Take a look at the great ape, game by game.
While Mario is often seen as Nintendo’s flagship character, this honor should really belong to Donkey Kong, who was at least a named character while Mario was still referred to as “Jumpman”. Donkey Kong has been around almost as long as Nintendo has been making video games, but largely he stayed in the background while Mario took over in the late 1980s and early 1990s. All of that changed, however, when UK developer Rare Ltd. was given permission to breathe life into the old character after impressing Hiroshi Yamauchi with a demo featuring Silicon Graphics technology.
What followed were three games between 1994 and 1996 that defined the later years of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. The games were seen as watermark titles for their platform, and also for their characters. Donkey Kong went from being a villain in his title to a member of a larger family. Although the games didn’t feature particularly rich narratives, a world was created, and it’s proven to be one of the most loved, and lucrative, video game worlds Nintendo’s ever created.
It all started on November 21, 1994. Donkey Kong Country was being marketed directly against Sega’s new 32X and Sega CD platforms. Nintendo was set on driving home the point that you didn’t need new hardware to deliver “next-generation” game experiences. The game was an immediate hit, winning many “Game of the Year” awards in 1994 (against tough competition such as Super Metroid).
The game established the formula for every Donkey Kong Country game that would follow: two characters platforming side-by-side, hunting out K-O-N-G letters, riding on animal friends, and jungle imagery. The game’s music was composed by David Wise with help from Eveline Fischer. These two would compose the music for many future Donkey Kong titles as well, including this month’s release Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze.
The game featured King K. Rool, who would go on to be the villain in the rest of the games in the SNES trilogy. There were 40 stages of platforming goodness, with mine cart stages and water stages to keep things interesting. This game marked the debut of Diddy Kong, as well as most of the other members of Donkey Kong’s family such as Cranky Kong, Candy Kong, and Funky Kong.
Donkey Kong Country was a major success, even being bundled with the Super NES console. Eventually, the game was ported to both the Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance handheld systems. The game went on to sell over nine million copies, and thus a sequel was greenlit right away.
Almost exactly one year after the launch of Donkey Kong Country came DKC2: Diddy’s Kong Quest. In an unexpected move that Rare would repeat in a year with DKC3, DKC2 mixed up the playable characters by removing the titular character and making Diddy the main character. Diddy was paired with his “girlfriend” Dixie Kong (making her debut). Dixie was granted the special ability of hovering by spinning her long ponytail in a helicopter fashion.
While DKC2 plays very similar to DKC, there are some notable differences. The game is substantially more difficult, and includes even more bonus items to locate in the form of DK coins. There is one DK coin per level, and their hiding spots become more and more difficult to track down as you progress later in the game. Another difference is the scenery, as DKC2 keeps to a pirate theme. While villain, K. Rool, was a (self-proclaimed) king in DKC, he’s donned a pirate hat and coat and refers to himself as Kaptain K. Rool in the sequel.
Just as DKC2 launched almost exactly one year after Donkey Kong Country, DKC3 launched almost exactly one year after DKC2. The game released on November 22, 1996, only a few months after the launch of Nintendo 64. Because of this, the third game in the Donkey Kong Country series was overshadowed by incredible new hardware and a genre-defining 3D platformer in Super Mario 64. At a time when new ideas and 3D graphics were becoming the norm, DKC3 represented another fantastic 2D platformer in a well-established genre.
With Donkey and Diddy Kong both out of the spotlight (Kidnapped. AGAIN!), the newest addition to the Kong family is Kiddy Kong, Dixie’s younger cousin. Dixie and Kiddy are front and center in DKC3. When holding Dixie, Kiddy can throw her. In addition, his rolling abilities are vastly improved compared to other characters, and while rolling he can even bounce off the surface of water.
The music was provided mostly by Eveline Fischer, but when the game was ported to Game Boy Advance in 2005, it was given a new soundtrack composed by David Wise. In addition, the subtitle was dropped on the GBA version of the game.
Although the game was positively received, it never got quite as much attention as the first two games in the series.
Although quite a few games were released in the Donkey Kong franchise after DKC3, none of them were in the same vein (or series) as Donkey Kong Country. Donkey Kong 64, a pseudo-sequel to the SNES games, delivered a Super Mario 64 style 3D platformer with plenty of collectables, while Donkey Kong Jungle Beat showed how one could deliver a SNES-style DKC game with only a set of bongo drums as your control method. Those games have merit, but they just weren’t Donkey Kong Country. When Rare Ltd. was purchased by Microsoft in 2002, it seemed unlikely for the franchise to return in its original form.
Finally, at E3 in 2010, Nintendo announced that the franchise was to have a new entry. The new game was Donkey Kong Country Returns for Wii, and would be developed by fan-favorite developer Retro Studios, who were fresh off Metroid Prime Trilogy, widely regarded as some of the finest first-party Nintendo games in a generation. Although some fans expressed disappointment that Retro was tapped to revive a 2D platformer when they had previously shown skill in creating realistic 3D environments, that disappointment began to wash away as footage of the game was shown.
Donkey Kong Country Returns was released November 21, 2010, exactly sixteen years after the release of the original DKC. As Rare was no longer developing the game, David Wise was unavailable to help write the music, so Kenji Yamamoto was recruited to adapt Wise’s original style to the new game. Yamamoto had originally worked with Retro Studios on the Metroid Prime games.
DKC Returns was released to critical acclaim, being hailed as the cream of the crop of the “revival” 2D platformers that Nintendo had been releasing around the same time period. While some found that the motion control mechanics in the game were a detriment, most seemed to agree that the level design, challenge, visual design, and music were all top notch.
The game went on to sell almost five million copies, and like all other games in the series was eventually ported to a handheld platform when DKC Returns 3D was released in May 2013.
As Nintendo fans waited with bated breath to see what Nintendo had lined up next for beloved developer Retro Studios, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze was announced for Wii U at E3 2013. Retro Studios would be revisiting the Donkey Kong Country franchise at least one more time.
Original series composer David Wise has confirmed his return to work with Kenji Yamamoto to compose music for the game, having since departed Rare Ltd.
We’ve had a chance to look at the upcoming game several times now, and by all accounts it seems like yet another solid entry in a series that’s seen more than it’s share of solid entries. Whether or not the series has overstayed its welcome remains to be seen, but by all accounts it seems as if the new game is set to be as fun as ever.
What do you think about Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze?