Donkey Kong Country released 25 years ago today, and it has a lot to celebrate. On top of being a tight, fun SNES platformer with a lovely art style and catchy tunes, the game completely redefined the identity of one of Nintendo’s inaugural characters and kicked off Rare’s tenure as a second-party Nintendo developer with style.
While Donkey Kong Country’s most impressive trait might be its progeny within the series and Rare’s catalog, the game itself is absolutely unforgettable. I still remember playing for the first time in 2013 when the title was pushing 20. I was hooked as soon as the toe-tapping opening jingle started rolling, and the ensuing adventure kept me charmed the whole way through. The game thrived with perfect controls, beautiful jungle environments, and a very, very strong soundtrack, and the incredible gameplay tied the whole experience together. Beyond tough, precise platforming, players enjoyed mine cart levels, animal buddies, and loads of hidden areas and collectibles. Donkey Kong Country pushed the limits of just how great a SNES-era 2D platformer could be.
On the original game’s 25th anniversary, it is also important to look at its direct descendants. With Donkey Kong Country, Rare turned a chest-pounding, stationary, pixelated simian into a colorful, expressive platforming juggernaut, a design that was entrenched by subsequent entries. Later games in the franchise include two of the greatest 2D platformers of all time, Diddy’s Kong Quest and Tropical Freeze, as well as the excellent Donkey Kong Country Returns. Even the worst game in the series, Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble, is still a solidly enjoyable platformer.
None of those games stray far from the initial formula, simply because they don’t need to. The personality, the wonderfully refined gameplay, the challenge — that’s all still there, building off of the foundation that Rare pulled out of thin air for the original Donkey Kong Country. The 2D platformer genre, the SNES library, and plenty of our gaming careers are all the richer thanks to Rare’s excellent work with the series.
Even though it is responsible for Donkey Kong as we know him, Donkey Kong Country’s legacy extends well beyond its own series and into the greater lineage of Rare’s Nintendo catalog. After the studio impressed Nintendo with their work on 3D sprites through Advanced Computer Modeling, Nintendo purchased a 49 percent stake in the company. Rare then requested to work on Donkey Kong, which sounded good to Nintendo, and the rest is history.
After they delivered in spades with the original Donkey Kong Country trilogy, Rare moved onto the Nintendo 64 and constantly defined the limits for whatever genre they cared to dabble in. They pushed out an all-time great kart racer in Diddy Kong Racing, top-level collectathons like Banjo-Kazooie, Banjo-Tooie, and Donkey Kong 64, and, of course, they redefined multiplayer madness with first-person shooters GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark. That partnership all started with Donkey Kong Country.
At 25 years old, the fact that Donkey Kong Country holds up at all is a feat in itself. However, every facet of its surrounding contexts — its simple before-and-after effect on Donkey Kong as a character, the franchise it spawned, and its place as the first title in Rare’s unparalleled catalog as a second-party developer — make this anniversary much more than a chance to reflect on a great platformer. Without Donkey Kong Country, the SNES loses some of its best games, Donkey Kong might still have no personality whatsoever, and, who knows, Rare’s Nintendo partnership may never have played out the same way. So, here’s to 25 years of Donkey Kong Country, and all of the greatness that followed.