Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 83, Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest
The sequel to one of the most important SNES games is better in basically every way.
I’m ranking the top-101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.
Donkey Kong Country is one of the most important Super Nintendo games in the system’s history. It, famously, arrived at a time when the SNES and Nintendo were beginning to lose the video game market to Sega and its own 16-bit fourth-generation console, the Genesis, and the imminent arrival of Sony’s entry into the console business, the Playstation. It’s the game that launched developer Rareware to greater heights within the industry, that showed off more of what the SNES was capable of producing and rendering, and helped keep the system’s momentum headed in the right direction long enough for it to be the clear winner, sales-wise, of the fourth-gen.
Nintendo bet a whole lot on this revival and reinvention of the Donkey Kong name and franchise, with an aggressive marketing campaign that even included a VHS mailed out to Nintendo Power subscribers, meant to show off some of that game’s levels and convince viewers to buy it. It was basically a video game trailer sent through targeted advertising, at a time when neither of those things existed as we know them today. This was 1994: you weren’t waking up and grabbing your smartphone to check out video game trailers on the internet. You opened up a magazine like Nintendo Power once per month, and looked at some static images, and tried to imagine what they looked like in motion. Getting actual gameplay videos to view before you could rent or buy a game was absolutely mind-blowing.
And it worked, not just on eight-year-old me, but millions of others who caught a glimpse of Donkey Kong Country one way or another. It’s the third best-selling SNES game of all-time, and well loved for a reason.
Image via Destructoid
I don’t think it’s quite as overrated as some have claimed in the intervening years, but it does fall into the bin of games that, while still fun to play, are more important, historically, than they are still great today. Like the original Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong Country was a great way to show off a concept that would be refined and improved upon in the years to follow. It will take you less than two hours to complete the original DKC outing, if you’re familiar with the game, and to be frank, you’ll be tired of playing even before those two hours are up.
Later stages are challenging, but mostly due to unfair level design that relies heavily on luck rather than skill. There is also the repetitive nature of the level design: stages are uniformly horizontal affairs, with only so many possible platforming challenges available in that setup, and that’s part of how the luck-based unfairness of the late-game developed. With all that being said, the parts that are great are great: Mine Cart Carnage and Snow Barrel Blast are legitimately all-time platforming experiences that still hold up today, and they aren’t alone in being both fun and extremely playable all this time later. Even with the complaints I can lodge against the original Donkey Kong Country, it didn’t miss making the top 101 by all that much, and entirely on the strength of all the parts that unarguably still rule today.
Donkey Kong Country 2, by virtue of maintaining much of what everyone loved about the original while refining the parts people did not like and also adding in completely new elements, did make the list, as you were able to figure out when you saw this story’s headline. This followup on the SNES has far more varied level design, and is no longer purely horizontal in nature. You spend a lot of time climbing up, up, up, but you also head back down, move horizontally either left or right before or after climbing vertically, and maybe even climb some more afterward, too. This creates an awful lot of space to hide collectibles, extra lives, bananas, and barrels leading to bonus rooms, which makes fully exploring the game more rewarding than in the original, in addition to making sure you’re never saddled with sameness.
The levels are designed differently in other ways, too. The animal pals that were ridden in the original now feel more natural in the stages you find them in, like a necessary part of them the level was designed around, rather than just something tossed in to a stage that didn’t actually need a rhino stampeding through it for any reason other than that it was fun to ride one. Now, when you’re running around riding Rambi the Rhino, it’s in a level where his specific skill set is necessary, where you wouldn’t be able to cross a series of platforms or outrun some foe without him.
And that’s without mentioning that, in some levels, your characters actually transform into the animal friend themselves. Squawks, for instance, is no longer just a parrot carrying a lantern to help the Kongs see. Now Squawks either carries the Kongs in his talons and spits out eggs to attack enemies, or you fully transform into Squawks as part of a flying level. There is a racing level with Squawks that takes some skill to successfully complete, and there is even a boss fight against an enormous wasp in that form. These kinds of changes made for a much more varied and more fun experience than offered in the relatively static DKC, but that’s because they aren’t just different for the sake of it: they work, and work well.
You also play as a rattlesnake who coils like a spring to jump high, which makes for some extreme under-duress vertical platforming in the late-game. Or a spider who can shoot out webs that turn into platforms to either climb to greater heights or to cross chasms. Enguarde the swordfish is back, too, and helps make the much-improved (read: less luck-based) water levels easier and safer to traverse than they would be without his pointy face.
The bosses receive an upgrade here as well, and not just because there is more variety in them or you occasionally play as a non-ape to defeat them. Bosses in the original were relatively small affairs in terms of screen real estate, even if the enemies themselves were large: it didn’t take long to figure out how to defeat them, and the second wave of bosses were mostly just more difficult versions of ones you had already beaten. Here, though, each boss feels more like its own thing and less like A Thing You Have To Do At The End Of A World, whether it’s fighting a vulture who is also a pirate and doing so across multiple screens in stages, or when you’re fighting the living sword that hovers over a pit of lava. They’re better designed, like they were all made with the same design ethos that resulted in the original’s final boss battle against King K. Rool, and it makes for a far more rewarding experience overall.
The differences in your playable characters are also more pronounced now than they were in DKC. Yes, Donkey Kong had certain enemies he could defeat with ease, whereas Diddy Kong had to maybe hit a bigger enemy twice in order to topple them, but in DKC2, there is more to it than that, in part because Diddy and newcomer Dixie Kong are the same size and Rareware had to figure out other ways of differentiating them. Diddy Kong is the faster character, and there are times where you’re going to prefer to have that extra bit of speed. Dixie, though, can jump higher than Diddy, and is able to float by spinning her hair like a propeller: there are countless moments where you’re going to prefer to have that at your disposal.
Since both sets of skills are vital for different areas, it’s imperative that you keep the two around and healthy as much as possible. Barrels used to recover your fallen pal aren’t as prevalent in DKC2 as they were in the original game, and since your second counts as more than just an extra hit you can take before losing a life, that change looms large in how you approach and play each level.
Donkey Kong Country 2 also stands out as the rare Rareware platformer that didn’t get in its own way when it came to collectibles. DKC’s problem was that there was nothing compelling you to go looking for bonus rooms if you had plenty of extra lives laying around, and any familiarity with the game’s early levels would get you to that point. There are plenty of things to collect in DKC2 and reasons to collect them as well, but the game does not require that you spend all of your time looking for items you might not care about. Do you want to unlock the bonus stages, where some of the game’s most significant challenges await? Cool, go looking for the specific collectible that will unlock those levels. Do you want to just get through the non-hidden stages and not stress about finding every little thing? You can also do that! Do you have an interest in playing some mini-games or unlocking some hints? There are collectibles to help you do those things, too, but if you don’t want that experience or need the assist, again, don’t stress, and just keep plugging away how you want.
Donkey Kong Country 2 didn’t sell as well as the original for a number of reasons — it was never a pack-in game, it didn’t have the same aggressive marketing that DKC did, it released at a time that the Playstation existed as more than just an idea and coming soon ad — but it’s still, by that metric, one of the most successful SNES titles. More importantly, for our purposes, it’s legitimately one of the top games on that system. It expanded on what made its predecessor work and fixed the things that didn’t. It holds up better than many (but not all) of its Nintendo-published contemporaries in the platform space, like Super Mario World or Yoshi’s Island, and this is despite the fact that more modern Donkey Kong Country games rule. It was and is so good that DKC3 was and is rendered basically pointless in comparison, and please don’t get me started on Donkey Kong 64. Rareware’s best remaining DKC ideas ended up in DKC2, and that’s clear both when you play this game and when you play any one of the others.
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