Editor’s note: Join us over the next two weeks as we look back at the most outstanding and influential games of 1996.
Donkey Kong Country is a game held in high regard and with good reason. It pushed the boundaries of what the Super Nintendo was capable of and the follow-up Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest delivered in exceeding the standard set by its predecessor. Needless to say, Rare had some big shoes to fill when making the third and final entry of the original Donkey Kong Country trilogy. When Donkey Kong Country 3 first hit store shelves in November of 1996, it was just over two months after the hardware debut of the Nintendo 64 and by that time, most players including loyal Nintendo fans had already moved on to Super Mario 64, a title acclaimed by many critics and fans as one of the greatest and most revolutionary video games of all time. And with the N64, most of those players never looked back. I was one of those fans, and it wasn’t until DK3 was later released on the Wii that I finally had a chance to play Rare’s 16-bit swan song for the first time. Unfortunately, while I liked the game enough to recommend it, I just couldn’t wrap my head around why I didn’t like it as much as the original two. Now years later I’ve decided to give it one more shot, this time around playing it on the Wii U and hoping to walk away loving it as much as I love every other game in the DKC series. The problem is, I’m still not sure how I feel about the game.
Donkey Kong himself is once again absent, and this time Diddy’s also nowhere to be found. Both the titular gorilla and his nephew go missing after a trip to the Northern Kremisphere and it’s up to Diddy’s girlfriend, Dixie Kong, and her younger cousin Kiddy Kong, to traverse the kremling-infested lands in search of them. Along the way they must battle against King K. Rool and his Kremling army which includes Arich, a large, red spider found at the end of Kremwood Forest, Belcha, a mischevious barrel who resides inside an old barn at the end of Lake Orangatanga and Squirt, a large, rocky slug who lives on a waterfall. The story (what little we get) isn’t anything to write home about but when it comes to Donkey Kong Country games, it’s what we come to expect.
There is an Easter egg players can discover which shows Wrinkly playing the Nintendo 64 over the Super Mario 64 theme song.
While both Donkey Kong and Diddy are sorely missed, Dixie and Kiddy function, for the most part, just like Diddy and Dixie did in the last game. Dixie stays true to form retaining her ability to descend slowly after jumping up and down by using her ponytail helicopter-spin in midair, and players can still alternate between the two playable characters on the fly. By and large, the general gameplay sticks to the old tag-team formula allowing the pair to perform team maneuvers. The game even encourages you to use both Kiddy and Dixie since certain situations will be better handled using one Kong more than the other. Kiddy can pick up Dixie and toss her onto ledges. Dixie, meanwhile, can pick up Kiddy and launch him high into the air. Both characters can also pounce on enemies, and throw barrels to smash enemies, switches, doors and other objects. And like every DKC game, when one character is hurt the other must progress through the level alone until you recover the missing partner by finding and smashing a DK barrel. So far so good. The game follows the winning formula laid out by the previous two. And while Kiddy Kong is perhaps the most unpopular of the Kong family amongst fans, there’s no denying that the pairing of Dixie and Kiddy evenly represents two opposite ends of the Kong spectrum since Kiddy’s physique makes him a good match for Dixie’s speed.
The game also features another series staple: Animal Friends. This time around, players can directly control animals instead of riding them. If you want, you can stampede over kremlings with Ellie the elephant (a precursor to Tembo the Badass Elephant) and when using Ellie, players can also hose down enemies with water using her trunk. In addition, players can also easily navigate underwater with Enguarde the swordfish and fly through the air as Squawks the parrot. A new bird friend named Perry also shows up and allows you to grab objects that Dixie and Kiddy can’t reach. The animal friends aren’t the only new characters found here. Scattered around the Northern Kremisphere overworld are the Brothers Bear, a family of bears who provide the players with hints, key items, and other services needed to 100% complete the game. You can find bear coins throughout the levels (which replace DKC2’s banana coins) and bonus coins (replacing Kremkoins) which are needed to access the secret levels in the Lost World. This time, instead of simply being hidden within the levels, the coins are guarded by Kremling each named Koin who use the coins as shields, leaving the player to find creative ways to take them down with a steel barrel. Meanwhile, other members of the Kong family, such as Cranky, Wrinkly and Swanky are also present along with Funky Kong who is no longer a pastiche of an 80’s surfer stereotype but now works as a mechanic.
For a 16-bit game, DK3 looks beautiful and utilizes the same Silicon Graphics from its predecessors, which includes the use of pre-rendered 3D imagery. As mentioned above, the setting takes a shift to the north, away from the jungle and pirate-themed environments of the first two titles. It’s a refreshing change and I would say, the lush environments, bright lighting, and detailed animation has more in common with Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze than any other game in the franchise. The game seriously looks great and includes scrolling background layers, moving foreground objects, and various animated weather effects. There are eight worlds altogether (nine in the GBA version) and the levels in the game include a mixture of platforming, swimming, and on-rails levels action. Truth be told, the level design is more diverse compared to its predecessors and includes more complex puzzles and obstacles to overcome. The main quest spans eight large worlds and 48 levels and employs the standard mix of jumping platforms, climbing vines, riding moving objects and stomping enemies. Only now there are also switches to pull, walls and floors to smash, lakes to swim through, and rocket barrels to ride on. There are even a few stages involving mine carts and snow sleds. The graphics, environments and character animations are all top-notch. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the music. One of the most impressive features of the first two games is the amazing soundtrack scored by legendary composer David Wise. Here, the soundtrack composed almost entirely by Eveline Fischer is by no means terrible, but largely forgettable.
DK3 also introduced the beginning of an open world concept to its world map. The game overworld is far more complex, allowing players to explore each area instead of forcing them along a linear path. The new overhead map does simplify traveling between the world allowing the player to pretty much go wherever they want whenever they want. One of the new additions is the use of vehicles on the world map screen. These vehicles range from a motorboat to a helicopter and help Dixie and Kiddy Kong get to different stages. There are secrets and collectibles to look for in between each stage and there are even characters who you can do various fetch quests for. By today’s’ standards it isn’t’ very impressive and there are only a handful items to collect in each region but by and large, it does a great job of adding a new dimension of gameplay to the series. The problem is, the sheer amount of collectibles in the game is overwhelming, to say the least. This being a Rare-developed game, there are enough collect-a-thon conditions to drive someone crazy. And to achieve full completion of the game, you’ll have to complete every bonus stage, find every DK Coin, find every Banana Bird, complete every task assigned by the bears, and beat all the secret levels.
As for the difficulty, DK3 is often the easiest of the bunch but at times, it is also the most infuriating. Lives are plentiful and the boss battles aren’t very hard but the game is also plagued with two of the most frustrating stages in the entire series, the first being the lightning level which causes your character to continuously be zapped by lightning, and the second, an underwater level which forces the controls to work in reverse (thankfully, the mid-level checkpoint saves your sanity while playing these stages). Unfortunately, these levels comprise the final run before the fight with K Rool and are the two worst levels in the entire series. Speaking of the Devil, King K Rool makes his least uninspiring appearance in this game. Under the alias Baron K. Roolenstein, the now mad scientist simply floats across the screen endlessly throughout the final battle. At least most of the other bosses at the end of each of the game’s eight worlds reflect a little more creativity (my personal favorite being KOAS) but it’s still a letdown for fans of the Kremling King.
After playing this game three times over a span of twenty years, reviewing it on our Nintendo podcast and now writing this 1000-plus word article, I still can’t pinpoint exactly why I don’t love this game as much as I feel I should. Putting aside the disappointing battle with the malevolent ruler King K Rool, and my frustration with having to collect too many items, Donkey Kong Country 3 isn’t all that different than it’s predecessors. It’s another great looking, great sounding platformer from Rare – and one that stands the test of time. The game has some of the most creative level designs and gimmicks for the era and it takes risks, introducing you to a brand new concept in nearly every level you encounter. Perhaps the problem is that while it is a Rare game, it wasn’t made by the same team who made the first two games. Rare’s veteran team had already moved on to work on the N64 leaving their B-team instead to finish the trilogy. And that may be why it just doesn’t feel the same.
Donkey Kong Country 3 took the series in a bold new direction and tried new things but there’s nothing about this game that feels groundbreaking. And that’s ok if only they got one thing right. You see, the original Donkey Country Country is sharp and laser-focussed. Its stages were built with an amazing sense of rhythm and pacing. Donkey Kong Country 3 however, doesn’t feel as energetic and kinetic. The game sacrifices the original quick pace for level variety and other distractions that slow it down, making it at times feel like a chore. The series has always used gimmicks but in this game, the gimmicks are sometimes tedious and for every great concept there is a half a dozen that just wears you down. It’s a classic case of creators trying to shove too many ideas into one project and in the end, it’s not only overwhelming for its audience but exhausting. And that is how I describe this game: a long-drawn-out adventure that is ultimately taxing on a player.
On a side note, it did have one Hell of a strange advertising push including s a television advert featuring human actors dressed up as apes and another commercial which references child masturbation. WTF?