posted by believer258 (11634 posts) -

I played these games as a kid and absolutely loved them, but you're not wrong about this one. The camera is pretty close and those minecart levels do suck. I didn't have anywhere near as much of a problem with it as you do, though.

Last year, I went back and played all the way through DKC2 and please at least try that one. The characters are naturally smaller and I think it's a step up in every way from the first one, including this one. I remember the DKC3 sprites being pretty big so you might have a bigger problem with it than you do with the first one, but I've always considered the second one the place where the series shined the most.

#11 Edited by Fredchuckdave (5339 posts) -

The second one is better and generally more difficult, but still fairly easy platformers with fantastic music. Though I suppose easy by SNES standards is difficult by modern standards.

#12 Edited by BisonHero (6169 posts) -

@grantheaslip: I agree, and frankly most people I've encountered who defend DKC's gameplay are also people who played the game for dozens of hours between the ages of 6 and 12. So sure, they can happily take the controller and beat the ice world only losing like 2-10 lives, but only because they logged hours and hours of their youth getting down rote memorization of those levels. It looked great for the time (though yeah, hasn't aged well), but I think the gameplay is difficult in a really cheap way.

If you think about any recent platformer, whether it's Super Meat Boy, N, Dustforce, VVVVVV, or even IWBTG, your character is reasonably small, so you actually can see what the fuck is ahead of you, and it's a fair challenge in the sense that you're not being instakilled by things because they just came into view 5 milliseconds ago. DKC's extreme zoom is some hot bullshit that makes the ice world pretty difficult, despite the levels themselves not being that inherently difficult if you could only see farther ahead.

#13 Edited by ArbitraryWater (11475 posts) -

DKC is a totally fine game. The second one is better (and harder), but other than those Ice Levels I never had a problem with it.

#14 Posted by Fredchuckdave (5339 posts) -

@bisonhero: I still think the look is fantastic personally; the only thing that hasn't aged well is the PS1/N64 era.

#15 Posted by Slag (4001 posts) -

But here's the problem: I don't like playing it. I've got a number of issues, but let's get the biggest (and most underlying) out of the way: the camera is too fucking close! I mean, look at this:

That's a pretty big problem to have with a game.

I haven't played DKC since it launched, but I remember thinking it was a very good game, but not a great game. The only place I remember thinking the camera was too close, was in the barrel shooting sequences, but it's been a very long time.

Now I'm curious to go back and see if I agree.

I'll echo what others have said and say give DKC2 a chance, it always supposedly was the best of the series.

#16 Posted by Fobwashed (1899 posts) -

All I have are my memories from when I got the game as a kid, and those memories are all fond. I remember being amazed by the graphics and loving the game's mechanics. I bet if I tried to play them again today, I'd have similar frustrations but back when I played them, they were awesome.

#17 Posted by SecondPersonShooter (615 posts) -

Now can someone tell me if Goldie by A$AP Rocky samples Donkey Kong Country music because I always feel like it does.

#18 Edited by TheGreatGuero (9130 posts) -

I think the close camera really just keeps you on your toes. It did make those ice levels extra tough, though. Still, I certainly don't think it hinders the gameplay in any way. For me, Donkey Kong Country is one of my all time top 10 favorite games. I think the lack of visibility in platforms is off-set by your roll maneuvers, which allow you to essentially run off a ledge and still jump moments later. Heck, if you're not running through DKC, you're not playing it right.

Still, I understand how it can be hard to play a much loved game a decade later and not see what all the fuss is about. Sometimes, you just gotta play games in their time to really appreciate them. I actually ended up buying Donkey Kong Country 3 on Virtual Console years ago, since I had never played it back when it came out. I loved DKC1 and 2, but DKC3 came out after the next-gen had already started, so it was overlooked by many. A lot of people rave about it, though, so I thought I'd finally give it a chance. What I found was a game that hurt my eyes, was ugly beyond belief, and just didn't appeal to me. Yet I can still play DKC1 and 2 and am just totally loving every second of it. Funny how that stuff works, huh? Nostalgia really can make a difference.... As for Super Mario World, I played it back when it came out, and today I still stand by my belief that it's one of the worst Mario games.. It's a substantial downgrade from the greatness of SMB3, as far as I'm concerned. I never really saw the appeal of it nor understood why some people actually think it's BETTER than Super Mario Bros 3....

#19 Edited by myketuna (1652 posts) -

It probably does have some niggling difficulty spikes here and there, but as a kid I played this (and 2 and 3) so much, I brute forced my platforming skills way up. I went back and played 1 2 and stopped mid-3 (holiday 2012 games called to me) and it wasn't as hard as I remember. But again, I feverishly played each one in the series.

#20 Posted by maskedarcstrike (701 posts) -

I actually got the VHS promotional tape for this back in the day since I was subscribed to Nintendo Power at the time =p

@grantheaslip: I always took the ice levels slow, there's no real penalty for time as long as you get the DK coins and do the bonus levels if I remember right.

#21 Edited by MentalDisruption (1618 posts) -

I don't remember it being too tough, but I was just a little kid with enough time to retry over and over again when I played it. Dying continuously until I eventually got the level down was just the way games worked as far as I knew in those days.

#22 Edited by John1912 (1830 posts) -

I cant say they were my fav games. I liked them, but I do have a really warm memory of playing it. Think my family had just moved into a new house. It was Christmas time, and I was the only one up in the house playing it in the living room. Having fun, but making sure to be quite so I wasnt told to go to bed. Prob 1-2 AM. I do remember the graphics were pretty fucking amazing for their time.

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