Donkey Kong was an arcade legend. He had given Mario his first appearance in a game, as both hero and villain. He made red girders into a cultural icon. He introduced us to his son, Donkey Kong, Jr. He even helped teach us math, which in hindsight was a little on the weird side. And then he vanished until 1994, when Nintendo hired a company called Rare to bring him back.
Rare decided to make a platforming game that was simultaneously true to old formulas while breaking new ground. They utilized fancy rendering technology to make the game look great, which is probably the main reason people remember this game as being awesome (it wasn't). They gave us a huge, detailed map screen, an extended credits sequence, and a truly outstanding musical score. But you'll notice that I didn't include gameplay in that list of notable positives in this game.
First off, gameplay generally consists of running around a sidescrolling level, jumping on the heads of any enemy you come across. Sound familiar? You can also do a frontal attack on some enemies, but many will kill you for trying, so you might as well just jump. You'll find bananas floating around as you go. Collect a hundred for an extra life. Ringing any bells yet? There are occasionally hidden bonus areas full of bananas for you to collect. Still nothing?
Of course, then you start riding around on a rhinoceros. Occasionally in the game you will find a crate with the picture of an animal on the side. These can be the rhino, a swordfish, a frog, or even an ostrich. They all have special abilities that are supposed to aid you. I say supposed to, because often you'll end up screwed due to the difference in how they play. For example, when riding the ostrich, you can't jump on enemies anymore. But that's all you do in the game so how was I supposed to know? So I jump on an enemy and my ostrich gets hurt and runs away. And now I'm flashing temporarily invincible because the game doesn't want me to get hit multiple times in a row. Which is normally respectable, but I can't interact with anything on screen (enemies, objects, etc) during this time period. In fact, I even clip through enemies. So now when I try again to jump on that same enemy because I'm no longer a worthless ostrich, I go through it. And then the invincibility wears off and the game says "Hey, you're standing in the enemy. Unacceptable." And you die. I wish I could say this kind of glitchiness is infrequent, but it's not.
Now you might be wondering why there are always two apes around. The answer is that you play through this game controlling both Donkey Kong, the big one with...the necktie...and Diddy Kong, who is supposed to be his nephew or some sort of freaky relation. You start with one Kong but can break barrels with "DK" on the side throughout the game to have the second one accompany you, which gets you an extra hit before you die. You can also switch between them by hitting the select button, but only if you're standing perfectly still on solid terrain that is flat....how is a gorilla related that closely to a chimpanzee anyway? Sorry, it's just still bothering me.
The functional difference between the two is fairly clear. Donkey is heavier than Diddy and can therefore kill more enemies by jumping on them than Diddy can. Diddy will usually just bounce off these enemies (more often than not straight into a bottomless pit). Donkey attacks with a somersault, and Diddy with a cartwheel, though this is meaningless since you never use these attacks anyway. That said, Diddy is faster than Donkey, jumps higher, and his smaller frame helps him avoid hits that much easier. As a result, throughout the game you will virtually always want to be Diddy, unless you are forced to be Donkey for certain enemies or situations. How sad is it that he's not even the best character in his own game? And when you have both, the one you aren't controlling follows you around, ignoring physics entirely. He'll float in midair, phase through objects, you know, whatever suits his fancy at the time. It's like they weren't even trying.
Level design is a huge gripe here. Rare sought to relieve the tedium of run-around-and-jump-on-stuff by creating a variety of different level types to play through. Only one of these kinds of levels, the mine cart, is any fun. You get to ride around in a mine car jumping from track to track while avoiding enemies, and it's actually a pretty good time. All the other non-basic levels suck.
For example, barrel blasting. There are a significant number of stages in this game devoted to shooting yourself out of barrels and into other barrels. It sounds like it might possibly be entertaining, but don't be lured in. The occasional barrel launch is fine, but the stages devoted entirely to the cause belong in a vault, never to be played again. You shoot yourself out of automatically-rotating barrels, having to press the button at the right time to go where you want. But the timing is screwed up and it will frequently rotate the barrel an extra notch (even a notch backward) when you tell it to fire. Which of course kills you. If you manage to get it right, you'll end up in another barrel to do the same thing. Or maybe in one that fires you automatically into oblivion. That's right, there are times you can jump into a barrel and it will automatically kill you. No thanks.
There are multiple levels dedicated to not having lights. Let me emphasize: there are multiple levels that revolve entirely around you not being able to see anything you're doing. Sign me up, right? And by "sign me up" I mean suck my life away with rabid leeches. It's not fun in the least, especially when a couple of these dark stages are additionally designed around moving platforms that either fall away when you stand on them, or require tanks of gas to move, and should they run empty, you die. I can't imagine how anyone looked at and played these stages during the development process and said "Yeah, these are real winners."
But then again, these are the same people who decided to champion the water stages and make them even more intolerable than their predecessors. Mario can shoot fire underwater. Sonic can still just spin into stuff and kill it. The Kongs? They can die. And die repeatedly. You can't touch anything down there - it all kills you. Thank goodness you don't ever have to breathe despite being a land mammal not known for swimming...I'm so willing to take any handicap I won't even question it. If you're lucky you'll find the swordfish to ride around on, so at least you can kill some of the enemies, but only from head-on, and the worst enemies remain invincible. It's an underwater gauntlet that you just want to be over.
In fact, "I just want it to be over" will sum up your opinion of the entire game once you get about ten or fifteen levels in. Which makes it a terribly cruel joke that there is a fake ending screen on the last boss, who then gets back up and kills you. In seeking to avoid monotony of platforming, Rare instead just burdened you with horrible level after horrible level. A stage comprised of jumping on small platforms covered in ice when the control is a bit wonky anyway? Sure! Sounds like an absolute blast.
And let's not forget the wonderful cast of characters. The original Donkey Kong has actually aged quite a bit, and is now sitting semi-crippled in a rocking chair, going by the name of Cranky Kong. Way to reinforce stereotypes, game. That means you are actually Donkey Kong, Jr. all grown up. Save points (which are your holy grail as you play) are run by your girlfriend, Candy Kong. And there are airports to get you from area to area, run by this dude, who is, like, more than happy to announce his name to anyone passing by. Who came up with this stuff? There's even an orangutan in some levels (including the ones with no lights!!) that incessantly hurls barrels at you, and the credits list him as Manky Kong. What? Are they related, or is every simian a Kong by default?
At least the plot is deep. You see, King K. Rool, the big crocodile man thing who acts as the game's boss, stole Donkey Kong's bananas from his banana hoard. So you have to go get them back. Man, I was upset about this game, but now that I know it's for the sake of dude's banana stash I am ready to do anything it takes to get it back.
You might be wondering why this game doesn't have a lower score with how I've been dismantling it. It's because the basic platforming stages aren't actually that bad, and there are a good number of them. But because they offer nothing new or notable, they aren't worth detailing. The music is also truly great. Maybe they should have released Donkey Kong Country just as a soundtrack. That'd be sweet.
Always remember: Just because a game is "classic" does not mean it is any good.
Bottom Line: 9/20