Donkey Kong Country – Where Setting Makes All the Difference

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As a child of the 90s, the Super Nintendo played a distinct part in my elementary school life. There was Mario, sure, jumping along on mushrooms and pipes in worlds full of fireballs, turtles, and Bowser. But, when compared with the lush jungles, dark caves, and haunting seas of Donkey Kong, I couldn’t help but change favorites.

Donkey Kong also offered a true competitive mode, wherein each player progresses through their own game, trading off with the other, which made it a natural for a house full of brothers attempting to prove our button-mashing skills to one another.

Anyway, here you are. The player. Controlling a pair of apes (Donkey and Diddy, the younger, baseball-cap wearing one) in a quest to retrieve their stash of bananas on an island that somehow contains every climate zone and massive amounts of barrels (some of which, inexplicably, contain your allies when they’ve been lost).

The setting, taken at face value, offers no sense. You’ve got talking crocodiles, beavers that roll giant stone wheels, and clay creatures that stop and go according to mysterious barrels. Mine carts rocket through crumbling caverns. The monkeys can, apparently, hold their breath for great lengths of time to capture what would surely be rotting bananas at the bottom of various oceans.

However, and this is a lesson worth taking away – the ridiculousness of everything here is easily ignored because the gameplay, the core of the Donkey Kong experience, is so good. In fact, because you’re enjoying playing the game so much, you might find yourself lost in wonder at the world your charges inhabit.

This gets back to a core teaching of story-telling – that if you get the most important part right, people will forgive and enjoy other things, even if they make no sense. Back in the 90s, when we were looking for Saturdays to drown in digital fun, Donkey Kong aced it. Jumping on a swordfish and dodging murderous octopi while grabbing life-giving balloons felt good because the gameplay felt right.

Stories like Harry PotterLord of the Rings, and plenty of others have gaping plot holes, leaps in logic, and events that would seem, if explored in isolation, ridiculous. But they don’t matter because the part we care about, the central tale, is executed so well. That idea extends beyond books to movies, games, and just about any sort of creative expression.

Get your central feature straight, and then you can do almost anything you want.

Sidenote: This post was prompted by a pick-up of the SNES Classic, a little version of the Super Nintendo that’s made its way into stores and is well worth a pick-up if you’re at all interested in a nostalgic tour of early 90s adventure.