Welcome to another installment of Retro Weekend, the weekly feature where I play a classic game and get the chance to write whatever I want about it! This week, I picked up the recent Virtual Console release Donkey Kong Land, which was originally released for the Game Boy in 1995. While it certainly brings backs memories of the Super Nintendo’s Donkey Kong Country games, there are definitely some setbacks. Oh, and it also quite possibly includes the worst level in a platformer.
In 1995, Donkey Kong Country had already made a huge splash in the video game market. Thanks to the incredibly creative graphic techniques behind the title, the game sold like hotcakes and allowed the tiny little 16-bits of the SNES to look just as good, if not better, than the 3D 32-bit polygons other companies were pushing out. It was only natural that the series would eventually head to Nintendo’s handheld Game Boy platform due to its success on the console. The surprise was that, instead of creating a whole new look for the game that would be more in line with the capabilities of the Game Boy, Rare decided to shoot for the stars and make a game that not only looks like the Country games, but plays and even sounds similarly to its 16-bit big brother.
I’m not going to sit here and say the experience of playing Donkey Kong Land is the same as playing Donkey Kong Country. It’s far from it. Donkey Kong Land is a great approximation, especially on its limited hardware, that left me with the sense that I was definitely playing a Donkey Kong game, but it never really stands on its own gameplay merits. At a glance, it’s a near perfect look-alike. But the further I played, the more blemishes I began to see and the more frustrated I became.
Donkey Kong Land is not a bad game, but when I reached World 3 Level 5 (3-5), every single thing I didn’t like about it began to shine. This level should be a blueprint of how NOT to design a stage. Developers should create games that play to the strengths of the hardware, instead of making something that only shines a light on its shortcomings. Quite frankly, I almost stopped playing the game – which is already fairly short – just because 3-5 may be the worst level I’ve ever played in a platformer. Here’s why.
The level essentially places the Kongs in a strange abstract sky zone where there’s a whole lot of pits to fall down. To navigate these wide expanses of bottomless death, you’ll have to hop on floating platforms that move in the four cardinal directions. You want to know how you change the direction? By jumping on the already very small moving platform. Once you land, the platform will switch direction and proceed until it bumps into a wall or you jump again. The level really revolves around using these platforms and it’s the main ingredient that makes it such an aggravating level. If it doesn’t sound fun already, just wait until you hear about the problems it highlights.
Taking place in the clouds, this level has a lot of verticality to it. By jumping and climbing higher and higher, you’ll notice one of DKL’s frustrating shortcomings: the camera’s inability to keep up. Say you make your way up to a platform and you know there’s safety underneath. If you miss a jump and fall, the camera won’t keep up with the sprite and instead will just take one of your lives and send you back to the last checkpoint. In the same vein, should DK or Diddy get hit by an enemy, the Kong will fall into a pit instead of giving you access to the next character at the spot of the attack. This again results in more lives used up and more checkpoints revisited. In 3-5, you’re often jumping from place to place with no ground underneath, so every minor mistake results in death. Even when you should have a second chance with the next character, the game takes that from you. It asks the player to be too precise.
Precision is handled well enough in DKL, though. Even a slight tap on the d-pad feels like a substantial shove is given to the apes. When you’re trying to balance on a hovering platform that’s the size of your character sprite, however, it’s incredibly difficult to stay on due to the movement of DK and Diddy. These platforms can be moving to the left or right constantly, and it makes for an infuriating, tense, and nail-biting experience that doesn’t ever feel fun, only anger-inducing. This movement problem comes into play in multiple levels where you need to make precise jumps, but it never feels like you have the right amount of control or knowledge of what these characters will do.
Donkey Kong Land’s visuals also stir up a problem that’s not only very clear in 3-5, but also throughout the rest of the game. Due to its commitment to the look of the DKC games, the foreground, background, and even sprites begin to merge together, leaving you to sometimes scratch your head as to where to go next. Or if you’re like me, try jumping to some place that actually is just part of the background. In some instances you’ll just fall on solid ground, but again, because of 3-5’s design, there’s not much to fall back on. Simply put, the graphics are ambitious here, and look good in motion, but they’re just too much for the little Game Boy because you can’t get a clear picture of what’s what.
Level 3-5 is just bad. There are enemies directly in your path, making you jump and consequently change the direction of the platform, which just takes up more time. There are parts where you take a leap of faith just hoping you’re going in the right direction. And every mistake you make basically ends in death. From the graphics to the camera to the movement, nearly every small problem in Donkey Kong Land shines as bright as the Bat-Signal, clearly identifying its shortcomings. In the end, I think this one level does take away from the overall experience. That’s disappointing, because the rest of the game isn’t so bad. If anything, it should be used as an example to all developers out there what to avoid when making a level.