In 1994, Nintendo needed Donkey Kong Country to be a hit. It was. Thanks to a then-unique partnership with the British video game developer Rare, the game had cutting-edge graphics and a breakneck pace that players found irresistible. The company proved that it could more than hang with Sonic and the rest of the upstart Sega Genesis gang.
It could dominate.
For Nintendo, domination through one game could only mean one thing: domination through more games. For Rare, ideas for a second game emerged during the development of Donkey Kong Country. Speaking to Retro Gamer in 2018, the game’s Producer and Co-Designer Gregg Mayles said that “the pressure was on ourselves.”
Relatively early on in the development of the first game, the team realized they had more ideas than could fit in a single game. Brainstorming for a sequel began even before the first game’s sales had registered. “Everything happened so fast,” Mayles recalled.
That’s how wrapped up Donkey Kong Country: Diddy’s Kong Quest is with its predecessor. If you’re a paid Nintendo Switch online subscriber, you can play both right now by downloading the Super Nintendo Entertainment System app. But Diddy’s a lot more fun, right?
The game easily stands apart from its predecessor. Rare found that success had its perks, like the boss leaving you alone. When a big company gets into a creative partnership with a smaller company, and the smaller company is doing most of the work, it can be easy for the bigger party to start imposing demands. After all, it was Nintendo’s characters that had allowed Donkey Kong Country to become a best-seller, right?
Mayles told Retro Gamer that he couldn’t “remember much communication” with Nintendo at all during the development of Diddy’s Kong Quest. “I think the success of the first one gave us some sort of trust — even though we had a huge amount of trust in the first game,” he said. The British development studio, which had been formed by the brothers Chris and Tim Stamper around a decade prior in 1985, was given the freedom to experiment with the massive video game franchise. This was a long way from its pre-Nintendo days when Rare was best known for Battletoads.
The biggest change in the Donkey Kong Country sequel is the lack of Donkey Kong. The famous ape, who Shigeru Miyamoto had originally made to resemble Bluto from Popeye, was passing the torch to his younger pal Diddy Kong. Sharing the screen was Dixie Kong, who was alluded to as Diddy's girlfriend. Somewhat like the reveal of Samus as a woman in Metroid, Mayles told Retro Gamer that the decision to include a female character was meant to “do something that would surprise people.”
Anyone who has played Diddy’s Kong Quest knows Dixie’s gender wasn’t the only surprise. Her ponytail gives her a hover ability similar to Princess Peach’s dress in Super Mario 2. It’s a power that becomes crucial during some platforming sequences. Even when it’s not needed, it makes the game radically easier. Perhaps a little oddly, Diddy Kong has no equivalent special power, at times making a player wish they could simply play as Dixie for the entire game.
While the game has similar graphics when compared to the first, a loose pirate aesthetic allows for a world of difference in how levels play out. Players vertically climb up a ship’s rigging, jumping from rope to rope with pirate flags in the background. Swimming levels take on an added complexity thanks to Clapper the Seal, an animal friend who is able to change bright red lava into swimmable water for a limited period of time.
Barrels still play a large role in getting around, but where they take players varies quite a bit. Gone are the familiar worlds of the first game: “We had exhausted all the obvious” settings in the first game, Mayles told Retro Gamer. With a desire to “be a little more out there,” the team developed levels that got more specific than “jungle” or “mountain.” Now there was the beehive of Hornet Hole and the thickets of Bramble Blast.
If that last level sounds familiar, it might be because of DKC2’s unexpected legacy as a musical masterpiece. DJ and producer Ryan Hemsworth, interviewing DKC2’s musical creator, David Wise in 2014 for FACT, told Wise that there’s an “absolute, undeniable obsession with a specific track composed for DKC 2: “Stickerbrush Symphony” (or “Bramble Blast”).”
The soundtrack to Bramble Blast wasn’t even supposed to be in the game, it was originally intended for a water level that was never developed. “I would have made a completely different piece of music for a brambles level, we simply didn’t have enough time,” Wise tells Hemsworth. The result is a soothing replica of synth sounds, almost a call of yearning that exists alongside smooth jazz and electronica, playing in the background of a level with tense timing.
A slower, harder game than its predecessor, Diddy’s Kong Quest is certainly more than its awkward-sounding title. It’s a rich experience that rewards curiosity and timing in equal measure. Plus Dixie Kong pulls out a sick guitar whenever you beat a level with her, and Diddy Kong pulls out shades for a ‘90s hip-hop pose. It’s got a groovy style, dude!