The Pint-Sized Country
Donkey Kong Land
While I won't call 1994's Donkey Kong Country a perfect game, it certainly is a great one. It had revolutionary, for the time, graphics that even now still look pretty good, coupled with a variety of worlds and level designs. It did get pretty devious by the end of the game, showing something of that "Rare Difficulty" everyone expected from the design house, and one hundred-percenting the game could prove incredibly frustrating without a guide, but overall the game had that right mix of style and substance to make it an instant classic when it was released on the SNES. It was 1994's must-have game in a sea of must haves that constantly came out for Nintendo's second-gen box.
The SNES wasn't the only console Nintendo was supporting, of course; there was also the Game Boy and, eventually, every Nintendo franchise made its way to the little hand-held eventually. While Rare's first sequel to the smash hit Country wasn't the first Donkey Kong title to end up on the Game Boy (that would be an expanded take on Donkey Kong usually called Donkey Kong '94) it did provide something fans of Country were specifically looking for: more Donkey Kong Country. The resulting title was Donkey Kong Land and it did its best to be a proper scaled down version of DKC.
The transition to the little Game Boy was, of course, not without its flaws. In comparison to the Game Boy, the SNES was a robust piece of tech (but then every console out at that point was a robust piece of kit in comparison to the Game Boy). What the SNES could do in the way of graphics, colors, layer effects, transparency, and sound were all beyond the capabilities of the Game Boy. To make an experience that would work on that console, Rare had to change a lot. IN some ways, Land ended up a sequel in name only, more a reinvention of the formula to work within the confines than a proper continuation of the series.
The first obvious difference is, of course, the graphics. Rare made much hay out of the fact that Donkey Kong Country sported Silicon Graphics 3D Rendered artwork. While that was technically true it was also an overstatement of the fact. Yes, the graphics were made on Silicon Graphics work stations but they then had to be ported in as SNES sprites and that limited the palettes to 15 colors (plus a transparency) and reduced the overall depth of what could be displayed to 256 x 224 pixels. No matter how cool the models looked on the workstations, the SNES could only display so much.
All that said, what the SNES could do was still miles about the puny Game Boy. Instead of thousands of possible colors, and 15 on a single sprite, the Game Boy sported only four colors total (and one of those, white, was just the default background of the screen). Then you have to take into account that the Game Boy's screen could only display 160 x 144 pixels, even smaller than the SNES. That meant that everything that had been designed for the SNES had to be drastically reduced for the Game Boy, no matter how much Rare continued to tout their "cutting edge" graphics on the tiny hand-held.
What that means is that no matter what might have been on the box art, audiences had to temper their expectations when it came to the game. The graphics, with good by Game Boy standards, were the same washed out, muddy pixels every game had. You can see the Donkey Kong Country aesthetic at work in the game, with the same style of the characters and then same devious designs at work, but this was very much a Game Boy game first and a Donkey Kong Country game second.
Due to the screen size, less of any given stage is visible at one time. The platforming still feels right, in comparison to the SNES big brother, but there are less enemies on screen and, even taking into account positions and trying to make the game playable, there are still plenty of instances where, due to the small screen real estate, monsters will pop in out of nowhere and tag the player before they realistically have a way to react. I'm not sure there's much that could be done about that, with the game having to both be a Game Boy title and still look the part of the larger series, but it's a compromise that doesn't quite work here.
In comparison, other choices ended up being quite smart. Although this game uses the same style of HUD as the SNES title, here the HUD only appears on screen when its needed, disappearing off screen the rest of the time so the player can better see what's going on. Also, only one Kong appears on screen at a time, a move that probably both helped reduce memory constraints and also freed up more visible space for the character in control. You can still switch between Kongs at any time, although now it's with a quick pause to let the player reorient. Wise, considering the age of players that had a Game Boy and the difficult of playing such a small game.
That said, this does certainly feel like a very reduced game. There are only 30 stages in total in the game, spread across four worlds, making this quite small in comparison to the SNES title. Each stage only has one to two bonus games as well, so fully beating the game is less time consuming and less involving. While some might think that's great, it certainly does make the game feel slight in comparison to the SNES iteration. This is Game Boy sized, essentially, for good and ill.
The game is at its weakest when played on its intended hardware, the Game Boy. However, when this title game out the SNES Game Boy Player was a new and special device and this game made good use of it. The Game Boy Player not only gave the game special pallets that made the graphics look pretty good, but it also had a nicely style border for the game, making it feel a little more of-a-piece with its big brother. Plus, frankly, playing this game on a proper TV helped to reduce a lot of visibility issues with the title, making it a smoother experience overall.
While it might sound like I'm down on this game, as I recount my issues with it, I do want to make it clear that I actually like this game. When I was growing up I played through it more than once, enjoying how it extended the original DKC, which I also loved, and giving more of that great game. It's nowhere near a perfect experience but, at the same time, it was more Donkey Kong Country, in its original style, and I liked that. Later sequels (and Game Boy sequels) added more and more to the series but also lost a little of the magic that made the first game so good. Donkey Kong Land is the closes we got to a pure sequel and, whatever flaws it might have, it still played well for the system it was released upon, and for that I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for the game.
Sadly, after its release Donkey Kong Land pretty well fell out of the collective consciousness. It was a good seller at the time, and did spawn to Game Boy sequels to align with the SNES releases. But no one really talks about this game anymore, preferring the SNES versions and forgetting this game even exists. But then if you really wanted Donkey Kong Country but on the go, you only had to wait a few more years for Nintendo to publish first a Game Boy Color, and then a Game Boy Advance, edition of that title with proper color and all the bells ans whistles. And now, of course, you can get the original game on the various Online Nintendo store fronts so no one lacks for "proper" Donkey Kong Country. This was a good game for what it was but now it's a forgotten entry that doesn't really get its due anymore.