Monday 9 May 2011

Donkey Kong Land

In 1989 Nintendo released the Game Boy to explore new lands. And explore new lands it did. It found Mario Lands, Wario Lands, Kirby's Dream Lands, and a Game Boy continent was formed.

Perhaps the most interesting of the lands on the Game Boy contintent are the Donkey Kong Lands. The world is divided on whether they're a top class representation of Game Boy brilliance or an insult to human eyesight. Either way it's fair to say they weren't the most upmarket of places to live.

Donkey Kong Land was developed by Rare in 1995 and is predictably based on their successful Donkey Kong Country, released earlier for the SNES the year before. Donkey Kong Land serves to be the "Game Boy equivalent", as was the style at the time. In the early 1990s not much was expected from handhelds, so it's difficult to know how big of a deal Donkey Kong Land was if you weren't there. I was there and I'm not even sure, though I don't recall handheld gaming being a big thing for us until Pokémon came along.

Unlike the SNES game which can be looked back on with happy memories, Donkey Kong Land has the unfortunate curse of four shades of grey (or murky green), inherited from the Game Boy's hardware. Despite its yellow cartridge, time has generally not been kind to the Donkey Kong Land. If you're uninformed you may simply treat it as a port of the SNES game, so will wonder why you should care about it in 2011 when the SNES "original" is easier to obtain.

It's not a straight port but it's not surprising people feel this way. Rare, perhaps not on their greatest form, chose to downscale the vibrant, cutting edge, 3D pre-rendered graphics from the SNES's Donkey Kong Country to a small screen capable only of four shades of grey. The conversion is not easy on the eyes - the majority of the detail is lost and almost everything is in danger of blending in with their surroundings. Because it makes no attempt to play to the Game Boy's strengths and so much is recycled from the SNES game, the only way to notice a difference in design is to sit down and play the game... which you might not be inspired to do if all you've seen are screenshots.

But I can't bring myself to knock Donkey Kong Land's odd choice of graphics too much. Despite its shortcomings it still strikes me a remarkable achievement for considering we're knocking off 252 palette entries from their SNES counterparts. It looks like Donkey Kong Country even though science and maths say it shouldn't, and it's a shot in the foot for anyone who said that Donkey Kong Country was only capable of providing entertainment on Nintendo's 16-bit home console.

Of course, that didn't stop me from turning Super Game Boy mode on. There are minimal benefits from the SNES attachment, but it does bring a bit of colour to the world. For the best experience, you're better off going with the Game Boy Color/Advance (which, by applying different palettes to sprites and backgrounds, makes the game easy to see), but every option is generally a better than using the original brick or its monochrome cousins.

Graphics aside, Donkey Kong Land is actually a fairly nice, fully functioning Donkey Kong Country-style platformer which plays just as well as its SNES counterpart. You can't effectively fault the gameplay if you enjoy the SNES outings', as it's almost identical and a good proportion of the features carry through. The biggest omission is the ability to have two Kongs on screen at once, which though doesn't effect Donkey Kong Land that much, does stub Donkey Kong Land 2 and 3's growth. But I'm not reviewing those today.

There is just one area which doesn't float my boat when it comes to visuals and that's the reduced screen resolution, making it slightly more difficult to see what's ahead of you. I would say this ruins the game more than the choice in graphics, and the same can be said to many Game Boy (and Game Gear) games of the era. The combination of big sprites and fast gameplay don't gel well on these older systems - you simply can't see what's coming and death is inevitable, which means you have to be conservative with that run button.

Is this the best Donkey Kong Land game? Difficult to say. Donkey Kong Lands 2 and 3 had chance to improve and the third performs very well on the SNES' Super Game Boy attachment (thus eliminating part of the graphical concerns). However, 2 and 3 simply recycle ideas from the SNES series and make no contributions of their own, and this, to me, makes them lesser products. Donkey Kong Land has exclusive areas, such as levels set in a city, pirate ship extensions, flying pig enemies and some new music. True, there's more similarities with Donkey Kong Country than differences, but there has clearly been effort here to make it more unique.

Donkey Kong Land's main concern from my perspective is a lack of polish. It's understandable that we can't see two Kongs on-screen at once, but the general atmosphere of the game feels hastily thrown together and unfinished. Bonus levels sometimes take place in entirely different settings to that of the main levels. The fact that some enemies simply look like blobs of grey to users who were not accustomed to the SNES game (or the instruction manual). It doesn't seem to explain itself as well as the SNES game - it just assumes you know what's going on and throws surprisingly difficult levels at you. Though it is worth noting it has multiple paths, so it's less linear than the SNES attempt.

On the original Game Boy, transitions are jerky. Odd elements from Donkey Kong Country such as the fact no sound or music is triggered when a character falls down a pit are carried over... and feel even more out of place because we don't have "ambiance" as a substitute. The framerate struggles to remain consistent. It's just one of those games that feels as if it's missing something important, even if perhaps it isn't.

In a modern world, Donkey Kong Land looks and sounds dated, but there's no denying it puts up a challenge and delivers a very solid Donkey Kong Country-esque experience. Donkey Kong Land, to me, is a game worth caring about. If you want a game to ignore try the Game Boy Color port of Donkey Kong Country, as unless you're a fan of fishing that really does trade on novelty value alone these days

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