30/05/2017

DONKEY KONG COUNTRY 4 (NES)

Okay, so here’s how I ended up writing about this one – one of the characters in the last game I wrote about, Cocoto Kart Racer, was a big ape called Bo-Bong. Naturally, this reminded me of Donkey Kong, so I thought maybe I’d write about Donkey Kong Country… but everyone and their dog knows about Donkey Kong Country already, so I looked around the “gorillas wearing neckties” milieu until I happened across this. From our old friends Hummer Team, it’s the extremely bootleg 1997 NES adventure Donkey Kong Country 4!


It’s a bit cheeky of Hummer Team to call this Donkey Kong Country 4, in what I assume is a shallow attempt to make people think they’d be getting a brand new Donkey Kong adventure. It’s actually a trimmed-up, slimmed-down version of the original SNES Donkey Kong Country, and a better title for it would be something like Donkey Kong Country 0.6. But, Donkey and Diddy Kong are finally here, performing for you – and by “you” I mean “owners of NES or Famicom consoles who aren’t afraid to shop outside the Official Nintendo Seal of Quality.”


DKC4 even makes an effort to recreate the original game’s intro, with Cranky Kong enjoying some tunes on his gramophone until Donkey Kong drops down, kicks his elder aside and starts boogieing down with his boombox. No respect, these youthful apes. It’s an encouraging start to the game, because it’s immediately recognisable as the intro to Donkey Kong Country, and aside from some sprite flicker it’s well animated. Could DKC4 contain a faint glimmer of competence or even – whisper it softly – quality? We shall see.


Here we are at Kong Skull Island, so called because it’s shaped like Donkey Kong’s skull. Each slightly larger dot on the map is a “world” of sorts, containing a few levels and a boss fight at the end – so just like the original DKC, only more compressed. That’s going to be a common theme throughout this game.


The Konging begins, and the action on offer is most definitely of the Donkey Kong Country variety. I’m sure there are other videogames where gorillas jump on the heads of humanoid crocodiles, but Donkey Kong Country is the epitome of the form. The gameplay works exactly as you’d expect (especially if you’ve played the SNES original): there’s one button to jump and another to roll / run / pick up barrels, and using these skills you must travel from one end of the stage to the other, bouncing on the heads of your enemies to defeat them and collecting bananas, extra lives and the floating golden letters that spell out K-O-N-G.  Once he’s picked up all the golden letters, Donkey Kong can make himself an extravagant, vainglorious necklace to replace his tie. No, not really. Kong’s too modest for that. You actually get an extra life, although the give gives you twenty-five lives right at the start so I wouldn’t worry too much about collecting every single KONG icon.


Diddy Kong is also here. I’m sorry, I just can’t work up much enthusiasm for Diddy Kong. He’s simply not as good as Donkey Kong. Feel free to send me your hate mail, hardcore Diddy Kong fans. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but Diddy Kong must seem like kind of a weird name to non-British people, because “diddy” is a British word that means “small” and I don’t think it’s a word that gets much use overseas. I suppose the US equivalent would be Lil’ Kong.
Anyway, unlike in the original game you can only have one Kong on screen at a time, presumably due to the sprite limitations of the NES, and you can’t switch between them whenever you like. That doesn’t matter so much, because in DKC4, both Kongs are essentially identical. They both move at the same speed and Donkey Kong’s floor-slapping special move has been excised, so their sprites are the only difference. Instead of being able to freely switch Kongs, what happens is that you change to the other Kong if you get hit, assuming you’ve placed a Kong in reserve by opening a DK barrel. It’s a decent compromise, although the problem then is that the game doesn’t tell you if you have a spare Kong, which can affect your decision making when weighing up how carefully to approach certain sections of the game.


While the graphics are mostly impressive, especially the well-animated sprites of the Kongs, all of the “jungle” stages have the same black-and-brown backgrounds, giving proceedings a surprisingly sombre tone. There’s definitely something slightly unnerving about playing Donkey Kong Country against a dismal background of impenetrable shadows.


Ah, that’s better, a well-lit swimming stage is next. I was wary about the underwater levels, because they’re rarely fun in any videogame and doubly so in unlicensed pirate rip-offs, but I’m happy to report that DKC4 does a decent job of recreating the original game’s swimming controls. The Kongs feel a bit too buoyant, perhaps, but other than that it’s manageable. The swimming stages are still probably the weakest part of the game, but they’re not so hateful they’ll make you want to move to the Gobi desert so you’ll never have to see water again or anything like that.
The real problem with the water stages is that there’s no swordfish to ride. In fact, all of the ridable animal companions from the original game have been removed, presumably due to space constraints, but it’s the swordfish that I’m missing the most. I don’t think I’ve ever done the underwater levels in the original game without riding that swordfish, and I’m sorely missing the ability to ram sharks out of the way using its pointed nose.


A quick aside about the soundtrack: DKC4 does use the music from the original game… sort of. You can tell what each track is supposed to be, although the quality of their translation from SNES to NES varies quite a lot, from “reasonably good” to “pretty terrible.” The underwater sadly falls on the “terrible” end of the spectrum, which is a shame because “Aquatic Ambience” (the underwater track from the original game) is widely regarded as one of the best on the soundtrack and one of the best tracks on the SNES as a whole. In DKC4, though, it’s missing a bunch of notes and doesn’t sound right at all, as though Hummer Team got halfway through converting it to the NES and suddenly thought “you know what? That’ll do.” Tangentially related: Aquatic Ambience has always reminded me of the intro to “Wow” by Kate Bush. Check it out, although I’m fully prepared to admit I might just be hearing things. The other day I was humming one of the themes from Earth Defence Force and my friend thought I was humming “These Are a Few of My Favourite Things,” which just goes to show you what kind of an ear for a tune I have.


Most of the stages in DKC4 can be categorized into a few different themes. We’ve already seen the jungle and underwater types, and here’s another – the “walkways suspended over bottomless pits” kind. Don’t fall down the holes, watch out for the oil drums that continually spawn enemies because they’re the most dangerous things in the entire game. They don’t give you any warning, that’s the problem. At least the jumping part is simple enough, because I can happily report that DKC4’s jumping and general movement controls are rather good. There’s a slight issue in that your Kong will usually take an extra pace left or right when moving horizontally even once you’ve stopped pressing the D-pad, but it’s manageable because it is at least consistent. The jumping’s fine, though, and what’s more the physics of it actually feel a lot like they did in the original game, an impressive thing to get right given the slightly ephemeral concept of “how jumps feel.”


Something that’s not so good is DKC4’s lack of secrets. The original game was absolutely packed with hidden bonus rooms and items tucked away in hard-to-reach corners, but there’s none of that in this game. That makes it all the more aggravating when you come across bananas arranged in an arrow, like in the screenshot above. They’d be pointing to a secret in the original game; here they just directed me to repeated deaths as I tried to figure out if there was anything under the platform (there was not).


Now it’s time for the first boss fight, against a giant beaver called Very Gnawty. Ha ha, oh Rare, you cards. Anyway, the beaver hops the screen and you have to bounce on its head a few times to defeat it. It is not the most interesting boss fight. Still, we can’t blame Hummer Team for that, they’ve given us a very accurate recreation of the boss fight from the original game. It just wasn’t very interesting then, either.


After that, it’s back to the map screen and on to another set of stages. This one has the industrial theme that doesn’t appear until much later in the original game. It’s still the same platforming-hopping action, mind you, it just takes place in what appears to be an extremely poorly-designed brewery. There are a lot of pipes and barrels, it must be a brewery.


Thus DKC4 continues, reusing the same few level backdrops as the setting for the Kongs’ platforming antics. We’re back in the jungle for this one, and the DK series’ trademark cannon-barrels make an appearance. You jump into them, and they either fire you out or you press a button to make them fire you out. Given that all these explosive barrels are located in the jungles Donkey Kong calls home, I can only assume that’s where he got the idea to throw them at Super Mario.
The barrels work well and are just as enjoyable / occasionally frustrating to use as they were in the original game, so it’s a shame that they’re the only gameplay element that differs from the generic run-n-jump action. All of the original game’s more outlandish sections – the minecart rides, being chased by enormous stone wheels, the stop-n-go traffic lights – are absent from DKC4. Whether that’s because Hummer Team couldn’t get them working within the constraints of an NES game or they simply didn’t care enough about their copyright-infringing bootleg game to recreate them, I don’t know. None of the stages are direct copies of stages in the SNES version, but are more sort of “assembled” from DKC parts, in a sort of Donkey Kong Maker situation. As a result, all the non-boss stages are either “pure” platforming or swimming, and they can tend to get a little samey.


The underground caves are another type of stage. In this case, the caves are full of bees. Or wasps, I guess. For some reason, even though you can pick up barrels and use them to defeat other enemies, the wasps are immune to getting a barrel thrown in their face. This is both a blessing and a curse, because the “bzzz!” noise they make when you kill them in the original game is a really wonderful sound effect and I miss hearing it, but it’s probably from the best that I didn’t get to hear Hummer Team’s attempt at recreating that sound effect.


The second boss is Master Necky, a large vulture that attacks by vomiting coconuts at the player and then stripping the flesh from their bones once they’re dead. I assume. I mean, he’s a vulture, it’d be weird if he didn’t feed on your still-warm entrails. Use the tyre conveniently embedded in the ground to spring up and land on Necky’s head a few times to win the day. I’m assuming that the majority of people reading this will have already done so in the original Donkey Kong Country, and if you’ve done it there you can do it here because I think it’s a bit easier thanks to the coconuts’ path being more predictable.


From here on out DKC4 doesn’t add much to the formula it’s already established. The next two bosses are Gnawty (again) and Necky (again) and the stages don’t include any exciting new gameplay features, which is a bit disappointing because having a good variety of challenges without straying too far from its platforming remit was one of the original Donkey Kong Country’s greatest strengths. There is the occasional new feature, though – in this stage, there are moving platforms. I know, I know, try not to let your raging excitement get the better of you. You know how earlier I said the Kongs will keep moving when you let go of the d-pad, making small positional adjustments far more difficult to pull off than they ought to be? Yeah, the moving platforms are not an especially fun addition. The bouncy tyres are much better, fulfilling their role as springboards for higher jumps well without being overly finicky as the springboards were in, say, Gremlins 2 for the Gameboy.


As nothing much really really changes from here on out, I’m not going to give you a run-down of all the game’s (surprisingly numerous) stages, I’ll just point out a couple of things. Things like the introduction of the Klaptrap enemies. They have not fared well during the SNES-to-NES conversion, having changed from vicious little crocodiles to boggle-eyed brown lumps of teeth with disturbingly humanoid body shapes. That could stand as a rather apt metaphor for most bootleg conversions of existing game, although in DKC4’s case it wouldn’t hold up because it’s actually quite good. Not just good for a knock-off, either, but an actual half-decent – maybe even more than half-decent – attempt at an NES platformer. I’ve certainly played a bunch of legitimate, signed-off-on-by-Nintendo NES platformers that were far worse than DKC4.


It has its flaws, to be sure. The stages can get repetitive, horizontal movement is sometimes slippery and the hit detection on larger obstacles like the bees or the spinning spiked wheels is far less generous than the size and shape of their sprites would suggest. However, underneath those issues is an otherwise solid game that never feels broken or glitchy, with stages that might not rise to the heights of level design found in the genre’s true classics but which offer some fast-paced, uncomplicated jumping fun with a good sense of flow.


The graphics are rather good too, especially the animations on the sprites, although the backgrounds are a little monotonous in their darkness and sometimes Hummer Team got a bit over-ambitious with the amount of sprites on screen at once, leading to areas like this gauntlet of spinning tyres that have a bit of slowdown and a lot of sprite flicker – enough flicker to make the game more difficult, in fact. On the whole, though, I’d definitely say DKC4 is an above-average-looking game.


Oh look, it’s a new boss! New in the sense that he hasn’t appeared in this game already, he was definitely in the original game. Its name is Dumb Drum, and it’s out to get revenge for the years of abuse suffered by his oil drum brothers and sisters at the hands of all those beat-em-up protagonists. The boss tries to slam down on the Kongs’ head, and after a while it’ll retreat to the sky and drop a couple of regular enemies into the battle. Defeat the small enemies and Dumb Drum will revert to trying to smash the Kongs into paste, until the repeated impacts with the floor cause it to explode. Thus, Donkey Kong wins by default, having done nothing more than get out of the way and jump on the occasional lizardman. There’s a lesson in there about not being consumed by your own anger, Dumb Drum.


Straight after that fight, you’re thrown into the game’s final battle: it’s the Kongs versus the banana-plundering pirate King K. Rool. You won’t be surprised to learn that the fight plays out exactly as it does in the SNES version of the game: K. Rool throws his crown (which somehow incorporates boomerang technology) at you, you jump on his exposed head and then dodge either K. Rool's charges or the cannonballs that fall from the sky until he throws his crown again. It’s a battle of patience between crocodile and ape! A titanic tussle for the ages! It’s… actually a bit boring! Maybe I’d be more inclined to enjoy it if I hadn’t already done it several times as a kid while playing the original DKC, but then again I remember not enjoying much back then, either. At least he doesn’t pretend to be dead and run some fake credits halfway through the fight, like he does in the original game.


Once King K. Rool has been sufficiently stomped, the game is over and you can claim your reward: a brief and extremely dull set of credits before the game locks up and you have to reset your NES. Now that’s the kind of lazy, zero-effort crap I expect from a bootleg NES game! If you wanted an ending, you should have bought the proper version of the game, you cheapskate.


But wait, there’s more! Some versions of DKC4 came on a multicart, bundled with another game called The Jungle Book 2. I’m sure that’ll be a clone version of the one of the legitimate Jungle Book games, right?


Well, you know what they say about assuming. It turns out that The Jungle Book 2 is just Donkey Kong Country 4 except Donkey Kong has been replaced by Mowgli. And Diddy Kong has been replaced by, uh, Mowgli. And the levels run in a different order. What a bizarre thing to expend even the slightest amount of time and effort on creating. Did Hummer Team think there was a voracious Jungle Book fanbase out there, desperate for any new product with Mowgli in it, and they just had to get a piece of the action? Whatever the case, if it is your greatest desire to see Mowgli throw a barrel at a crocodile, The Jungle Book 2 has you covered.


So that’s Donkey Kong Country 4, a surprisingly good attempt to cram one of the most beloved SNES action games into an NES cartridge. In a way it’s nice to have played something that, although flawed, was far better than I expected, but I must confess to being slightly disappointed. Whenever I play a bootleg videogame, I’m always hoping that there’ll be something utterly baffling or completely ridiculous contained within, and apart from sometimes coming attached with Donkey Kong Country Starring Mowgli, there isn’t much of that going on in DKC4. It is an interesting curio, at least, and although I couldn’t recommend you play it over the SNES original those of you who love NES platformers will probably get a kick out of it. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to listen to "Barbie Girl" a hundred times, because I’ve had the DK Rap stuck in my head ever since I started playing this game and I will do anything, anything, to dislodge it.

3 comments:

  1. Diddy Kong must seem like kind of a weird name to non-British people, because “diddy” is a British word that means “small”

    WHOA. MIND BLOWN. All these years, and I had no idea. I thought I was fairly conversant in British slang, but you're right; that one seems to never have moved overseas. GOODNESS.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Diddy was also supposed to be DK Jr., but Nintendo hated the design and said they had to rename him if they wanted to keep it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That... makes total sense. For a while as a kid when I just had the cartridge and no instructions or guides or anything else for context, I actually thought he *was* DK Jr.

      Delete

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