Donkey Kong Country was released in 1994 for the Super Nintendo. It was developed by Rare, and was the first entry to make Donkey Kong his own standalone hero instead of a Mario villain. It was hailed as a gameplay and graphical masterpiece, utilizing pre-rendered CGI models to give a faux-3D look to the 2D game. However, for as impressive these CGI models were, they pushed the limits of realness closer to the border of uncanny.
Many of the things that made Donkey Kong Country so great were also things that made it down right spooky. Join us on a trip through the jungle as we reminisce on the things that made us wonder if 3D gaming was all it was hyped to be.
The defining fright from Donkey Kong Country was without a doubt its game over screen. It features the two Kongs, bruised and beaten, standing in a dark void with eerie music playing. It’s a punishing experience, especially considering the challenge level of the game. The bright front lighting of the Kongs’ render makes it look like they’re in a bright spotlight, highlighting their failure.
Stop & Go Station
Stop & Go Station is the fourth level in the Monkey Mines area, and possibly the scariest level in the entire game. It takes place in one of the Monkey Mines’s shafts, and features a unique gimmick. The only enemy (besides a few Klaptraps) are Rockkrocks, invulnerable Kremlings who cannot be defeated by any means. The only way to stop them is with the Stop and Go barrels, special barrels that control the mine’s lighting system. The mine is lit up with green lights: when a Stop and Go barrel is touched by the player, the mine lights turn red and the Rockkrocks curl up in a fetal position, allowing you to avoid them for a time.
The entire level is bathed in unusual colored light. By default, it is a sickly green, and when you touch the Stop and Go barrel it will briefly turn red. This eerie color scheme adds a layer of mystery to the level, turning the ordinary Donkey Kong Country aesthetic into one of fear and horror. The invincible Rockkrocks are even worse – when the light is on, they move back and forth across the screen at incredible speed and cannot be stopped. When it’s red, they hunch down and hide their faces in apparent fear.
There are five different bosses in Donkey Kong Country, and three of them are absolutely terrifying. These three are sized up versions of common enemies, but each one is so different from their normal counterparts that they turn right into scare levels. The first is Very Gnawty, an oversized Gnawty. This enormous beaver is the first boss in the game and sets the tone for the rest of them.
You fight in an enormous dark room filled to the brim with bananas. The boss fight itself is straightforward: avoid getting jumped on while you jump on him. This isn’t that hard, but the eerie atmosphere and strange, droning boss fight music make it more than a little unnerving.
The next boss is even more frightening. Master Necky is, like how Very Gnawty is an oversized Gnawty, an oversized Necky vulture. But to leave it at that is a disservice – Master Necky is apparently so large, that we can only see his head poking out of the sides of the screen. This enormous, pink, fleshy bird head spits coconuts at our fair Kongs while they must leap upon a rubber tire to jump high enough to hit him. It takes place in the same dark banana-void as the last one, too, with the same terrible drone music.
The third boss is perhaps the scariest off them all. She is Queen B., an enormous Zinger hornet. The Zinger enemies, with their spiky backs and creepy bee buzzes, are scary enough already. Taking one of them and tripling it in size is an excellent way to traumatize kids for life! She’s also possibly the hardest of the bosses, with an erratic flight pattern making it difficult to fight her. The only way to hurt her is to throw barrels at her, and when she is hit she turns red and flies around the screen at great speed! For a young child this was overwhelming enough to shut off the game.
The next few bosses aren’t of much scare factor – Dumb Drum is an enormous oil drum that spawns common enemies, and Really Gnawty and Master Necky Snr. are just recolors of the first two bosses. It’s the final boss that puts the fright level back to where it belongs: King K. Rool himself.
King K. Rool isn’t a complicated battle, but it’s a challenging one that takes good reflexes. He’ll throw his crown at you, giving you a chance to jump on your head if you dodge it, and then rush across the screen to the other side. The music is even a charming little sea shanty, just to keep the mood light! But shortly after the fight begins, the music abruptly changes to the real and much more intense boss theme.
Once you’ve managed to hit him a few times, he’ll summon difficult to avoid cannonballs from the top of the screen, and then throw his crown again. Once you’ve hit him seven times, he falls down defeated and the credits roll.
Wrong. It was a Kremling ruse! He rises back up, a terrifying surprise to any kid playing this for the first time. You’ve got to work quick and hit him three more times as he rushes back and forth across the screen. As a child, this is an enormous fright to think that the game was over and have it pulled out from your grip. Yes, the credits are pretty easy to see through, but as a little kid you’d just think that they were supposed to be funny.
After the fact…
Donkey Kong Country is still considered to be one of the best games for the Super Nintendo, and one of the best games that Rare has ever produced. It’s still a gold standard of the 2D platformer genre, and its graphical advancements set a new precedent for 2D games thereon. Some people are so bold as to claim it’s one of the greatest video games ever made. But for all the praise lavished upon it, we who played it as children will never forget the pure fear the game could generate.