Donkey Kong Country was, quietly, a massive step forward for Nintendo. The 1994 game marked the reboot of Donkey Kong as a character, completely removed from his previous role as a somewhat anonymous Mario villain. But more than that, it showcased what would become Nintendo’s go-to in years to come when it would face competition: simply make games that are impossible to put down.
After years of dominance, by 1994 Nintendo finally faced a worthy competitor in the form of the Sega Genesis. Bragging that blood could be seen in its version of Mortal Kombat, Sega had banked on an edginess that was working: In 1994, 55 percent of all 16-bit systems purchased were Sega.
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More than the bloodiness and gore of Mortal Kombat, Nintendo worried about a game that had come out the previous year on the Genesis: the adaptation of Disney’s Aladdin, which looked and felt like an interactive cartoon. Nintendo could stand to lose bloodthirsty teenagers, but not kids. Looking beyond its horizons, the company decided to purchase a 25 percent share in a British company known as Rare.
Run by brothers Chris and Tim Stamper, the company had made a splash with the previous NES system with their popular Battletoads game, but had been mostly quiet during the 16-bit era. Nintendo discovered that this was because the company had invested its Battletoads money into Silicon Graphics workstations that vaulted the studio into the technical elite of its day.
Impressed by what they saw, Nintendo upped its investment to 49 percent of the company with hopes that the Stampers could spin CGI gold out of their catalog of characters. Choosing Kong, Rare created a game that could more than stand its own with Aladdin or any or side-scrolling game of the era.
Donkey Kong Country’s bright and colorful backgrounds stand out even today, as does the fact that it features two characters on the screen at the same time. But playing it today, what stands out most is the pace. Donkey Kong Country is a favorite of speedrunners, and it’s easy to see why. The game works best at a breakneck speed, jumps feeding off each other. When the game throws the Kongs into unstoppable mine carts, jumping through a rickety shaft, it feels like a logical progression of what you’ve already played.
Most levels in Donkey Kong Country revolve around one key dynamic, be it swinging ropes, timed barrel jumps, mine carts, stop and go barrels, or being underwater. The enemies are placed around these specific challenges, and each one has their struggles. The key to them all is perfect timing—jump a second too early in a minecart, or blast out of a barrel a moment too late, and you’ll find yourself falling offscreen.
Of course, even if one dynamic is giving you fits, you won’t have to stay with it very long. The gameplay of Donkey Kong Country does feel simple compared to other shining stars of its era, like Zelda: A Link to the Past or Super Metroid, but more often than not the momentum keeps things fun. And having the terrific music of composer David Wise certainly helps.
With an ad campaign boasting of Nintendo’s exclusivity, Donkey Kong Country and its sequels were able to hold off Sega, Sony, and other competitors until Nintendo was able to release the Nintendo 64, setting off a whole new era of console wars.