Shortly after Donkey Kong Country was released on the SNES, Rare announced that it would be bringing the whole experience to the Game Boy. This seemed like an absurd concept at the time, especially considering how Donkey Kong Country was seemingly pushing the home console to the limits, but in 1995 Donkey Kong Land came out and silenced any naysayers.
Donkey Kong Land is a completely separate game to its SNES brother, but follows the mechanics to the letter. It’s a 2D platformer where you play as either Donkey or Diddy Kong, journeying through various levels in order to try and retrieve the banana horde stolen once again by King K. Rool, as a sequel to Donkey Kong Country. This narrative is mostly immaterial to the game and, without the instruction manual, you wouldn’t be chastised if you thought that there was no story.
The game masterfully translates the gameplay over to the Game Boy, but with a few concessions. Firstly, there are only four worlds through which you can explore. Whereas, secondly, the animal buddies are more restricted with just Rambi and Expresso making an appearance, while you won’t ever see Donkey and Diddy on screen at any one time. You can still switch between them at any time, providing you have the missing character stored as a backup.
The stages are just as imaginative and well made as the ones on the SNES game, but there are a few issues. Due to the size of the original Game Boy’s screen, there are more than a few leaps of faith where you can’t see where you’re going to land after a jump, and a couple of times where, if you fall off, you will instantly die and exit the level rather than fall down below. This can be somewhat infuriating at times, but doesn’t impact your enjoyment too much. While the quality is apparent, you may be left wanting there to be many more stages than actually exist.
The controls are largely the same as the game’s SNES counterpart, being able to pick up barrels, jump on enemies and roll. However, the game does feel a bit more sluggish in the implementation of these moves, and it generally feels like you’re being held back when attempting them. This is probably down to the smaller power of the original Game Boy, but it will be noticeable to those that have played Donkey Kong Country recently.
Graphics are where Donkey Kong Land seems a bit off the mark. You can clearly see when playing that they were attempting to recreate the style and aesthetic already seen in Donkey Kong Country on SNES, but due to the Game Boy’s lack of colour, everything blends in and makes it very hard to see what you’re doing at times. Sometimes you won’t know if what you’re aiming for is a platform or not, or may not even see that there is an enemy in front of you due to the intricacies of the background pattern. This is the one significant criticism about this game, and it remained throughout its entirety.
In hindsight, this game probably should have gone for a different art style that fit the handheld more, but what it has is by no means terrible. They are faithful recreations of the SNES graphics, but it just doesn’t really fit the handheld. It makes me wish that this was the Super Game Boy variant, so that there was at least some contrast between Donkey Kong and the background. Maybe on the next handheld.
Audibly, the accompanying soundtrack is fantastic. The sound effects and music are faithful recreations of the classics, as well as various new tracks, all lovingly put on the 8-bit Dot Matrix sound of the Game Boy. While it’s obviously not orchestra level, it is done rather well and helps evoke memories of the 1990s. If you weren’t around to experience the glory of that gaming era then you may find it a bit basic, but it works.
On the whole, Donkey Kong Land is a solid platformer that is held back a bit by its aesthetics and the size of the screen that it was put on. The level design is decent, but many will feel that the adventure is over just as it’s getting started.