Land of the Monkey King
Damn dirty, 8-bit apes.
Growing up, Donkey Kong Country was my jam. I played the Snes original more than I care to admit so when I got a GameBoy Color & Donkey Kong Land, I was in Heaven. A portable Donkey Kong game that’s just like the console version but with new levels? Count me the motherfroggin in! The game was a blast and I played it obsessively, mastering each and every level till I could do them in my sleep. Looking back on DKL now, I’ve realized one thing: I was a stupid, naïve kid. Donkey Kong Land sucks.
Let’s start with the graphics, as that’s the first thing you see when booting up DKL. It looks like someone took the graphics from Donkey Kong Country, chewed them up, drank a gallon of green Gatorade and then vomited the whole mess onto a monochromatic NES. Does it look like Donkey Kong? Sure, if you were near-sighted and smashed on cheap whiskey. Everything is either green or really dark green. The sky is green, the trees are green, the water is green, the ground is green, even the snow is green, which I think might be worse than yellow. The animations are choppy and jittery as well, so gauging jump & roll timing can be difficult.
Now if the game just looked ugly but played good, I might forgive it. Sadly, Donkey Kong Land plays about as well as it looks. If you go back to Donkey Kong Country on the Snes you’ll find that it still plays pretty solid. It might be a bit looser than Mario or Castlevania, but it’s consistent and the physics work. In Donkey Kong Land the physics are either drunk or broken. The jump feels slow and weighty, like DK is jumping through molasses on Jupiter. If that wasn’t bad enough the roll is also unreliable, especially when trying to execute the “Roll Jump” which, as anyone who’s played Donkey Kong knows, is crucial to beat some of the trickier platforming sections. In fact, I’d go so far to say as the Roll Jump is all but broken in DKL. Collision detection is also scattershot; when you jump on a Kremling’s head or face, if you’re a few pixels off, it’s a coin toss whether they die or you wind up on your back, scratching your stupid green monkey head.
The Gameboy’s tiny screen is also not suited to a game with such large sprites as the camera often has to move at breakneck speeds to keep DK within frame, which can get very disorienting. DKL also borrows an obnoxious trend from various other 8-bit platformers in that vertical levels have an ever-encroaching “death-line.” Every time you jump higher up into the level, the platforms below you disappear from view and immediately become instant death should you fall. This is in stark contrast to the console DKC games where if you fell from a vertically oriented level, you just had to climb back up.
Then there’s another thing; something that really sharpies my cartridges. It has to do with how the game saves your progress. In Donkey Kong Land, you are able to save your game after each level (a vast improvement from its console brother which made you clear several levels before finding a an oddly sexualized gorilla “kissing booth” to save), HOWEVER, there is one giant caveat to this progressive saving mechanic: in order to save after you complete a level, you had to have collected all four KONG letters in that level. ARE. YOU. FUNKING. SERIOUS. In order to save your progress in a game, you have to FIND A BUNCH OF HIDDEN COLLECTIBLES?!?! WHY?!? There’s no logical reason for this. This would be like preventing you from saving in Super Mario World unless you collected all the Yoshi Coins. It makes absolutely no sense. Saving should be a God given right, not an unlockable feature.
So in case you skipped this entire “review/rant” Donkey Kong Land was an ambitious handheld “port” of Donkey Kong Country that ultimately failed at almost everything. It couldn’t even save itself.