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SummaryA counterpoint to the popular view of DKC...
The Good1. A satisfying platformer in many respects. Engaging level design with lots of hidden shortcuts and tricks to keep you interested. Not a lot of variety, but succeeds in that it finds the fun things (riding animals, mine carts) and hits you with it enough to keep you happy but not so much as to trivialize things.
2. Good music that attempts to move away from the three-tone-ditty or faux-rock of most other games. For me, the most memorable part of the game.
3. Overall design that distinguishes the game from others. In the platforming genre, that's doing something.
The Bad1. This game was popular in its time because of the graphics, and those graphics haven't aged well: they now look a little chunky, a little too ambitious. I don't think they've held up as well as the clean lines of Super Mario World, the tricked-out SMB2 and SMB3 of Super Mario All-Stars, or the minimalist sci-fi of Metroid or Super Contra, all of which seem to me a more timeless design. I'm not comparing DKC's graphics to those of current games, I'm looking at those graphics in the context of those of the time, and I think the design of DKC comes off as a little gimmicky.
2. Looking at the graphics in this way allows us to do something many other gamers didn't do when DKC was released: divorce our opinion of the gameplay from our opinion of the graphics. I think doing this allows us to look back on this game and realize that while it's a good platformer, it's not as fantastically great in terms of gameplay as many people made it out to be when it was released. A few notes on the gameplay:
2a. Riding animals is fun, but is it that fun? For instance, it doesn't take a lot of skill to hop on the rhino and move right, and I think because most animal riding doesn't engage any game skill, the novelty of it--hey, I'm ridin' a crazy rhino! woo-hoo!--wears off pretty quickly.
2b. Not many things to do with your characters in terms of movement. While it's a testament to quality level design, which manages to make playing the game interesting despite the limited moves, it's still something.
2c. The play control to me always felt slightly off. Let's pick on the rhino again: Whenever I was on that guy, jumping around felt non-responsive, like there was some kind of variable, minuscule lag between when I hit the button and when the rhino jumped. The same goes for the timing on DK's roll and leap: I learned that the key to nailing it was to be a little too patient and wait past the moment you _feel_ like you should be jumping to nail it. I'm sure the control on DK's roll and leap is by design, but I just didn't care for it. Would have liked for it, and the rest of the control, to be a little tighter.
2d. Easy. Never really challenging at all. Part of the reason is the amazing amount of lives you can rack up without really trying. Yeah, you can get tons of lives in other platformers, but normally you have to go out of your way to get those additional lives. In DKC, the lives rack up as a consequence of simply playing the game. It makes the game too forgiving.
3. At the time I hated the snow levels because of the snow storm falling between you and the character sprite. I know that this was a "cool" feature at the time, but I hated it then and I still hate it.
4. Please don't take this as a "hater" comment, but I don't care for the character design and resent that it's been taken on by the Mario karting universe. Diddy Kong to me is solely appealing to the "cute monkey" perception and lacks a lot of the imagination put into many of the Mario characters. I dunno: chimp in a baseball cap isn't exactly what I'd call exciting. But the cute factor caught on, and now Diddy's befouling the Mario kart series. DK Jr. in Super Mario Kart wasn't so bad, but the Rare designed Kongs to me just don't do it as far as character design goes.
The Bottom LineI wrote this review for the reasons the title suggests: I wanted to give a counterpoint to the notions upon the game's release and the notion held to this day by some nostalgic DKC fanatics that the game, coming near the end of the SNES life-cycle, was by default the pinnacle of SNES platformers. It's easier to realize you're being unfairly nostalgic when you're looking back on an Atari 2600 game that clearly benefited from cool cover-art--it's harder to recognize nostalgia when it's a game that's only 10 or so years old.
I don't think it takes much of a serious playthrough of DKC to see that it just doesn't have the ageless qualities of other great platformers. Where I identify many other great, older games with their gameplay, I can't help identifying DKC with those chunky graphics that were such a big deal at the time. That to me suggests that DKC isn't maybe all it was cracked up to be at the time in terms of gaming goodness.
None of this is to suggest that DKC is a bad game. It's a good game, a very good game that obviously had a lot of time put into it. But does it belong in the rarefied company of platformers like SWM, SWM2, SMB3, Super Metroid, some of the Mega Man games, etc? I don't think that it does.
Still, a good platformer that's worth playing.