Although the first game is by far the best known, I always viewed the other two as superior. This is especially so for the second game, Diddy’s Kong Quest, (though that’s not too surprising, as it seems to be most people’s favorite) but for the controversial third game, Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble!, as well.
Since scenery and exploration are what I, for some reason, find most appealing in video games, I’ll start there. What is most remarkable about Diddy’s Kong Quest is its original level themes, compared to the trite themes of jungle, cave, forest, and ice of the first and third games (in fairness, the factory setting was somewhat original). This is especially the case for the original Donkey Kong Country, which has barren-looking levels compared to its sequels (save the forest levels with the three layers of tree graphics and the snowy levels with that cool mountain in the background). The fact that it had essentially two cave-themed worlds did not help. The fact that the second cave-themed world, “Chimp Caverns,” was an anticlimactic last world and had a name that didn’t even have authentic alliteration makes it worse.
Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble! is a little better, at least making the scenery look a little better (except for the cave levels, which were the ugliest levels in all three games), while having some interesting themes, such as the mill, waterfall, and drainpipe levels.
Diddy’s Kong Quest, however, blew these games away by not relying so heavily on the cliché forest, cave, and water themes—in fact, it hardly even had any water levels, which was an accomplishment itself. Instead, it had levels on pirate ships, in cloudy bramble pits, in bee hives, and on rollercoasters. Even when it did indulge in the less original level themes, it did it in a more original way: Cave levels were located in industrialized mine shafts instead of the usual barren brown underground; the lava world was the second world, instead of being near the end, as in most games; and even the forest world at least added a haunted theme to it to make it a little more original. Hell, even the castle themed world, while trite for most games, was unique for this series, at least.
But Diddy’s Kong Quest’s levels were better not just in the atmosphere of the levels, but their designs as well. It had a good balance between the original’s, which has mostly unremarkable levels, and Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble!, which erred a little too much toward gimmicks—especially those that were cumbersome. The original did have some interesting gimmicks, such as the barrel-throwing Orangutans, levels where you need to continually flip the lights on to keep from being attacked, levels where you are chased by giant wheels with Gnawties in them, and—especially—the mine cart levels; but these were rather pedestrian compared to Diddy’s Kong Quest’s more interesting gimmicks. For instance, it took the mine cart levels and added a race element to two of them; it mixed both lava and water levels together with the gimmick of the seal who cools the lava, allowing one to temporarily swim through it. However, unlike its sequel, Diddy’s Kong Quest seemed to focus more on making actual game mechanics than mere one-level gimmicks. And while Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble! had some fun gimmicks, like “Fish Food Frenzy,” where you had to continually feed the fish following you other fish (while avoiding moving it into spiky fish, which would only irritate it), some of them were less so: “Lightning Lookout” combined unpredictable lightning and level design to make it somewhat luck based; “Rocket Run” was so hastily made that it was missing one of the KONG letters and controlled like garbage; and “Poisonous Pipeline’s” gimmick—backward controls—were so stupid and went so far against proper game design that it’s just heartbreaking that it is the final main level—the ultimate anticlimax of any game, probably. The original Donkey Kong Country didn’t really have any broken gimmicks, but it did have more unfair enemy and camera placement that could kill you blindly in some places. This is especially prevalent in water levels, which seemed intent on keeping your character right up close to the edge of the screen so you could smack blindly into a shark secretly in front of you.
To some extent, bonuses improved later on. In the two sequels they’re certainly better than the original, in which the bonuses served to add even more meaningless items and lives. Moreover, the manner in which they were hidden improved; the placement of bonuses in the original were just flat-out bullshit. I am curious if anyone could possibly discover the bonus hidden within a bonus in “Oil Drum Alley” by oneself, which involves arbitrarily deciding to get three single bananas in the revolving barrels—something you pretty much have to do intentionally, even though there’s no logical reason to do so. That a barrel falling from the sky has absolutely no relevance to a single banana makes this puzzle even stupider—it’s just random guesswork. Diddy’s Kong Quest never got as bad as the original, but it did have some rather stupid items hidden behind move-through walls in “Bramble Scramble” and “Chain Link Chamber.” On the other hand, some of the secrets were cleverly hidden, such as the bonus above the bonus in “Haunted Hall” (that is all that’s required; no bullshitting around with single banana jackpots necessary) or the DK coin hidden within a bonus in “Kannon’s Claim” (and is hinted at by suspiciously unused space in the bottom right corner). I can’t think of any bullshit obscure secrets in Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble!, though I don’t think the bonuses you had to complete themselves were much more interesting. Some were very uncreative, such as collecting stars—but over round platforms!—in “Squeaks on Wheels.” Then again, some of the secrets in that game were downright tedious, such as the fetch quests with the insipid bears or finding all the banana birds in the trite Simon Says minigames.
Bosses are a low point among all three games, though they’re a little more interesting in the sequel—where else can you fight a giant possessed pirate sword, the ghost of a pirate bird you killed earlier, or fight a pirate crocodile by throwing his own cannon-ball bullets into his own gun, causing it to blow up through cartoon logic? The original’s were never interesting or difficult; it didn’t help that two are just slightly harder copies of the first two bosses—the second, a refight with Necky, having no relevance to its surroundings, a cavern—and one was essentially just killing a bunch of enemies and dodging a falling heavy object. Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble!’s could get obnoxious, though—especially the final bonus boss. While Diddy’s Kong Quest had a marathon weapon dodge ending with one hit against the boss that didn’t last too long, the third game’s revolved around tedious waiting, finicky hit detection, and obscure solutions halfway through. You must wait as K. Rool makes balls of electricity from the sky, all in the same spots, requiring you to do the arduous action of standing in one spot for about a minute. Afterward, a steel keg appears, which you must throw up in a vacuum and time so that it hits a particular part of his back. Sometimes this will bounce off, even if it does hit his back. Later he adds conveyer belts to the mix, which are just an mild inconvenience. However, it gets worse when he starts shooting both lightning beams on the ground, forcing you to set a steel keg between the bottom beam and you, which is difficult when you can’t run, else you’ll pick the keg up and get zapped.
The music in all three games was excellent, and it would be easier to find which songs in each game were most amazing that it would be to decide which game had overall superior music. The first and third games had much more atmospheric music—especially the underground and forest songs—whereas Diddy’s Kong Quest had more melodic music. This certainly makes its songs generally more memorable—though I do prefer the atmospheric forest songs from the first and third games over “Forest Interlude” from the second.
The classical “Stickerbush Symphony” usually gets the most attention in Diddy’s Kong Quest, but there are plenty of superior songs: The rocking “Mining Melancholy” and “Snakey’s Chantey”; the foreboding “Welcome to Crocodile Isle,” “Lockjaw’s Saga,” and “Krook’s March”; and the wonderful mix of heavy beats and melodies that is “Hot Head Hop.”
Much as the original is the most well-known among the trilogy, its music is more popular, too. No need to talk about “DK Island Swing,” which everyone knows, but “Bonus Room Blitz,” “Aquatic Ambience,” and “Fear Factory,” and “Gangplank Galleon” have gained quite a lot of popularity, too. Personally, I prefer the jazzy map song, “Simian Segue” and the dark beats of “Forest Frenzy.”
The third game’s music is the least memorable, but has quite a few good tracks, too. I already mentioned the wonderfully dark forest music (“Treetop Tumble”), but the rocking “Nuts and Bolts” and “Rockface Rumble” are also enjoyable—both the SNES and GBA versions. “Bonus Time” and “Jungle Jitters” from the GBA remake are even better than the less memorable SNES versions.
First Addendum: On Donkey Kong Country Returns
Due to financial issues that cause me to only afford decades-old games I have unfortunately not been able to play this game, and thus cannot judge it beyond what I have watched from YouTube videos. Graphically, it looks beautiful, of course; and from what I’ve witnessed it’s apparently even harder than the original three, though without frustrating bullshit, such as having to replay whole worlds.
If there is one complaint I have about Returns it’s that it takes a little too much inspiration from the first game and barely any from the other two. Much of the music is simply rehashed from the original, which is not bad, but becomes a little too derivative (though one new song, “Mine Menace” is excellent, and I approve of the thematic remixes of “Simian Swing”). Returns certainly could have benefitted from borrowing a little more from Diddy’s Kong Quest which is sadly underrated compared to its inferior predecessor. It would have been nice to have a bramble level with Squawks or a carnival level or to hear a “Hot Head Hop Returns” or “Mining Melancholy Returns.”
I see good signs from Tropical Freeze, however, as it does see the return of Dixie Kong, but from the looks of it, it will likely branch off into something far more different than all three original games, which is good as well—indeed, probably for the best.
Second Addendum: The Game Boy Advance Remakes
The Game Boy Advance remakes are oft criticized, and for good reason: They look like shit, sound like shit (except the third game, which had new music that better fit the handheld’s tinny sound), and played like shit. Watching the gorgeous graphics turned into the washed-out, solar-flare bright mess of pixels these remakes showed was heartbreaking. The way the screen was resized added artificial difficulty—especially in the aforementioned water levels in the first game, which had even worse camera problems.
The only decent remake is the first one, due to three additions: The photo album; the one-hit, no-midway-points Hero Mode; and the hilarious sound DK made when he fell in a hole. Also, its minigames, though rather trite, were at least tolerable, whereas Espresso Race and Funky’s Flights from the sequel and Cranky’s Dojo from the third game are god awful. The sequel did have a photo album, too, and the third game even had a new world, “Pacifica,” though. However, it replaces the amazing foreboding forest music with some happy shit; and how can you seriously run from a ripsaw with that kind of music playing?
I suppose if one truly loves these three games, one might want to try them. Admittedly, I did (though not very far in Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble!).