Monkeyin’ around never goes out of style.
The original Donkey Kong Country was unique for its pre-rendered 3D graphics converted into a 2D platformer, and although its gameplay was pretty good at the time, it wasn’t until the sequel, DKC2: Diddy’s Kong Quest, that the series really hit it out of the park. Opinions may differ on favorite entry or playable character, but out of the Super Nintendo trilogy, there’s no denying how playable, charming, and satisfying it was and still is to cartwheel and spin your way across Crocodile Isle. The numerous secrets, variety of levels, and incredible soundtrack work in harmony to create a platformer to rival the best Mario titles. And it actually didn’t hurt that Donkey Kong himself was almost nowhere to be found.
As it released later in the SNES’s life cycle, Donkey Kong Country 2 had just enough time to shine at the end of 1995 before the Nintendo 64 came out the following year. I don’t actually remember when I first played it, but I do recall some rather embarrassing and uncomfortable moments associated with it and even earlier with Super Mario World. At some point not too long after it came out, I would borrow DKC 2 from a cousin, but not one I normally saw all that often. He had a save file at a very high percentage, and his one condition for letting me borrow the cartridge was that I not delete his save data. With three save slots, you would think this wouldn’t be an issue at all. I happily used one of the two free slots and enjoyed the game thoroughly. I didn’t play through the entire game before I had to return it, and during one of my final sessions with it, something tragic happened.
On the main menu screen, I deliberately moved the cursor to the option for deleting save data. Within seconds, I had committed a grave error that would lead to a dramatic confrontation. I don’t know what came over me. Maybe I didn’t want to see his save file with more progress than I had achieved. It’s possible that I was trying to delete my own save data so as to return the cartridge back to him as if I had never actually used it at all. Whatever my 10-year-old mind was thinking at the time, I regret it to this day, and I still think of it as one of the most cruel things you can do to a video game player.
I’ll briefly mention the scenario that took place a few years prior involving Super Mario World. In that instance, I was over at a nearby friend’s place playing the game when he stepped out of the room for a moment. In the blink of an eye, I deleted his save data; and he nearly caught me in the act. When he saw that all three save files showed 0 percent, he (understandably) flipped out and started screaming at me. After telling his mother about the crime I had committed, she essentially banished me from their home, and I don’t think I ever went back. We might have been lifelong gaming pals had I not turned supervillian for a brief moment. While I don’t have the urge to go around destroying people’s progress in video games any longer, I do wonder if it’s tied to feelings of always wanting to be the first to experience something. To this day, I still feel pangs of envy when I hear about others enjoying a game before I have a chance to.
On a much happier note, Diddy’s Kong Quest lives up to the wordplay of its subtitle. The game certainly does feel like a conquest, especially compared to the original Donkey Kong Country. The new animal buddies are memorable in that they are used much more frequently and to greater effect in many of the 52 total levels. Squitter the spider and Rattly the rattlesnake have entire levels dedicated to their unique abilities: creating web platforms and jumping high in the air, respectively. In a way, it’s almost as if there are seven total characters given how often you end up using the five animals, and that each one has gained a special move since their previous appearance makes them all the more fun to play as.
The scores of collectables foreshadow the collect-a-thon 3D platformer Donkey Kong 64, but the implementation feels more satisfying and natural here. Nearly every stage has one or more bonus levels in addition to a large DK coin to collect. By completing these objectives, the level title on the world map gains an exclamation point and DK symbol beside, indicating that you’ve found all of the hidden secrets. Each bonus stage grants a single Kremcoin, and these have a practical use in that they unlock the extra stages in the Lost World. Players are incentivized to return to every level and to search thoroughly for the sake of completion; the game save file can reach a total of 102%, and reaching this milestone absolutely represents a formidable but satisfying achievement. The levels are generally designed in such a way that secrets are teased through the use of item placement, such as a single banana floating against a wall. There’s likely an opportunity to Hop on Rambi the rhino or Engarde the swordfish and break on through to the other side.
Diddy returns from the first Donkey Kong Country, but he feels even faster in the sequel, which is odd considering how slow Donkey Kong was as a playable character. It still feels great to cartwheel off the side of a cliff and leap in the middle of thin air to the other side of a pit. Using Dixie, on the other hand, feels almost like cheating, somewhat reminiscent of using Princess Toadstool in Super Mario Bros. 2. Twirling across chasms and down from on high means you can avoid enemies and other dangers below, but you may be just as likely to miss out on a barrel waiting to take you to a bonus area. Still, both characters feel quite different, and so it comes down to preference which Kong you end up riding with the most during a playthrough. Dixie can break out an electric guitar at the end of a level, but I’ll still give it to Diddy rapping with his boom box, perhaps another precursor to the banger that would be the DK Rap.
Even within a single world, the level design can vary quite drastically in terms of what the player is asked to do. Thematically, all of the stages in the opening world of Gangplank Galleon (which would be the logical place to start a sequel given that it was kind of where the first game ended) have a seafaring bent to them: a giant pirate ship, masts, a literal crow’s nest where you fight the world boss. Even so, Mainbrace Mayhem is much more of a vertical stage with rigging to climb and Lockjaw’s Locker actually sees you swimming through the water-logged innards of the giant ship. Very seldom, if ever, will you play two different courses that move predominantly from left to right, and when you do, the obstacles in each are likely to be dissimilar.
I would be remiss in a discussion of Donkey Kong Country if I didn’t mention star composer David Wise, whose incredibly atmospheric tracks make the entire experience feel like a vacation. You actually feel the warmth of each jungle setting, the tension of the mine cart rides, and the isolation of the underwater segments. I might even prefer the music of the first game, with standout tracks like Aquatic Ambiance and Fear Factory, but Donkey Kong Country 2 has the Stickerbrush Symphony and In A Snowbound Land, which maybe be just as effective at making you an extension of Diddy and Dixie as they run, jump, and swing through brambles and hills. Music often contributes to how fondly a game is remembered, and that idea couldn’t be more true here.
We had seen the visual trick that made Donkey Kong Country such a joy to experience for the first time, and so the second game really needed to differentiate itself, and it manages to pull off this feat largely through game and level design. The sheer variety of challenges, the replayability, and the collectables make returning to Donkey Kong Country 2 an absolute delight. It’s inclusion as part of the Nintendo Switch Online service gives new players a chance to try what could be the best 16-bit platformer ever developed. While the original’s simplicity prevents it from holding up as well, Diddy’s Kong Quest still feels fresh even two decades since it first exploded onto the SNES. Find an excuse to hop in a barrel and shoot your way through a Rare classic and an example of monkey business that is undoubtedly timeless.