Retro Review: Donkey Kong Land (Game Boy) – NichePlays

Released in 1995 for the Nintendo Game Boy, Donkey Kong Land is a 2D platformer that serves as the first follow up to the Super Nintendo’s Donkey Kong Country. Developed by Rare, the game does the seemingly Herculean task of recreating the visuals and gameplay found in its SNES counterpart on Nintendo’s significantly weaker 8-bit hardware.

Donkey Kong Land follows DK and Diddy, but not that Diddy, Kong on an adventure to rescue their banana horde after King K Rool has stolen their banana horde, following an argument with Cranky Kong as to whether or not Donkey Kong Country was a good game or something kids enjoyed due to it’s fancy graphics.

That’s really the plot. Like, it’s in the manual and everything.

In a lot of ways, the game’s extremely self-aware plot more or less says everything that needs to be said about it. Fresh off the success of the original Donkey Kong Country and how it was essentially designed around shutting down claims that the SNES was becoming outdated, it’s  kinda hard not to imagine that Nintendo basically just told Rare to do the same thing on the Game Boy for the same exact reason.

Ya know, or else.

Upon it’s release, Donkey Kong Land received some fairly positive reviews from critics, who more or less agreed that it was extremely ambitious for something on Nintendo’s 8-bit hardware. The game would go on to receive two direct sequels on the Game Boy, along with a number of other sequels in the form of the other Donkey Kong Country games.

While I didn’t exactly grow up with the Donkey Kong Country games, outside of Donkey Kong 64 and a copy of DK Land 2 on a bootleg multicart that I had as a kid, I’ve always loved the character and have had a ton of respect for the series.

In fact, in the weeks leading up to and throughout the entirety of the pandemic, I actually found myself getting really into the series. I distinctly remember walking to my job at my old office in Manhattan and listening to the DKC soundtrack regularly, I remember streaming my first playthrough of Donkey Kong Country to my friends once a week before we’d record our old podcast and I even remember metaphorically devouring everything I could about the development of the series on YouTube.

As far as I’m concerned, the original Donkey Kong Country trilogy stands as one of the best platformer trilogies of all time, which makes Nintendo’s and Rares’ mutual decision to more or less try to recreate the game on the Game Boy a bit of a no-brainer.

But… Does it hold up?

Because while the idea of putting your hit new impressive work of technical mastery on a handheld certainly sounds like a good idea, it also kinda sounds like a recipe for disaster too. And while Donkey Kong Land was certainly well received back in the day, I’m relatively curious as to whether or not the first Donkey Kong Land game can justify it’s existence as a pseudo-demake (and I’ll explain why I consider it that soon, I promise)… When I could just play Donkey Kong Country on the go now.

And that’s not intended to be a knock on this game or anything; it’s just that I think that’s a relatively valid question to ask when this sub-series was conceived to give players some of that console action on the go. And I think this is a question that’s especially worth asking nowadays since Nintendo would go on to release actual ports of DKC on the Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance a few years later, and even gave Nintendo Switch Online users access to the full DKC trilogy in 2020.

Gameplay

While I think it’d be noble to simply review Donkey Kong Land on it’s own merits, I feel as though doing so would probably fail to adequately cover and discuss things. So, in order to review this game, I’m probably gonna compare it to Donkey Kong Country quite a bit, due to its status as a pseudo-conversion of the title. And while this feels a bit unfair due to the fact that DKC runs on significantly more powerful hardware, I feel like it needs to be done in order to properly contextualize Donkey Kong Land and where many of its faults lay. However, I’d just like to state from now that this doesn’t necessarily mean that I dislike the game or am gonna try to  take easy shots at it for being what it is. I just feel like the game openly invites these comparisons by design.

I mean it’s the literal plot of the game.

Donkey Kong Land takes place across four different worlds that can be navigated through via a world map. As an adaptation of Donkey Kong Country, the gameplay similarly revolves around navigating DK and Diddy to the end of the stage in order to move onto the next one. And, just like in DKC, this leads to carefully needing to navigate tricky platforming challenges, going head to head with Kremlings, and collecting bananas along the way to score extra lives.

Which you’ll wanna horde by the way, as you’ll be dying a lot in this game.


At first glance, it’s Donkey Kong Country through and through, with the game even going as far as to use the exact same assets as the ones used in the Super Nintendo original. And while that’s basically true, or was at least the idea behind the game itself, it wasn’t long before I started to notice some of the cracks starting to show for the game.

You see, while Donkey Kong Country is “just a 2D platformer,” it also happens to have been one of the most technically advanced ones to ever make it to the SNES. And I’m not even talking about the visuals here, though I’ll get to them eventually, I mean that the actual gameplay itself had a decent amount going on under the hood that, unfortunately, the Game Boy counterpart just kinda lacks.


Among the many things that really helped the original DKC stand out from its contemporaries was the way that the game feels. While nowhere near as fast paced as something like Sonic the Hedgehog, Donkey Kong Country still has a certain momentum and inertia to its gameplay that feels extremely unique. And Donkey Kong Land, on the other hand, doesn’t really play quite as fast or smoothly as you’d probably want it to.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the way the game plays, I guess, but it often just ends up feeling like more of an approximation of the real thing, as opposed to a straight up facsimile.

Still, the fact that the game runs at all is really impressive, especially given how well it runs for a title on the original Game Boy. You can basically do everything you’d want to do in a Donkey Kong Country game here, from rolling, jumping, and switching between Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong respectively; it’s just that each of these things feel a little compromised. 

Even something as minute as the way you switch characters feels a bit off in the game. Whereas you can always tell that you have an extra hitpoint on the Super Nintendo version of the game by whether or not you have another character next to you on screen, Donkey Kong Land has them pop in and out of existence to switch places with you whenever you hit the select button or get hit. And while this doesn’t really mean anything in the grand scheme of things, it’s still pretty weird. I mean, collecting an extra hit from a DK barrel in this game almost makes their rescue look like an act of rapture or something thanks to how they get whisked into the sky.

It seriously looks like a scene straight out of This Is The End.

Which happens to be a Seth Rogan movie and makes casting him as Donkey Kong feel weirdly appropriate.

Huh.

However, some of these compromises are a pretty hard pill to swallow. While using your roll to kill enemies usually feels pretty awesome in the Donkey Kong Country series, it kinda feels a little pitiful and clumsy in this game by comparison. Popping into a roll near a Kremling will get the job done, sure, but something about the distance traveled in that roll and how it trips up your momentum doesn’t feel right and usually leaves me unsure as to whether or not I’ll actually hit my enemy. Because of that, I noticed that I started to avoid using the roll whenever I was dealing with enemies, because it just didn’t feel like a reliable way to deal with them.

And while jumping on enemies certainly feels better than rolling into them, I still feel like it leaves a bit to be desired. Something about going from a run to a jump feels stiff and makes it kinda hard to judge how far you’ll get off of one of your jumps.

It’s perfectly functional, but just doesn’t feel right… Like cooking naked or going to watch Netflix at your day job… naked.

Despite these issues though, Donkey Kong Land isn’t all doom and gloom; it’s also… a game.

Earlier in the video, I said that I considered the game a pseudo-demake of Donkey Kong Country for handhelds, and I largely believe that to be accurate. This is because the game apparently runs on the same engine that was used on DKC only cut back and, ya know, Game-Boy-ified. And while the game does use a lot of the same assets from the SNES game as a jumping off point, it’s exactly that. A jumping off point. The game actually features a ton of new level designs and layouts that, while heavily influenced by Donkey Kong Country in theme and construction, are actually pretty well thought out and designed. In a lot of ways, the game is a lot like what we’d consider DLC these days — it’s literally just more DKC. 

And honestly, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. If anything, the decision to make this game more of an adaptation or remix of the original as opposed to a clearcut conversion of it probably helps justify this games existence in the modern era, and also helped a great deal with optimizing the game for the hardware.

While I wouldn’t call these levels revelatory by any stretch of the word, they mostly work well on the Game Boy’s limited screen space and minimize the usual portable platformer issue of screen crunch by featuring layouts that remove most of the risks associated with it. There’s definitely still a helpful smattering of screen crunch and poor enemy placement because of it on display here, but it generally shows a level of care from Rare that I really appreciate.

And yet, some of these levels are also just rough. For example, the last world in the game features these tiny platforms that can be a total pain to jump onto and also has these straight-up awful cloud levels that really tested my patience. I know the minecart levels in the DKC series usually get some grief from fans of the franchise but pound for pound, I think these levels are way worse.

Oh, don’t bother with the minecart stuff. Just throw in some really slow levels in the sky or something instead.

Again though, I am ultimately glad that Rare decided to give this game new levels as opposed to just rehashing the original. While they could’ve just tossed the original Donkey Kong Country on a Game Boy cart with some shorter levels and modified content, this really does feel like an expansion pack to the original more than anything. And like, they did eventually port DKC to the Game Boy Color too, so that’s also a thing if you want it. 

“Are you free to do this again in a couple of years for incrementally better software?”

While none of these levels really stood out as being particularly noteworthy, and despite the fact that the gameplay itself leaves a bit to be desired for me, Donkey Kong Land is still a pretty fun game.

It’s just a shame that it’s on the Game Boy.

Visuals

Don’t get me wrong, I love the original Game Boy, but it was honestly just barely up to the task of getting this game working on it. Even though the original Donkey Kong Country may look relatively simple by today’s standards, there’s denying that trying to recreate that art on the go was a tall order. And while it’s really, really impressive that this game uses the same assets as the ones found in the Super Nintendo game… Is it really worth it?

There’s no denying that it was a miracle to get the game running this well on such limited hardware, but I just can’t shake the feeling that Rare would’ve been better off creating new sprites that would’ve made this game a bit easier on the eyes, as opposed to dropping their assets’ bitrate to zero and dragging the contrast up to “dude, no.”

As is though, Donkey Kong Land kinda looks like somebody deep fried their Donkey Kong game. While you can make out what’s going on fairly well in some levels, a good number of them just come across as a grayscale mess of pixels that can be pretty hard to find your place in. Not to mention, trying to differentiate between the stage backgrounds and the platforms you’re supposed to jump onto can be pretty rough at multiple points in the game, which can often lead to some fairly confusing deaths.

And that’s while you’re playing this game on something like an emulator or a device with a backlit screen. 


As for playing this thing on the actual hardware it was released for… Yikes.

Without stating the obvious about how trying to play, well, nearly anything on the original Game Boy can be a bit rough, the biggest issue with playing Donkey Kong Land this way is how the good ol’ DMG 1’s dark and ghosty screen impacts the visuals. Because wow, if you thought that trying to process some of this games’ busier screens on a more modern display was hard, trying to make sense of them on a Game Boy is outright impossible.

During my playthrough, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that there was way too much going on here to work on the Game Boy and that, while issues like flicker and slowdown were either few and far between or straight up non-existent, things never really came together for me visually due to the art style.

Which is really weird, because I’m genuinely obsessed with Donkey Kong Country’s early CG art style. 

I think my main issue with it in this game is that the Game Boy just doesn’t do the artstyle any compliments. Part of what makes that early CGI art look so great on the SNES is, aside from the obvious answer of a higher resolution, the highly saturated use of color alongside it.

Which is something that the Game Boy clearly can’t emulate, what with it only being able to render like 4 shades of gray. Or technically puke-green. And I realize that I can’t really blame Rare for the way this game looks due to the hardware, especially since I’m still convinced they were held at gunpoint to make this game, but I can point out that the visuals were by far the most disappointing aspect of this game for me.

And like I said earlier, the visuals are impressive from a technical standpoint. They just don’t work for me in motion and I would’ve preferred simpler visuals for the sake of clarity and function above all else  

Music

One area where Donkey Kong Land totally shines though is in it’s music. The game rearranges some tunes from its console counterpart to great effect, while also mixing in some new originals and genuinely stands as the perfect compliment to the 16-bit version that the rest of this game wanted to be.

Listening to songs like Aquatic Ambience, DK Island Swing or Gang-Plan Galleon in 8-bit form are a treat, and the game’s originals are also really well done and complement the adventure.

Something about these demakes just sounds right, and genuinely goes to show that stripping the high quality samples and layered stereo sound of the SNES original to its bare bones could work when done with care.

Donkey Kong Land’s soundtrack is, by far, the highlight of the game for me. While I don’t see myself listening to the Game Boy’s versions of some of DKC’s music over the originals, I really enjoyed listening to them while I played through the game. In fact, the quality of the soundtrack probably helped keep me engaged with the game for far longer than I would’ve been otherwise. Even though the Game Boy’s sound capabilities are infamously… well, bad, Donkey Kong Land’s soundtrack stands as one of my favorite ones on the console and is worth checking out .

Closing

So does Donkey Kong Land hold up? 

[crickets]

Uh, no. Not really.

While I do think that the game is honestly pretty good, there’s no denying that it’s also fairly rough around the edges. And while it may have been easier to overlook those faults back in the 90s, these issues have been compounded somewhat by the ability to play the, frankly superior, Donkey Kong Country portably on stuff like the Nintendo Switch or any modern emulation handheld.

Still, Donkey Kong Land is a fun game, with serviceable level design, ambitious graphics, and a genuinely fantastic soundtrack. It’s just that these qualities aren’t enough to make it worth playing these days due to how held back the game feels thanks to the hardware it was released on. 

That said, if you’re a fan of the DKC games and either haven’t played through this one before, or are looking to mix things up a bit while still getting in some classic Rare platforming goodness, the game is readily available on the 3DS virtual console and is relatively cheap on the second hand market. 

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