Donkey Kong Country turned 25 years old on November 21. I waited until yesterday to stream it on Kotaku’s Twitch channel, because to me, Donkey Kong Country’s release date isn’t as important as the fact that I first played it on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.
My 25-years-ago memories of binge-playing Donkey Kong Country owe a lot to the sense of freedom a high-schooler feels upon facing a five-day weekend. Arriving exactly when it did both in my life and in the history of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Donkey Kong Country was a five-day weekend of a video game.
It represented a Western developer reimagining a classic Nintendo franchise. It was full of bizarre quote-unquote humor whose otherworldly hamminess I yet lacked the perspective to consider British. Its manual contained first-person segments narrated by Cranky Kong, an aging ape who laments the simplicity of ancient games. The meta-narrative of its instruction manual alone convinced 15-year-old me that Donkey Kong Country was a meaningful new chapter in the video game history book.
Furthermore, for months, my favourite video game magazines had loudly repeated the fact that the developers had used the same computers used to make the dinosaurs in the film Jurassic Park.
Donkey Kong Country, from a technological viewpoint alone, represented the next step in the evolution of the video game medium.
I binge-played Donkey Kong Country with a feverish desperation. I didn’t realise it at the time, though Donkey Kong Country might have represented the pilot episode of an ongoing series in which I, for 25 years, cling to my youth.
At the time, my youth was also clinging to me – literally. When I booted up Donkey Kong Country for that first time in November of 1994, I was wearing the Donkey Kong Country preorder T-shirt. It was a hideous T-shirt. I’d worn it outside exactly once. It was the sort of shirt where even the kid who raised his hand in calculus class would yell at you if you wore it near him. (I speak from experience.)
Two years ago, in a video I made about Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, I included a little on-camera segment in which I tell a story about what my mom thought of the shirt.
Nintendo had aggressively marketed Donkey Kong Country. Back then, not every game had a pre-announced release date, let alone preorder bonuses. Donkey Kong Country had both. So aggressive was its marketing that even my mom was aware of it. So it was that Donkey Kong Country, without my saying much about it, became My Christmas Present.
That’s how I wound up with the shirt hugging my torso in early October, 1994. I did not suspect that within six weeks I would both grow to despise the shirt and make the labyrinthine, fatalistic, adult decision to wear it anyway when I played the game for the first time.
Most six-week spans in a 15-year-old’s life are not home to as many formative entertainment media releases as those were for me. Between my overjoyed acquisition of the Donkey Kong Country preorder T-shirt and my finally plugging the cartridge into my Super Nintendo, I had experienced three key life-changing moments:
First, I got punched in the back because of that shirt.
Second, Final Fantasy VI (which we then called Final Fantasy III) came out.
Third, I saw Pulp Fiction in the cinema.
Everyone’s adolescence is sprinkled with little cultural touchstones and art-appreciation moments that introduce the sensation of mature adult sensibilities. Usually enough time passes between each of these moments that you’re able to forget about growing up and focus back on your GI Joes.
However, having played Final Fantasy III and seen Pulp Fiction while my arranged playdate with Donkey Kong Country loomed was powerful enough to break the ice. By the time Donkey Kong Country came out, I hated it. It was a baby’s toy. I wore my disgusting T-shirt like a huge baby, and I played that baby game until I’d gotten 101% of its secrets.
Two weeks after I played through Donkey Kong Country on Thanksgiving weekend, I’d finally acquire my own copy of Final Fantasy III. I did this by trading in NES games. Six months after that, I’d start working at Target – primarily to pay my way through college, though also to be able to afford video games.
None of that was exactly apparent while I played through Donkey Kong Country. Though maybe it should have been. My big brother, who was 17 at the time, repeatedly walked in to the bedroom to put his hands on his hips and declare that the game looked “dumb,” usually using less tasteful words than “dumb.”
What didn’t occur to me was that I was playing the game on a Super Nintendo we’d received as a joint Christmas present in 1991. His nonchalant arms-akimbo declarations of the dumbness of every game I ever played anymore quietly communicated that he’d forsaken all claim to the once-precious console.
“What is this game? This looks dumb.”
Various teenager attitudes and opinions conflicted within me, tainting my enjoyment of Donkey Kong Country. 49% of me wanted to verbally agree with my brother. 51% of me decided to shut up and pretend to like the game.
November 22, 1999, five years after the release of Donkey Kong Country, Nintendo published Donkey Kong 64. I’d already played Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy VII, and Xenogears at this time. I might as well just say it: I’d also had sex at least once. Nintendo’s marketing pride in a banana-yellow Nintendo 64 controller did not cut it for me.
Mysteriously, it was my big brother who brought the Nintendo 64 over for Thanksgiving. I was the one home from college; he had dropped out of college. He brought just two games with his Nintendo 64: GoldenEye and Donkey Kong 64. I watched him play Donkey Kong 64. I played a little of it myself. It was fine. Neither of us made fun of it. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think a single insult about the game occurred to me. I’d played Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie. I wasn’t screaming at the top of my lungs like a first-time Super Mario 64 player, though I enjoyed myself in a quiet, grown-up sort of way.
Nintendo has always been the premium sponsor of the Thanksgiving Day parade in my heart. Donkey Kong Country, Diddy Kong Racing, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and Donkey Kong 64 all released the week before Thanksgiving. Even though I was living away from the USA at the time, I took a moment to note that Metroid Prime also came out the week before Thanksgiving.
These days, nothing like Donkey Kong Country happens at Thanksgiving time anymore. The games industry has gotten too big, and Black Friday has become so powerful a retail phenomenon, that it’d be careless for a big publisher to wait so long to release a huge, marketing-event-sized game.
I mean, this year we have Pokémon Sword & Shield, though come on. You’ve gotta admit that’s not a new Zelda.
Maybe because my brother had killed my buzz, or maybe because I was just a dumb teenager myself, I hated on Donkey Kong Country back when it first came out. I spent the whole game experience in a sort of tentative exercise in flirtatious, beginner-level game critic-ism. I did this because I was immature.
(Also, because the bosses were stupidly easy, the minecart collision was dishonest, I didn’t think Cranky Kong was funny, and about 90 other reasons.)
In the five years after Donkey Kong Country, I got over myself just enough to uncritically enjoy even Donkey Kong 64.
I have replayed Donkey Kong Country several times between Donkey Kong 64 and now. And you know what? I enjoy myself every time. I’d go so far as to say that I love Donkey Kong Country for its fast-paced straightforward platforming charm.
Twenty years after Donkey Kong 64, here I am, working at Kotaku. In an effort to rekindle my ancient youth, I decided to sit down and play Donkey Kong Country the way I most potently remember it: I put that preorder shirt on. I buttoned up a thick flannel shirt. I put on my mental Bad-Time Hat, and I tore Donkey Kong Country’s design into the tiniest shreds I could manage.
I still had a great time. Even though its platforms don’t all move at the same speed even when they look the same. (“That’s dirty level design,” as I said on the stream.) Even if its floating barrel cannons are dumb. (“When you make the platform look exactly, photorealistically like a thing I’ve seen in real life, you’re just begging me to ask why it’s flying.”
(Seriously, though, even Funky Kong’s “plane” is just a barrel with some wings and a cockpit sticking out of it. Is that even a “joke” anymore, at that point?)
You can watch the archive of this livestreamed event, at the video up top if you want. It might interest you to know that it takes me literally 35 minutes to get past the title screen.
Please don’t skip that 35 minutes, though. It’s the most important part.
Also! If you personally liked, commented, and / or subscribed to our YouTube channel, that would definitely fuel my habit of making a lot more videos like this. I promise you might love it.