Friday 8 March 2019

SNES Review - Donkey Kong Country 3 (Game 178)

Released during the SNES’ dying days, many considered ‘Donkey Kong Country 3’ to be the low point in a dazzling series. But while the time of its launch and the shadow of earlier games may have effected critical opinion at the time, is ‘Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble’ worth re-playing today?

Developed by Rare
Published by Nintendo
Released in 1996

In theory, sequels to games should always be better. Developers have heard what critics and players think of their earlier games and therefore know what to do to improve upon them. Video game follow ups, particularly on retro consoles, have traditionally been refinements rather than reinventions. Keeping what works, abandoning what didn’t and adding new gameplay mechanics and ideas to keep the gaming feeling fresh. However, popular series seem to stumble on the third game.  ‘Mega Man 2’, ‘Resident Evil 2’, ‘Monkey Island 2: Le Chucks Revenge’, ‘Street Fighter II’, ‘Sonic the Hedgehog 2’, ‘Tomb Raider II’, ‘Silent Hill 2’, ‘Streets of Rage 2’, ‘The Sims 2’ and ‘Worms 2’ are often considered the best in their series, despite them all having later follow ups. Players it seems  will tolerate one sequel that perfects a successful idea. However beyond that, familiarity starts to breed contempt. As Game Pro magazine said “some cynics may have a "been there, beat that" attitude”, “there’s only so much of the same we can take” added Total! Magazine.

The game they were both referring to was ‘Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble’. As a third entry in a ludicrously popular series, developer Rare should have had a guaranteed hit on their hands. The original ‘Donkey KongCountry’ was celebrated for its incredible visuals. Many confused its pre-rendered character sprites with real-time 3D models and became convinced that early previews for the game was showing off Nintendo’s next hardware iteration. Of course the N64 was infamously delayed but when it was finally released in 1996, it’s flagship game ‘Super Mario 64’ changed the platform game genre for ever. So when rare and Nintendo released ‘Donkey Kong Country 3’ for the Super NES two months after the launch of this phenomenal Nintendo 64 game, what was once considered jaw dropping now looked tragically dated. With ‘Mario 64’, rather than simulated 3D characters, players could actually manipulate a real one within an actual three dimensional landscape. While the series had been a Nintendo cornerstone just a couple of years earlier, by 1996 ‘Donkey Kong Country 3’ felt like a flat outdated afterthought. Gamers had experienced the z-axis, and so just moving a character left, right, up and down felt restrictive. With the double whammy of series fatigue and new technology making their pioneering visuals look irrelevant, Rare clearly felt the need to change things up for their Super Nintendo swan song. The problem is that their changes to a winning formula  weakened the game and further put off potential players. 

Like its predecessor, ‘Donkey Kong Country 3’ shuffles the playable cast. It brings back fan favourite Dixie Kong from the second game, but the mistake was paring her with the simian toddler Kiddy Kong. Considering the title of the game, Donkey Kong’s absence was noticed in  the first sequel. However fans seemed to forgive it because Diddy Kong was quirky and charming enough to carry the game on his own. His speed and agility made him most people’s choice in the first game anyway, and with Dixie by his side, players of the second game essentially got an even better version; someone fast, nimble and with the ability to glide.  With weight and strength, Kiddy Kong plays similar to Donkey Kong in the first game, so in many ways this third game is a return to the character dynamics of the original ‘Donkey Kong Country’. However, this frankly bizarre looking baby character is far less endearing than the tie wearing DK. In the previous two games Rare had expanded the Kong family in all sorts of unexpected ways with mixed results. Cranky Kong was crowd pleasing with his nostalgia for video games past, but the sexualised Candy Kong and the trying-too-hard Funky Kong were considered, by many, to be embarrassing. On practically every fan forum discussing the game, the hatred for Kiddy is obvious.
“Kiddy just brings the whole thing down” said one user while another agreed adding "Kiddy is an abomination”.  Although no source is given, a different forum user claimed that “Rare said Kiddy was designed as a character nobody would like enough to want a spin off for him”. This idea is somewhat questionable though as deliberately limiting their franchise’s potential growth would be an odd choice for a developer to make. Regardless, the internet as a whole seems to agree that it was Kiddy’s design, rather than his abilities that caused upset. “Let’s have this right, no wants to play as an Ape in a diaper”, “I get scared seeing his face on the box”. The first game showed that a small light fast character paired with a stronger heavier partner works, indeed in more recent games like ‘Donkey Kong Country : Tropical Freeze’ this is the typical combination .  The problem was players just didn’t want the heavier character to be Kiddy. “Personally it should have been Donkey with Dixie. Kiddie Kong is just a discount Donkey Kong. I did not mind the rest of the game though.”

Putting aside an undesirable playable character, the actual gameplay offered in ‘Donkey Kong Country 3’ is, for the most part, fantastic. It’s sees further refinement of the core mechanics introduced in 'Donkey Kong Country' and builds on the improvements added in the sequel. Fans of the series know what to expect. There’s a great deal of platform jumping, vine swinging and  barrel throwing. True to it’s predecessors there’s also levels where you control a vehicle hurtling along a track and have to swim through a labyrinth. Across the 8 worlds and 48 levels the Kong duo will also encounter animal buddies. Returning favourites include Enguarde the swordfish, Squitter the spider and Squawks the parrot. However they’re also accompanied by new animals including Ellie the elephant, who can suck up water and spray it enemies, and Parry the "parallel bird", who flies directly above the player collecting items. I’ve always enjoyed seeing Donkey Kong riding animals but as this was removed in the first sequel it’s also missing in this game. Instead you have direct control, improving precision at the cost of charm.
The boss battles of course return and they’re larger and more complex than the previous two games, typically demanding that environments are used against them. Gone are the days when you simply do battle with an enlarged version of a standard level enemy, the bosses in ‘Dixie’s Double Trouble’ are the most varied and diverse in the series so far. However, as the bosses are more imposing they’re also harder to beat, indeed ‘Donkey Kong Country 3’ is the most challenging game in an already notoriously difficult series. Frustratingly many deaths are unavoidable, with  enemies appearing without warning. While the game should be applauded for continually introducing new stage gimmicks, several stages are simply arbitrarily cruel. For example
The Lightning Look-Out stage features instant kill electricity strikes that appear every two seconds anywhere on the screen. Then of course there’s the Poisoned Pond polluted water stage with its backwards controls. But these pale in comparison to the brutal Swoopy Salvo, where fast moving birds must be jumped on continually to reach the top of a tree trunk. Tragically, none of these stages are actually fun to play. You don’t even feel a sense of satisfaction for finishing them, just relief that they’re behind you. 

Another change in the third ‘Donkey Kong Country’ is the emphasis on exploration instead of a straightforward level progression. Unlike the previous installments where the over-world map only served to show the next sequential level, in ‘Donkey Kong Country 3’  players navigate a larger locale, with no defined routes. “Previous ‘DKC’ games had players running willy nilly all over poorly rendered background” wrote Kotaku’s Ben Bertoli. “The path was only clear because the game literally drew you a line to your next level. ‘Double Trouble’ makes the map environment part of the story and not simply a pretty backdrop.”

Map progression through the game unlocks additional areas, but while it does give the game a larger scope it also feels tacked on and somewhat unnecessary. With so many of the gimmicks there’s a lingering feeling that developer Rare really didn't want to repeat themselves and made changes through compulsion rather than need. 

Perhaps because the second game was so varied, this third entry feels less  novel and original. Snow levels, mechanical stages and wooded sections may now play differently but they’ve all been done before in the previous two games. As Eurogamer noted in a retrospective review “this is an exercise in reworking the same elements and going through the motions in the process. They're fun and well designed motions, yes, but motions all the same.”

The Canada-like setting is attractive but it certainly isn’t as engaging as the pirate ships of ‘Diddy Kong’s Quest’. Perhaps as a nod to the Great White North, Dixie and Kiddy will meet a number of Bears on their journey. The Brother Bears can be found in each world of the Northern Kremisphere and they aide the player by providing tips and offering useful items. Some items must be purchased with Bear Coins that can be found scattered throughout the levels. Much like the previous game, ‘Donkey Kong Country 3’ features a bounty of collectibles and once all are found and a 103% total is reached a final small area unlocks. Along side the Bear Coins are Bonus Tokens, different coloured Bananas, DK Coins, various Life Balloons, Cogs, Banana Birds, Kong Letters and Stars. Each serve a slightly different purpose but collectively they’re overwhelming. I am usually a player who enjoys hunting for hidden secrets but when there’s so much to find it quickly feels like a chore. Rare’s more, more, more, attitude has made the game alienating and perhaps this is indicative of the new less experienced development team trying to trump what their forebears had done. 

Although directed by industry legend Tim Stamper, ‘Donkey Kong Country 3’ was developed alongside ‘BlastCorps’ and ‘Golden Eye’. More experienced developers had moved onto the Nintendo 64 projects with original ‘Donkey Kong Country’ lead designer Gregg Mayles now busy directing ‘Banjo Kazooie’. Instead Paul Weaver took on development duties for ‘Donkey Kong Country 3’. “[It was] My first development role in the games industry” Weaver admits. “it was a golden era for the company during that time, working closely with Nintendo learning closely from them how they design games.”

One of the greatest losses to the game was David Wise’s reduced involvement. The soundtracks this applauded composer created for the first two games have been celebrated for decades. Composer Eveline Novakovic (nee Fischer) was certainly a fan of Wise’s work. “David’s underwater music in ‘DKC’ was a revelation to me, it was a perfect example of music and SNES working together.” She has done a valiant attempt at replicating Wise’s style in ‘Donkey Kong Country 3’ but the magic seems missing and the end result is a soundtrack that is pleasing but forgettable. As Novakovic notes “I always wrote instinctively and my style tended to lean towards the atmospheric [...]  Writing in the early days was a steep learning curve though, catchy didn’t come easily to me”. Tellingly David Wise re-wrote the game’s soundtrack for the GBA port. 

However, while the SNES’ ‘Dixie’s Double Trouble’ may have had inferior music, the game’s visuals were certainly a series high point. Once again, it utilised the same Silicon Graphics (SGI) and Advanced Computer Modelling (ACM) rendering technology as its predecessors, but this game benefited from two years worth of technique refinement.  As a reviewer for Next Generation magazine noticed  "the graphics seem crisper and more detailed than even the already impressive look featured in ‘Donkey Kong Country 2’”. Arguably ‘Donkey Kong  Country 3’ pushed the SNES as far as it could go.  While the game shows just how much the ageing machine could do, many at the time were adamant that the visuals looked dated compared to the next generation of consoles.

The ‘Donkey Kong County’ series had seen diminishing returns year on year: the second game sold half as many units as the original and the third in the series only managed a third of the first’s total sales. Players, it seems, had become weary of buying such similar games. That being said, ‘Donkey Kong country 3’ still managed to shift 3,510,000 units. Despite its perceived failure, the “worst ‘DKC’ game ever” still outsold ‘Star Fox’, ‘F Zero’ and ‘Final FantasyVI’. 

You have to wonder how well ‘Dixie’s Double Trouble’ would have sold with a different, more appealing, character on the box. With a new console on the horizon, to guarantee sales Rare needed to utilise its main players; be that characters in the game or developers behind the scenes. The novelty of the stunning visuals had expired and without the talent ‘Donkey Kong Country 3’ was always going to suffer. With its enviable legacy, it was inevitable that this third game would be compared to what’s come before and it simply doesn’t measure up. However judged on its own merits its still a tremendous, if occasionally frustrating, platform game. It offers gameplay that is perhaps more enjoyable than the majority of the early releases on the N64. 

Players may have considered it dated at the time, but looking back now it looks and plays so much better than early polygon games on 64bit machines. The series may have hit its peak with ‘Diddy’s Kong Quest’ but ‘Donkey Kong Country 3’ was a fantastic last hurrah for the SNES.

Where did I get this game from?
Like so many games on my shelves, ‘Doneky Kong Country 3’ was given to me by a very generous friend in America. It’s sat unplayed on the shelf for too long, but it’s always had a well deserved place in my collection. 

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