Re(?)Considered: Donkey Kong Land

Rare go bananas on Game Boy

There is a new Yooka-Laylee game! Please, hold your applause. Oh. You did. Well, Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is a rather excellent 2D platformer, worth picking up even if you didn’t like the original game (which I did, but I bloody well would, wouldn’t I?). Where Yooka-Laylee was a take on Rare’s classic N64 collectathons, Impossible Lair takes shockingly direct inspiration from Retro Studios’ beloved chimp-‘em-up, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze.

But this is Retronauts, not Games-That-Just-Came-Outnauts, and I want to talk about the classic game which Impossible Lair reminded me of, which is – obviously- Donkey Kong Land. Yes, the teeny screeny take on Rare’s flagship SNES game-changer, Donkey Kong Country. Released in 1995, it’s technically a direct sequel to its bigger brother. Take that, Diddy’s Kong Quest! More like Donkey Kong Country 2.5! But I digress. Indeed, the manual posits the entire existence of Land  as something of a bet between Cranky Kong and his erstwhile grandchildren, accusing them of only being as successful as they are because of the SNES game’s silicon workstation pre-rendered graphics. Donkey and Diddy take reasonable umbrage, so Cranky arranges for K.Rool to steal all their bananas (again) in order to prove that an adventure on Game Boy can be as exciting as a SNES game. Now that’s a plot!

Collecting the "KONG" letters allows you to save your game. Which is nice.

In reality, the loose, open feel of Donkey Kong Country is inevitably lost in translation, replaced with a more precise, demanding type of level design. Thanks to the large sprites, you can’t see very far in front of you, but this is rarely a problem as the obstacles account for this lack of screen estate. Donkey Kong feels a lot slower, so you won’t barrel (pun intended) into enemies lurching onto the screen. There’s enough of Country brought over to retain that series’ frisson, with hidden bonus areas, throwable kegs and – of course- enough bananas to give you potassium poisoning. Country’s jungle, underwater and ice level archetypes made the transition to Game Boy, joined by brand new pirate ship, mountain, clouds and big city stages. Indeed, there’s something of a surrealism to the endeavour, what with the flying pigs assaulting Donkey Kong while he rides a flying nimbus.

The graphics don't always translate particularly well.

Additionally, let’s face it, DKC wasn’t a good fit for Nintendo’s monochrome handheld, and the admittedly impressive attempt to squish down those astonishing SNES graphics has – to put it gracefully – not worked very well, with constant flicker and slowdown. It’s certainly an enjoyable game, but it can feel rather more like you’re wrestling with the unusually loose controls than you are mastering the stages and their secrets. Compare and contrast Donkey Kong (1994), a game clearly designed from the ground up for the Game Boy and vastly superior for it. Donkey Kong Land feels compromised by its hardware. It’s ambitious, but so was Daedalus.

Donkey Kong is in this screenshot somewhere.

Land and its two superior sequels remain available on Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console, But, so is the Donkey Kong Country trilogy, which is much better. A curio and no mistake, it’s far from a bad game, but it does feel a little unnecessary. Not so much Donkey Kong as Shonky Kong, eh? Play it loud, Nauties! (STOP CALLING US 'NAUTIES' - The Nauties)