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.