Before I rip into this game, some back story: when I was young and the only type of Game Boy that existed was the gray brick variety that took 4 AA batteries and colored everything in a greenish hue, I owned a copy of Donkey Kong Land and cherished it. Once, I spent so much time playing it that the batteries in my Game Boy literally exploded. That’s not hyperbole, either—there was a loud pop and then battery acid leaked everywhere. I still own the very same banana yellow cartridge, but sadly, the game itself isn’t anywhere near as entertaining as its bold coloring would suggest. Sometimes I’ll go back and play a game I used to love and find that it still holds up, but Donkey Kong Land can’t hold a candle to Donkey Kong Country, and despite its best attempts to replicate it, the whole experience ends up being more frustrating than anything. This is a game best left forgotten.
The world makes no sense
The Donkey Kong games of old weren’t exactly known for their stories; Country’s was as simple as “your bananas were stolen, so go get them back,” and Land doesn’t even bother with that. Country was at least consistent with its locations, though. If you were in the mines, all the levels were mine-themed. When you started in the jungle, you had a bunch of jungle-themed levels to go through. Donkey Kong Land, however, is an insane spattering of levels that make no sense together. In the very first world, you have pirate stages, ice stages, and jungle stages all thrown together haphazardly despite their coexistence making zero sense. Later worlds (of which there are only 4) are only slightly more consistent, with the last world actually having city-themed levels, but world 3 is full of mountainous areas that suddenly give way to random cloud levels more akin to something out of Kirby than a Donkey Kong game. All of this randomness was amusing at first, but it really started to get under my skin the more I played.
A platformer with terrible platforming
Donkey Kong Land tries to emulate Donkey Kong Country in all things, only occasionally adding its own spin, but its attempted adherence comes with a heavy price and ends up being its downfall. For example, the graphics. I’ll talk a lot about the graphics later on, but for now the important thing to note is that they seem to be adapted from the same 3D models used for Country. The only way for the Game Boy to render that kind of detail is to have the player take up a great deal of the screen, however, and that creates numerous problems. For one, you’re so zoomed in that it’s difficult to see what’s ahead. Combine that with the game failing to recreate Country’s physics and you have a recipe for moments where you’ll get hit by enemies you couldn’t possibly see coming (often after being flung off screen right into an enemy you couldn’t see because the camera hadn’t caught up yet).
And let’s talk about the camera
Not only is the camera awful at following the player and prone to all kinds of weird glitches, but the developers tried to recreate the way Country’s camera gently readjusts when you change direction. In that game, you’re zoomed out enough that this is a short movement that happens fairly slowly. Since everything’s so zoomed in here, though, the camera instead lurches awkwardly every time you turn your character. This isn’t always a problem, but when you’re trying to attack while not falling from a tiny platform, having everything in the world suddenly shift doesn’t exactly help you figure out where you are in relation to everything else in the world. Basically, the camera ranges from being a massive inconvenience to something actively disorienting, and the busyness of the graphics doesn’t help this any.
There’s no consistency in this game
Country had a great sense of motion that allowed you to fluidly land on an enemy, then use them to bounce to further enemies in a chain. It was incredibly consistent in that regard. Land is the farthest thing from consistent, often completely changing your original momentum (itself frustratingly random) when you land on an enemy. That would be fine if this were used to launch you toward nearby enemies in a Country-esque chain, but it’s not. A lot of the time, you’ll land in front of an enemy, or even behind them, or just fall to your death in a pit the camera didn’t allow you to see coming. Hit detection is similarly random; some enemies will walk through you, while other times you’ll get hit by things that weren’t anywhere near you. It all feels maddeningly random, with success coming down to luck rather than skill.
There are some actual innovations here
In Land’s defense, it does some things that are borderline amusing. Or at least that would be amusing if not for its irritating love of throwing things at you without any explanation of how they work. In one stage, you collect the K-O-N-G letters one after another. Then there’s a switch. Hitting the switch causes the letters to form a bridge. That’s actually kind of interesting, though it then raises the question of whether they count toward the end (and the letters have been made frustratingly important in this game, which I’ll cover below). They don’t. Then there are little tokens that you collect. What do they do? I’m pretty sure they exist solely as ammo in a minigame where you shoot them out of a barrel and catch them for extra lives, but it’s hard to be sure whether that’s their only function. Then there are tornados that show up in some stages. If you land on top of one, you bounce off. If you move, though, the tornado follows underneath you. Homing tornados. Figuring things like that out can be irritating, but I suppose any innovation should be welcomed in a game that rips off its big brother Country in so many ways.
This save system is awful
There’s one “innovation” I can’t forgive, though, and that’s the save system. Donkey Kong Land saves after the boss fights you get at the end of each world, but it also lets you save between stages. You only get that privilege if you collect the K-O-N-G letters, though. Whereas collecting them in Country earned you an extra life, here you’re collecting them for the right to save your progress. That’s bad enough on its own, but the game outdoes itself by often hiding one or two letters in bonus areas that require random leaps of faith to reach. Absolutely disgusting.
The graphics are far too busy
Many of the graphics seem to have been taken directly from Country, which means they’re highly detailed. Since this is a game for the original Game Boy, however, that also means that you have a bunch of backgrounds and enemies that are all full of shades of gray, and the screen quickly becomes a busy mess. It becomes a hassle trying to figure out where anything is because there are so many pixels vomited all around that nothing stands out. The whole game becomes this ugly, blocky mess, and the only way to keep track of where you are is to keep an eye on movement. If the camera is even cooperating, that is. In later worlds, you face situations where it’s difficult to tell the difference between background textures and platforms, making it depressingly easy to leap to your death because you thought that you would land on a platform that didn’t actually exist.