5. Donkey Kong Country Returns
There is no shame in settling for last place in these rankings, and we would hazard a guess to say that for some folks, this is actually their favorite game of all time. But the competition is fierce. Somebody had to draw the short straw, and in our humble opinion, Donkey Kong Country Returns is just that little bit inferior to its contemporaries. Ultimately, it’s like a banana with a tiny brown spot on it – still damn delicious.
After a painful hiatus of more than 14 years, the beloved Donkey Kong Country legacy was gifted with a new entry to its hallowed halls, in the form of this fantastic romp on the Wii. One of the most defining features of Donkey Kong Country Returns is its rather steep difficulty level. Some frantic sections can require multiple attempts before you work out what’s about to be thrown at you, and you may end up significantly balder by the time you’re finished. This makes the game a bit daunting for younger players who simply want to get up to some monkey mischief, especially when certain obstacles can feel so spontaneous, they border on cheap. But otherwise, it is not a bad thing: for those of us who are up for a challenge, finishing Donkey Kong Country Returns to full completion is a tall order, but a satisfying one.
Other faults are minor, and typical of Wii games of the era. The Kong Blow feature, where puffing into the Wii remote or shaking the nunchuck makes DK exhale out a gust of air to reveal hidden items, feels like superfluous waggle, and can put your antics to a halt when you have to stop hopping and stomping to investigate a suspicious-looking flower and breathe excessively into your controller.
Donkey Kong Country Returns is fondly remembered as one of the best games on the Wii, and for good reason: it took everything we loved about the original trilogy, and ushered it into a new era. The silhouette stages look absolutely gorgeous, the mine cart sections are intense, and there is enough variety overall to keep things lively and interesting.
4. Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble!
Though it didn’t hit the lofty heights of the stellar titles that preceded it, Donkey Kong Country 3 still stands tall with its impressive size and ambitious level design. As one of the last major games for the SNES, everything in Donkey Kong Country 3 seemed like it was taking a bold step forward. Neither of the Kongs from the original title are featured, several key figures like Rambi and the Zingers are completely absent, and the world map feels like an adventure unto itself, loaded with hidden areas and side quests.
The bosses are worth special mention, as they are some of the most unique in the franchise. The beetle-munching sentient barrel Belcha is a particular highlight, while Arich the terrifying tarantula still looks spectacular all these years later. And no matter how much you may try to deny it, Bleak the evil snowman is hilarious and glorious, and will hopefully make a return to the franchise someday (ideally in his own spinoff title, fingers crossed).
If the major measuring stick of a Donkey Kong Country game is its gimmick levels, DKC3 had some of the best, as well as a few of the worst. Lightning Look-Out, a stage taking place under the constant threat of a thunderstorm, keeps players on their toes as they scramble to grab something to shield themselves with, while Poisonous Pipeline sends the Kongs into an underwater labyrinth with inverted controls. One of those concepts is clever, the other more of a nuisance.
In this way, Donkey Kong Country 3 has grown to become something of a black sheep in the series, getting a full head of steam with innovative ideas, before faltering on elements that end up being cumbersome. It’s a refined taste that is arguably lacking in the intrinsic charm of the first two titles, but based on its own merits, remains an excellent adventure worth experiencing.
3. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
Taking everything it had learned from its previous effort, Retro Studios came back out swinging in 2014, with this tour de force title for the Wii U. Adding Dixie and Cranky Kong into the mix, it featured the largest roster in a Country title, with each of them having their own unique strengths and quirks. The premise – that DK Island has been hit with an unseasonable chill that has covered much of the island in ice – may sound like a potential limitation on the level design, but this is not the case, and more often than not creates a beautiful aesthetic.
Again, boss battles deserve their own recognition: their distinctive viking look and prepossessing designs give them huge personality, and no two fights feel the same. The old formula is maintained: dodge attacks and wait for an opening, but it is repackaged in clever ways that are fresh and enjoyable.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze didn’t receive nearly the adulation as it should have upon its release (largely a byproduct of the apathy surrounding the Wii U and neck-tied gorillas at the time), but it will hopefully get its due now that it has arrived on the Switch. Throwing Funky Kong in as a playable character completely changes the complexity, alleviating much of the challenge with his extensive skillset, for better or worse. Frankly, if he’s so damned talented, why has he been hesitant to participate up until this point?
2. Donkey Kong Country
Never has there been a more important title in the history of Rare. Though it had been on the scene for years prior, expertly crafting wonderful games that stand the test of time such as Battletoads, this was its coming out party: the moment that it rocketed to the top of the game developer food chain, proving that it was able to match (and perhaps even exceed) the best efforts of Nintendo itself.
Donkey Kong Country was a technical marvel, offering visuals that had never been seen before on a home console, and paired with an exquisitely ambient soundtrack headed by the genius composer, David Wise. But under all of that shiny paint laid an incredible foundation of tight gameplay and controls, with skilled players able to breeze across treacherous stages through sheer muscle memory. As the Kongs progressed around the shifting overworld from their jungle home into forests and snow-capped mountains, the levels themselves began to change. Never did the design feel arbitrary or repetitive, the very architecture suited the environment.
Finding every secret tucked away was a practice in meticulousness and dumb luck, with some blind leaps into what looked like certain doom being rewarded with a hidden barrel that yielded vast quantities of bananas.
Though each sequel built upon the winning formula laid out by Donkey Kong Country, it remains near the pinnacle, not just for its significance, but because it genuinely offered some of the series’ best moments: Mine Cart Carnage. Stop & Go Station. Tanked Up Trouble. The list goes on and on.
Also, it was the only game to include Winky, and Winky be awesome.
1. Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest
Let’s put it out there right from the get-go: Donkey Kong Country 2 is a platforming masterclass. It combines stylish whimsy with impeccable level design. We’ve mentioned a few times about the importance of gimmick stages in a Donkey Kong Country game – and yes, Diddy’s Kong Quest has those in spades – but even the levels devoid of a signature quirk are intuitive and memorable. Swapping between the characters provides full control over your experience, and while Dixie’s ponytail helicopter allows better navigation over gaps, it never feels broken or cheap.
The tone of Donkey Kong Country 2 is immersive and brilliant, with an impending sense of dread and uncertainty surrounding your every move. You are in enemy territory this time, and it’s made apparent from the harsh, unnatural environments. Sure, it can be pretty sometimes, a la the iconic bramble stages or the rickety splendor of the Kremling theme park, but it can be equally horrifying, as those unfortunate enough to cross the path of Kackle can attest. Without the safety and familiarity of his big buddy at his side, Diddy’s task seems much more insurmountable, despite his own capabilities.
Oh, and those gimmick levels? Many of them are the cream of the crop: Animal Antics, Klobber Karnage, Rickety Race, Haunted Hall, Castle Crush, Toxic Tower, and others of their ilk aren’t just thrilling for people with an alliteration fetish. They’re thrilling for us all.
Though some may argue that Banjo-Kazooie or GoldenEye represent the greatest work to come from the British developer, to many others, Donkey Kong Country 2 is Rare’s magnum opus.