Welcome to Franchise Festival, which is shaping up to be something of a Friday tradition here at The Avocado. Perhaps I should have called it Franchise Friday? In any case, you can find earlier entries here.
I’m throwing this together on a slightly tight schedule, so I’ve chosen a franchise with a relatively manageable series of entries: Donkey Kong Country. You might notice that this does not encompass the whole of the Donkey Kong series; I found it helpful to differentiate between the franchise’s arcade games and its home console platformers, since the two are quite different in both presentation and gameplay mechanics.
Donkey Kong, the character, is among the most venerable in the video game medium. He first appeared in 1981’s Donkey Kong as the enemy to the player character, Mario. This arcade game popularized platforming as a genre, but was based around tight jumps over falling obstacles that descended along a single screen. The characters had little personality, and Donkey Kong was clearly a stand-in for cinema’s King Kong, having captured a woman who the player was tasked with saving from atop an industrial tower. Donkey Kong was developed by Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto as a property aimed at American arcade-goers and its popularity spawned numerous sequels and adaptations.
Donkey Kong Country (1994)
Donkey Kong Country was released by British studio Rare in 1994 on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. It was pitched as a reinvention of the Donkey Kong series in which the player assumed the role of Donkey Kong rather than fighting him as an antagonist.* Like the series from which it was derived, Donkey Kong Country is a platformer; unlike that series, however, the levels were scrolling, expansive affairs centered on jungle environments rather than a single-screen industrial setting.
The first entry in this series was a landmark in visual design, as it popularized the use of pre-rendered 3D sprites. This flew in the face of contemporary platformer design, where clean, blocky pixel design was king. The medium was evolving, however, and this series heralded the beginning of the end for an aesthetic that had proven popular for much of the preceding decade.
Alongside a change in setting and visual design, Donkey Kong Country introduced a large cast of supporting characters that would become enduring in their own right. King K. Rool and his army of reptilian Kremlings were the antagonists seeking to deprive Donkey Kong and his friends of their banana hoard. Allies included Diddy Kong, DK’s friend and agile alternate playable character; Candy Kong, DK’s significant other and operator of the game’s save system; Cranky Kong, a cantankerous old gorilla who doles out hints to the player; and Funky Kong, personification of the ’90s ‘extreme’ aesthetic and functionally a fast-warp system to move players around the level selection map. Animals could be found in levels to permit altered movement, including a rhino that would destroy walls/enemies in its path, a swordfish that offered an underwater attack, and a frog that enhanced the height of the player’s jump, among others.
After being release on the SNES, this game was re-released in altered form on the Game Boy Color and the Game Boy Advance. The re-releases offered new minigames and save mechanics. Interestingly, by the time of the GBA release in 2003, much of the original source code had been lost; sprites were ripped from an SNES emulator and the game mechanics needed to be re-coded to ‘ape’ the original game’s unique physics engine.
Donkey Kong Land (1995)
This entry in the series was released on the Game Boy in 1995 and functioned as a direct sequel to Donkey Kong Country. Though it featured an identical physics engine to the home console version, its levels and story were entirely unique; unfortunately, fewer animal friends and NPCs appeared in the game. It’s noteworthy for having a yellow cartridge, rather than the grey cartridge that was standard for Game Boy titles. Interestingly, among other unused content is an unnamed Kong wearing a hat and a ram animal friend absent from the original Donkey Kong Country; both appeared in pre-release promotional materials.
Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest (1995)
As this SNES game’s humorous title suggests, the central character is now Diddy Kong, DK’s sidekick. He is joined by a new character, Dixie Kong, and is tasked with rescuing DK from Kaptain K. Rool. Diddy plays the same as he did in the preceding games, but Dixie features a new hover mechanic (visually represented by twirling ponytails). The animal friends roster was expanded to eight – nine in the later GBA port – permitting a wide range of new abilities. Unfortunately, the original game’s frog was jettisoned in favor of a bouncing rattlesnake that handled similarly. Two new NPC characters made their debut as well: Swanky Kong as a game show host and Wrinkly Kong, Cranky Kong’s wife, as the replacement for Candy Kong in managing the game’s save system.
Like the first game, its SNES sequel would later be ported to the GBA; numerous changes were made to this version, including brighter visuals, a large-scale new boss, and various minigames. A port had been in development for the Virtual Boy but was cancelled when that console failed commercially.
Donkey Kong Land II (1996)
Unlike the first Donkey Kong Country‘s Game Boy adaptation, this portable title was a straightforward retelling of the events in its console predecessor, Donkey Kong Country 2. While the level names and events are identical to DKC2, the actual level design has been altered. Humorously, the game’s box art depicts Glimmer the Angler Fish, a character that does not appear in the game itself.
Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble! (1996)
The third game in the series released for the SNES, DKC3 was arguably the best Donkey Kong Country title released during the 1990s. The visuals are significantly lusher than preceding entries, and while the animal friends have been reduced, sidequests related to item gathering have been added to the game; this feature seems to have been a prelude to the more robust dialogue and collectible systems that would appear in Rare’s Nintendo 64 games.
Diddy Kong, along with Donkey Kong, are not playable in this entry. Instead, the player takes on the role of Dixie Kong and her cousin, Kiddy Kong, in seeking to find where Diddy and DK have disappeared to. Kiddy has no added air mobility, but is able to skip along water without falling in. A code-entering screen was added to the game, accessible by a series of button presses, which alters visual, audio, or gameplay elements; like the various sidequests mentioned above, this feature would go on to be a significant aspect of the developers’ later games.
Like preceding SNES games in the Donkey Kong Country franchise, DKC3 would eventually be re-coded and re-released on the Game Boy Advance. There were significant changes, including new codes to enter and an entirely new soundtrack designed by David Wise; the original version’s soundtrack had been developed by Eveline Fischer.
Donkey Kong Land III (1997)
This Game Boy title is a sequel to the preceding Game Boy game, Donkey Kong Land II, rather than Donkey Kong Country 3. That said, it is clearly based on Donkey Kong Country 3 since the level designs are similar and the player characters are Dixie Kong and Kiddy Kong. Surprisingly, a version exclusive to the Game Boy Color was released in 2000, featuring performance improvements and a full color palette; this version, sadly, was not published outside of Japan.
Donkey Kong 64 (1999)
Rare opted to expand its Donkey Kong Country franchise into the third dimension with its debut on Nintendo’s newest console, the Nintendo 64. Much of the visual style and characters were based on the SNES trilogy, but a number of major new features were added.
In particular, the roster of playable characters was expanded to five, including Donkey Kong, Diddy Kong, Lanky Kong, Tiny Kong, and Chunky Kong. Sadly, only two animal allies returned for this entry – Rambi the Rhino and Enguarde the Swordfish. The supporting characters were diversified quite a bit, however, and included a weasel, hippos, a friendly Kremling, and a vast array of other non-hostile NPCs tied to specific collection quests or minigames.
This broadened the world and game mechanics, but came at the expense of tight gameplay. Donkey Kong 64 stands out as something of the apotheosis of the collectible 3D platformer, as the game included a variety of collectible items that needed to be collected by each individual Kong to complete the story. No longer could a player get through the game based on platforming skill alone; instead, he or she would be expected to search high and low for the game’s MacGuffins. This was all a surprisingly late change in development – Rare had spent eighteen months designing the title as a side-scrolling platformer in the vein of preceding SNES games, but altered their course after noting the success of other 3D platformers on the Nintendo 64.
Donkey Kong 64 was one of only two titles on the console to require an Expansion Pak, which offered additional RAM; the original print run bundled an Expansion Pak alongside the cartridge. Rumors suggest that it was originally in development for the failed 64DD peripheral, but modified when the 64DD flopped in Japan. While initial reception to the game was positive, it has more recently been regarded as unnecessarily padded.
Donkey Kong Country Returns (2010)
After an absence for eleven years, the Donkey Kong Country series finally reappeared on the Wii. It returns to the sidescrolling approach of the SNES games, though with the addition of multiple 2D planes and interactive background elements. Playable characters are Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong, hearkening back to 1994’s Donkey Kong Country. Like the immediately preceding game in this franchise’s main series, on the other hand, only two animal allies are available.
Though many elements have been retained from the SNES series, a number of features make Donkey Kong Country Returns distinct. Diddy Kong is no longer distinguished from DK only by his agility – he now has a jetpack that permits mid-air course corrections; he also has a projectile attack utilizing the Peanut Popgun. Like other recent Nintendo games, an easier path through levels is made possible once the player loses enough consecutive lives on a single stage. Pre-rendered sprites have been abandoned in favor of clean polygonal character models and fully rendered environments. Controversially, certain moves are only possible by shaking the Wiimote game controller – this, unfortunately, has the effect of making the platforming less precise.
The game was positively received and was ported to the 3DS as Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D. Three dimensional visuals were incorporated, new levels were added, and the shaking mechanic was replaced with a more precise button configuration. Due to the reduced processing power of the 3DS hardware, the game was modified to a 30 FPS framerate.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (2014)
Building upon the success of Donkey Kong Country Returns, Nintendo released Tropical Freeze on the Wii U in 2014. Mechanics are quite similar to its immediate predecessor, with the exception of the controversial controller-shaking element, and every aspect has been expanded significantly. Like many Wii U games, multiplayer is supported for the entire campaign mode.
Players now have the option of selecting Donkey Kong, Diddy Kong, Dixie Kong, or Cranky Kong as their avatar – each offers unique movement mechanics, including a surprising pogo-stick hop when playing as Cranky Kong. Funky Kong appears as a shopkeeper as well. Underwater levels make their reappearance (having been omitted in Donkey Kong Country Returns) but the control scheme is reminiscent of the successful underwater controls in recent Rayman games. Like all titles since Donkey Kong Land III, only two animal companions are available.
Most importantly, the 2.5 dimension approach to level design has been significantly expanded. Levels feature dynamic, changing environments in which the player often interacts with background elements or alters the plane along which he or she is traveling; this is matched by an adaptive camera perspective that swings around the level when the player is not in control – often these sequences occur when utilizing barrels that blast the player into a stage’s background or are used in stage introductions. While these sequences could feel superficial, they ultimately have the effect of giving limited 2D stages a more expansive feeling.
The game’s visual design, more broadly speaking, is the strongest in the series. All gameplay moves as a fluid, sprightly 60 FPS and characters, both player-controlled and otherwise, are animated humorously. Brief, engaging cinematic sequences also precede each of the game’s challenging boss battles.
An upcoming port is being produced for the Nintendo Switch console. This version is believed to be functionally identical to the Wii U version, though Funky Kong is being integrated as a playable character. Pre-release material suggests that Funky will essentially act as an ‘easy mode,’ mitigating the base game’s high difficulty through the use of various added movement mechanics (double-jump, continuous roll) and an expanded health gauge.
Like any Nintendo property, there are numerous spin-offs in the Donkey Kong Country franchise. Of particular note are the Donkey Konga titles, released on the Gamecube, and Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, also published on that platform. Both of these spin-offs utilize a plastic peripheral shaped like a pair of bongo drums. Donkey Konga and its sequels are rhythm games, while Jungle Beat is inexplicably a platformer designed to be played using bongo drums! Admittedly, Jungle Beat could also be played with a standard Gamecube controller, but that seems as though it misses the point.
Additionally, Diddy Kong Racing is arguably a spin-off from the Donkey Kong Country series. It was a Nintendo 64 kart racer that was mechanically similar to Mario Kart, but featured an expansive overworld featuring numerous secrets to discover; item use was de-emphasized as well, and players could choose between using a kart, hovercraft or airplane in some stages. This game appeared poised to become its own franchise, as it was quite popular, but developer Rare was purchased by Microsoft and lost the rights to the Donkey Kong property. Prototypes exist of two different potential sequels, one on the Game Boy Advance and one on the Gamecube, but neither was completed.
* There is some speculation among fans concerning the identity of Cranky Kong and Donkey Kong. I would encourage interested readers to check out GameXplain’s video on this subject, and the currently missing-in-action Donkey Kong Jr., here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9FruCOL_MdE
** The other game that required an Expansion Pak was The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, though a handful of other titles benefited from it.
What are your favorite/least favorite Donkey Kong Country games and what do you like or dislike about the series?