Donkey Kong Country. Everything about it—the flowing gameplay, the strangely appropriate music, the 3D-rendered style of the characters, and the world maps combined to create an experience that hasn’t really been seen before or since, tied together by the amazing environments that DK and Diddy blasted through on their quest for the stolen banana horde. In this post I’m going to discuss the design of some of these levels and try to identify a few of the factors that made them so great.
DK Country was groundbreaking, as it was the first sidescrolling platformer game to use a realistic sense of lighting. This is as opposed to say, the Mario games, which exist in a world of mostly flat cartoon colors (and are, of course, great for it). DK Country’s lighting is very dynamic, transporting 90s kids all over the world into a new realm of the imagination. Let’s take a look at this pic of “Winky’s Walkway” [Ed.: Screenshots courtesy DKC Atlas. Click to make ’em big.]:
What a sketchy place! The air feels dusty, revealed by the blue cones of particle-diffused light emitting from the green lamps overhead (in-game they sway slightly). Donkey and Diddy must run and jump through pools of light and long spans of shadow on a walkway cobbled together from corrugated sheet metal and shitty-looking boards of wood. The background is a vast gloom; we see what look like gas lanterns burning dully in the distance. There’s plenty of room to fall…if you’re a Kremling, hahaa.
Continuing on in the gloomy direction, this is “Misty Mine.” There’s not a straight support beam in the place! Not that Donkey Kong cares; he doesn’t give a fuck. King K. Rool should, though, as it looks like the place where he chose to spawn his army could possibly be on the verge of collapse. And perhaps the gaseous waste emitted from the “spawning drums” is the reason why there is this strange mist in the air (yeah, those skull-and-crossbones drums spit out enemies). The mist is a cheap trick that works well to set the tone of the level, just a simple overlay that moves to and fro as you play. Hmm, look at the gas lanterns. Now that I think of it, these mine levels match up with the background elements of the walkway levels.
Ahh, this is more like it: “Orang-utan Gang.” Reminds me of a beach towel with its unbroken line of colorfully blazing sunset. So relaxing, and so it’s perfectly surprising when you encounter a crazed member of the Kong family throwing barrels. Manky Kong probably came here to relax and to let the periwinkle light calm his jangled nerves, but then family rivals DK and Diddy show up and whoop his ass several times throughout the level. They do so with grace as they leap between cliffs of brown clay and unusually sturdy jungle flora.
“Slipslide Ride” is a beautiful ice-cave filled with mystical white light and the color cyan. Giant sparkling ice crystals line the Kongs’ path as they run and jump through powdery snow and slide up and down the glacial moulins by way of color-coded ropes. The thing about ice caves, though, is that as beautiful as they are, they are equally dangerous. If Donkey is jumping from rope to rope and his cold, stiff hands fail to grasp, he will be headed towards the unforgiving points of the giant blue crystals below.
While “Slipslide Ride” feels nice and calm, the dangers of “Ice Age Alley” are immediately apparent. The level path is a broken stretch of chunky ice with sheer icicle overhangs that point ever downwards. Downwards to where a Kong body would be deposited, broken and freezing below surface in a deepening snow drift, unaware of the soaring evergreens piled with bulging snow, or the pinkening atmosphere laid over the distant mountains of Kong Island. This Kong might be discovered thousands of years later, preserved in a presentable state like the Similaun Iceman.
Look at dem potatoes! I always thought the rounded rocks of the cave levels resembled stone potatoes. Stone potatoes because they exhibit too much surface specularity and height to truly be potatoes. The Kongs probably weren’t thinking of that as they bounced through this level. Then again, they weren’t thinking of much, jumping on rubber tires when there are pointy stalactites overhead. Though upon further investigation it appears my worry is unfounded. The stalactites and stalagmites are in the background and foreground! The Kongs have adequate headroom after all, and the player has an interesting view. This is one of the levels that used foreground elements that move parallel to the mid- and background layers. Each of these “grounds” has different lighting, too, which increases the feeling of depth and space further. The foreground stalactites are in almost complete shadow, while the middleground path is lit by a soft overhead/frontal right glow , and the far background formations are lit harshly with a more saturated golden color. This depth gives the sensation that there is more to this cave than the playable area. I want to go explore the background!
The Kremlings have built some huge industrial spaces on DK’s island. They spew toxic filth everywhere, believing that their military might gives them the right. DK’s claim to the island is based on its resemblance to his head, so he heads up to the factory to klean up some Kremlings. A little sweeping of the platforms and the place will be fine; it could be converted to make banana mash or something. These platforms are lit by harsh fluorescents overhead, meaning the pasty Kremlings within will have a vitamin D deficiency, and even less of a chance at victory. This level really carries the hallmarks of a modern factory. Caution striping, ladders over “X,” girded stage walls, strange hatches on the floor, burning oil barrels. [Ed.: Just watch an episode of How It’s Made; burning oil barrels ALL OVER those factories!] We also have a great foreground layer with industrial elements. As a kid, I never noticed those brassy cogs. Weird.
There is an ancient heritage shown here. How long have the Kremlings been trying to claim DK’s island? Surely the island looked like Donkey’s head before they built temples here? Well, the place is inhabited now. We can tell because the wall sconces are burning and fresh TNT barrels are scattered around. That onyx vase looks to be well-polished, and now that I think of it, kudzu is known to grow fast. It’s a conspiracy! Donkey might be a dumbass, but they can’t fool Diddy! No matter. The temple levels are still very mystical, especially with the world music playing. Sort of reminds me of an exhibit at a natural history museum, or maybe a zoo.
It looks like somebody was watching Return of the Jedi! Must’ve been the Gnawties, and they did a great job of building the place. That must be why it’s my favorite level! I always dreamed of living in a tree like that, with the cute little hut doors and rope bridges. Best of all though: transportation by barrel!
This one is a color-swapped version of the original “Tree Top Town.” I guess everything is purpley-blue-grayish ’cause it’s in Gorilla Glacier and it’s pretty cold there. Firewood, crates of supplies, a long coil of rope…you really get an idea of the way of life up here. I guessed earlier that the Gnawties built the place, but don’t beavers cut down trees? Are rhinoceroses really Arctic creatures? I think Gnawties built the place. Dammit, they didn’t check their perspective either. Good thing DK and Diddy cash in a lot of hang time.
Looking at these levels, I learned a few things, especially that in game environments, chunky forms look good. If I could describe the whole of Donkey Kong Country, I’d say it’s a chunky, funky, game with great environmental lighting. Peace.
Thanks to the good people at DKC Atlas for mapping these levels (otherwise my screenshots would’ve sucked!) and to C. Gage, John Nash, and Adam Smith for doing the background art in the first place.
Joseph Culp is an illustrator.