Nostalgia is something of a blinding phenomenon. It is capable of making us look at old entertainment with rose tinted goggles, longing for ‘the good ol days’. As a result, it makes throwing ‘greatest of’ claims difficult to say the least. When technology has come so far, can a video game two decades old really still be considered the best? It was November 20 1995 when Donkey Kong Country 2 was released for the Super Nintendo. It is a game that is loved still to this day by many who grew up with it. Including me. I’ve been playing video games for as long as I can remember, and still, to this day, Donkey Kong Country 2 is the game I consider the to be ‘The greatest of all time’. I fully recognise that opinion is steeped in nostalgia, but as we approach its 20th birthday, let me tell you why.
When it was released in 1994 on the Super Nintendo, the original Donkey Kong Country was a groundbreaking release that gave Nintendo the boost it needed to retain its spot at the top of the video game landscape at a time when other companies were moving in on its territory. It took the character of Donkey Kong, the former antagonist for the legendary ‘Donkey Kong’ arcade game that did so much for the industry, and turned him into a lovable hero as he fought against King K Rool to get his precious banana horde back. The pre-rendered sprite graphics were a first for console gaming and helped make the game one of the best looking for its time, while the fun gameplay and atmosphere made it a premier platformer that belonged alongside the genre king, Mario.
But as great as Donkey Kong Country was, it was succeeded in every way with its 1995 sequel: Diddy’s Kong Quest. With King K Rool defeated on his pirate ship at the end of the first game (20+ year old spoilers!), that pirate motif became the backdrop for the second game. Donkey Kong, everybody’s favourite business casual ape, is kidnapped and its up to his little buddy Diddy, as well as his girlfriend Dixie Kong, to go save him. Not the most complicated of plots, but that wasn’t unusual for the era.
While the first game took place on their home of DK island, this time the Kongs enter enemy territory, fighting their way off a pirate ship and through Crocodile Isle. As a result the game feels more dangerous than the first at every turn. Rareware managed to create an incredibly atmospheric world that constantly feels fresh and interesting. You go from climbing up the ropes of a ship to navigating through swamps and carnivals. Levels within the bee hives play differently to the lava levels which play differently to the ice worlds, but there is always a sense of rhythm to the platforming, which separated the Donkey Kong franchise from Mario.
There is a timing and flow to the platforming that makes playing it feel almost similar to playing Guitar Hero (which shouldn’t be too surprising since Nintendo later released Donkey Kong’s Jungle beat, which was played with a bongo peripheral). It makes the game incredibly rewarding when you find a level’s rhythm and start to breeze through sections in a state of constant motion. There’s also more collectibles to be found throughout levels that encourage exploration, without ever overwhelming players with too much like its next gen cousin Donkey Kong 64 did. The highlight was the Lost World bonus map, which had to be unlocked through the collection of certain coins and required a gamer’s best platforming abilities to conquer.
Rare made a bold move taking the primary protagonist from the first game and reducing him to the ‘damsel in distress’. Donkey Kong had heritage on his side as a recognisable gaming icon, but they put their faith in Diddy to carry the title. The Donkey/Diddy team from the first game is replaced with Diddy and Dixie, and with it the power/speed dynamic of the first game. Neither Diddy or Dixie are ‘strength’ characters like Donkey (or Kiddy in the 3rd game), but they still played and handled differently. Dixie is arguably the most useful of the four playable Kongs in the trilogy. While she was a little slower than Diddy, she was able to use her ponytail to strike enemies from a further distance as well as float in the air, making some of the tougher platforming sections a little easier. Because neither of them were ‘slow’ though, it allowed Rare to design the levels free from the restraints of a slower Kong. It is a far more vertical than the original, and some of the jumps would be impossible for Donkey Kong to make. It is a small difference, but being able to build the levels around two similarly built characters allowed a more cohesive and frankly more interesting level design.
This is a tougher game than the first ‘Country’, but the difficulty ramps up at a consistent pace. Early levels help you find your footing and understand how the game operates, and then steadily begins to test your platforming abilities. Some levels are truly evil (Toxic Tower borders of nightmarish at times) but it never makes a jump in difficulty so great that it discourages you. Finding that balance is difficult, but the game manages to achieve that.
Some of those difficult levels keep you coming back long after you would have thrown the controller into the TV by virtue of their soundtrack alone. Bramble Blast, which many to consider to be one of the more frustrating levels because it requires pinpoint timing (much like Snow Barrel Blast from DKC1) is still beloved for one simple reason. Stickerbrush Symphony. It’s one of many tracks that make the soundtrack for the Donkey Kong Country trilogy the single greatest in all of video games. There are so many wonderfully constructed pieces across all three titles, but DKC2 is perhaps the most consistent across the board. David Wise (and Evelyn Finch for the third game) manage to get so much out of the 16 bit MIDI sound production that the music stands up to this day. Whether the level called for fun, creepy, melodic or frantic, the music made the level that much more memorable.
I seriously cannot speak too highly of how effective the music in the game is. In the case of Stickerbrush, it serves as a brilliant juxtaposition to the level you’re playing. The tense challenge of timing barrel launches is put up against a calming steady groove. You could die a lot trying to navigate the bramble maze, but it was easy to say ‘one more time’ because you got to hear Stickerbrush Symphony one more time. It’s just a mesmerising track.
Meanwhile the haunting melody of the Forest Interlude track plays off against the eerie ghostly imagery as you hop from disappearing ropes or climb spiderwebs you create with your spider buddy Spitter. I get a serious rush of the nostalgia every time I listen to the DKC trilogy soundtrack, instantly transporting me back to when I was a kid sitting cross-legged on the floor, eyes glued to the TV, getting scared on the water level whenever the Lockjaws would try and attack me (and yes, the soundtrack for those levels were perfect for making me jump too…). There are just so many quality tracks. Mining Melancholy, Hot-Head Hop, Bayou Boogie…I could go on and list nearly every piece (and even though it’s from the original, I can’t talk gaming music without mentioning Aquatic Ambience).
I’ve played many games that have resonated with me since. The Nintendo 64 came out and with it 3D platforming was introduced with magnificent titles with Super Mario 64 and the Banjo-Kazooie duology (not to mention other classics from the system like Ocarina of Time). Even as I ventured away from platformers I fell in love with other games like the Mass Effect trilogy. But as good as they are, there isn’t a game that stacks up – for me personally – like Donkey Kong Country 2 does.
It builds upon and improves the brilliant original in every way, and while DKC3 (Dixie’s Double Trouble) is a fantastic game in its own right, it doesn’t quite hit the same mark for me. Dixie Kong was a great addition to the Kong family, but while she returned Kiddy felt like a poor man’s Donkey. The instantly recognisable Kremling enemies were changed up and felt foreign, and the level concepts were unsettling. As I replayed through them as an adult (in age, not spirit) I did come to appreciate some of these changes. I still prefer the Kremlings of the first two, but that unsettling feel doesn’t come across as weak design, but purposeful as the world explored in DKC3 is separated by the other two. In many ways it’s a different world using familiar gameplay mechanics. But it still doesn’t compare to DKC2.
When I think of my childhood, I think of Donkey Kong Country 2. When I need to relax, I’ll put on the soundtrack. When I want fun and classic gaming, I put the cartridge into the old Super Nintendo I have lying around, which I bought again precisely so I could play through it and the other two games the way it was meant to be played. I even started playing emulators before that so I could relive the game. And it’ll probably be the reason why I’ll upset my future children as I force ancient gaming technology into their hands (“But Dad, it’s not even using virtual reality! A controller? How old is this game?”) because I’ll foolishly still believe that gaming was perfected in 1995.
Any long time gamer has their equivalent to Donkey Kong Country 2. That’s simply how nostalgia works. It makes flawed games from the past good, good ones great, and the great ones flawless masterpieces. But despite the preceding sentence, I have no qualms about calling Donkey Kong Country 2 a masterpiece in game creation. It was a time when Rare were quickly becoming a company you could trust to punch out classic after classic (until the dark days of Microsoft) and when Nintendo were the true #1 gaming company (sorry Sega fans). And while Donkey Kong and his series will never reach the pinnacle that Mario has refused to give up for decades, Donkey Kong Country 2 will still be a game people point to as an example of how to do platforming, and gaming in general, right. Its visuals, while no longer revolutionary, still look great in their artistic design. The music is utterly incredible. The gameplay is addictive and more importantly, it is just so damn fun to play. Everything about it comes together and just makes sense, even though it’s a world where monkeys ride rhinos to attack crocodiles who stole bananas.
That is why, twenty years after its release, I’m playing through the game all over again, and doing so with the biggest smile on my face.