Memories are a funny thing. Unlike the vast majority of games that have come and gone over the years, Donkey Kong Country is a game that I can unmistakably remember my first encounter with. It was dark night when my friend's mother dropped us, a bunch of grade school kids, off at the local Junior High School for movie night. As for what flicks played that night or which friends I was with I can't remember, but what I can remember is the movies were preceded by a promotional VHS tape the school had received from Nintendo.
Okay, so no one actually played Donkey Kong Country that night, but it goes without saying we were all insanely impressed with what we saw on that video. The funny this is, as much as I clamored for the game's release, I never actually owned Donkey Kong Country during my childhood. I know I borrowed a copy and completed it, but it wasn't until Donkey Kong Country 3 came out that I would actually possess a Donkey Kong Country title of my own. What's even more ironic was the second game was my favorite. Still, as limited as one was purchase wise before the days of the internet or having their own income, Donkey Kong Country was a game you just knew was great, even years after its release and your last play through.
Unfortunately, just agreeing with a statement out of the fact it's shared by the masses doesn't mean it holds true for you. As cruel as the passing of time can be for products, it's especially true of memories. Anyway, about a year ago I picked up a Donkey Kong Country cart at a local game store with all the intent in the world to play it. Plans are great, but that's all they are - plans. It wasn't until Donkey Kong Country Returns came out for the Wii in 2010 that I got the bug to play though it again with my buddies talking about the new one. While I could honestly care less about the Wii or the reboot itself, I could only wonder if the original could live up to those engraved memories. It just had to right? All those people with fondness for the moniker just couldn't be wrong!
Well, those people aren't wrong, but they aren't right either.
As warm and fuzzy as the title screen made me feel, a peculiar feeling came over me once I got to the game itself. At first I thought it was run-of-the-mill boredom, but after some more time with the game it became clear that wasn't the case. There was something that just felt off, an abstract element I couldn't pinpoint. The game still looked great, the game still sounded great (oh my, do these games sound great!) but it just wasn't doing it for me. Was it the fact there is less to collect here than in the sequels? Or the fact the bonus areas aren't as streamlined as they are in the sequels? Maybe the fact Donkey and Diddy seem a bit more limited as a team than Diddy and Dixie? I know for a fact I missed the ability to have the characters climb on one another shoulders for teammate tosses. Whatever the reason (the last one seems the most likely) something was limiting the appeal the gameplay previously had.
As I progressed through the game, this feeling did ease up a bit. I'm a sucker for an awesome level like Oil Drum Alley regardless of what year it is, but the boss fights are another story. One of Donkey Kong Country's worst kept secrets is the fact the bosses are total pushovers. I kept telling myself this was okay, that the final, climatic encounter with K.Rool would make up for it. Not quite. While it is certainly the most engaging battle of the game, when you take down the kingpin of the Kremlings (who are still cool to this day) on your first try after ten plus years of being away, you realize that such patience is far from deserved. The cinematic nature of the cute and clever ending helps comb over such a problem, but it's far from the dead-on sense of accomplishment one gets from Star Fox's ending.
In spite of all of this, Donkey Kong Country is still worth any gamer's time. While it's easy to buy into crowd and simply say it's been unscathed by time, this is a case where I'd rather be honest and not give into any nostalgia based illusions (as important as illusions of any kind are). Do the sequels hold up better? I hope so, but then that's a whole other story, again based on memories and little else. I'll have to get back to you on those ;)