By Adam Rolf
King K. Rool charged across the deck of his pirate ship.
His bulbous frame almost too large for Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong to jump over. This was it. No time for planning. One life left and no save made in a while.
Then came the barrage of cannon balls from above.
After two years of playing Donkey Kong Country on the SNES with my childhood friend, we had made it to the final boss.
For a first-timer, this classic platformer punished us every step of the way. But through the challenges, the many lost lives — or hot dogs, as we called them — and the iconic soundtrack, a new appreciation for retro classics was forged and an old friendship rekindled.
However, I didn’t know I was signing up for a Jumanji-like saga when I received a fateful text message two years ago.
A Strained Relationship
It was the summer of 2014 when I got the text from Chris. “Zospin!! I found my old Nintendo – we gotta kick it!”
Growing up I never knew him to be a gamer. Which is why I was pleasantly surprised many years later when he mentioned having an original SNES stashed away somewhere deep in his attic like a holy grail just waiting to be rediscovered.
Chris and I met in Boy Scouts when we were 10 years old. As we grew into our teenage years, we developed a knack for adventure. But when you live 20 minutes away from one of the worst ghettos in Cleveland, adventure can get you into trouble.
Our intentions weren’t rotten, we were just having fun trying to earn our bragging rights. I knew when it was too far. Ask me to come drinking under an abandoned bridge with some people that are possibly absolutely totally gang members? Hell yeah, that sounds like a story in the making. But commit a felony? Nahh, I’m good.
I enjoyed our secret hellion rallies through Cleveland and the good times in Boy Scouts, but Chris and I soon drifted apart. I joined the Navy after high school, travelling the world with Uncle Sam. Chris stayed in Cleveland, and spent brief stints in jail over the years for alcohol-related incidents. Needless to say, we hadn’t seen each other in years.
In 2011, my four-year contract with the Navy ended. Chris was focusing on rebuilding his life. We were both free men and in our early twenties.
That’s when Chris mentioned the mythic Super Nintendo. From time to time I’d remind him to dig that beauty out from it’s grave, but life’s priorities would always put it on the backburner.
Three years later, I finally got that fabled text.
The son of a bitch did it. He found his Super Nintendo. I hadn’t heard from Chris in a few months, so I knew what had to be done – we had to sit down, reminisce and play this wonderous retro system.
Holy Grail of Gaming
Chris and I have been through a lot in our friendship, from camping to high school to scraps in the parking lot of a White Castle, but we never really got to sit down and play some video games together until this point.
The first time Chris and I set up the Super Nintendo it brought such a joy of nostalgia: dusting off the plastic frame, plugging in the old AV cables (that still worked!), giving the game cartridge the ol’ double blow and switching on the purple power button.
Chris grabbed the TV remote and switched the TV input in excitement and anticipation; I could tell he was reliving some childhood nostalgia. A brief delay of darkness, and then there it was! The jolly little tune we all loved so much followed by, “Super Nintendo Entertainment System”. We were live, baby!
We gleefully sifted through a crate of SNES video games like a couple of kids and decided to first play Killer Instinct. It’s very similar to Mortal Kombat but attacks are chained randomly together, giving the appearance of complexity – great for button mashers. I grew up on games like Mortal Kombat, Virtual Fighter and Street Fighter, so I mercilessly beat the crap out of my old friend until he refused to play me ever again. We turned our attention back to the crate of games.
It was amazing and worth noting all the different multiplayer games there were in this crate. Remember the days when a multiplayer game was played in the same room? What a simple time that was. No subscriptions, internet connection, or DLC required – just plug in your controllers and go. These games forged lasting friendships and memories.
We decided to go with Donkey Kong Country because I’d never played it and Chris said he’d never beat it. We played at least once a month, sometimes once a week when we could.
DKC uses a tag-in system for multiplayer, meaning when one character dies, the other takes over in the same spot. If both die then you lose a life. I played Donkey Kong and Chris played Diddy Kong, the nephew of Donkey Kong.
As one would play the other would narrate like a hyped-up sportscaster during a high-stakes playoff match. This created a sort of comical tension, which only adding to the excitement. When someone screwed up and died, we’d call it hot doggin’. All the hot doggin’ we did playing for the first time, you’d think we worked for Oscar Mayer.
At first, DKC seemed easy enough. The first boss is a large beaver named Very Gnawty. I’m honestly not sure if he should even be considered a boss because he literally just hops around slowly as Donkey and Diddy walloped him over and over again. Seriously, it took us like thirty seconds to beat him.
But that’s how the game tricks you. It’s easy at first then eventually you’re flipping over wasps, dodging barrels and trying to remember the pit trap at the end of the level.
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As the game progresses it introduces different variables, new mechanics, enemies and a faster pace. At some points I couldn’t help but wonder if the game designers were trolling our attempts to defeat the game.
DKC is very much like a Mario-style series of traps, ramps, pits, and secret doors. But with DKC there’s a special sort of ingenuity, especially when playing for the first time. DKC designer Greg Mayles and programmer Chris Sutherland certainly didn’t need 5.8 teraflops of modern graphical performance or 15-button controllers to create a game that’s both deceptively challenging and an absolute blast to play.
As we slowly progressed through the game week by week there were two levels that really kicked our ass:
Snow Barrel Blast
Winter on Kong’s Island! A tree line of snow-covered pines skirting a distant snow-capped mountain. The ground and platforms are all slick snow-covered ice. As we progressed through the level, a light fall of snow in the background quickly becomes a viscous snowstorm that almost blankets the screen making it hard to see.
As we attempted to traverse the level, Donkey and Diddy would slide with every step making it harder to stop at the edge of a platform. The music is calm yet eerie and tense, drawing out a sense of paranoia.
The most stressful part is where two wasps float on each end of a spinning barrel. If we could time the barrel to shoot straight up then we get the Rhino Token but if we missed, it was hot dog city. I hot dogged a ridiculous amount of times on that barrel until we eventually got it. Snow Barrel Blast was more like a Snow Barrel Carole Baskin, because it was a real bitch!
Mine Cart Madness
The mine levels are fun but the second one was a pain in the ass.
The soundtrack sounds like we’re escaping from a cave-in, adding to the hype. In this level, Donkey and Diddy have to maneuver a high speed minecart through a dangerous track of gaps, vultures, and fallen carts.
Everything had to be timed perfectly. If one of us messed up and ran into a vulture, the other had to jump back INTO the cart and keep going. I can’t tell you the amount of hot dogging that happened on this level, but when we beat it there was a roar of excitement as we moved on ever so close to beating the game!
The End In Sight
By the end we had been playing DKC for almost two years on and off. Eagerly we made it to the pirate ship to meet King K. Rool for the final showdown.
This was for all the marbles. We were on our last life and hadn’t saved thinking there would be a series of levels on the pirate ship to clear including a save point and a chance to stock up on some lives. Wrong.
As soon as we made it to the ship the battle began. Suddenly a hulking, green-scaled figure jumped down onto the deck in front of Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong.
There were no pleasantries or villainous monologues.
King K. Rool whipped his crown with violent intent. A quick dodge was in order but it was far from over! The oversized pirate king charged straight at us.
Dodging this attempted tackle seemed trivial; I was cocky at this point. We made it this far and a fat alligator wasn’t about to take my last life.
That’s when his pattern suddenly changed. King K. Rool began leaping about the ship, smashing down and trying to take out Donkey and Diddy for good.
The beefy king stopped briefly to try another go with his crown ninja star. This was my chance to deliver a counter strike with a wallop over his head.
After a few tense rounds of flawlessly timed jumps and barrel rolls, cannon balls rained down from above.
The large frame of Donkey Kong was no match as munitions of iron and ill intent fell around him – one wrong barrel roll and I ended up hotdogging right into an oncoming cannon ball.
It was then up to Chris, he was our final hope.
Our last life, no tag-ins and if we lost we had to go back two levels and start over. A lot was riding on Chris.
I began to commentate, “Ladies and Gentlemen this is our final moment! I hope you’ve brought your ketchup and mustard because ladies and gentlemen, Chris is about to hot dog right into King K. Rool’s cannon balls! There goes Diddy Kong, he somersaults away from one – used the ol’ stutter step to dodge another – holy shit! He’s dodged another and ANOTHER!”
At the end of the barrage King K. Rool gave one more desperate throw of the crown.
“DIDDY EVADES THE NINJA STAR! HE MOVES TO COUNTER. HE’S GOING FOR IT! OH MY GAWD! DIDDY JUMPS – HE’S ON COURSE – HE HIT HIM! OH MY F@*#ING GAWD HE DID IT! LADIES AND GENTLEMEN DIDDY DEFEATED THE FINAL BOSS!!”
King K. Rool fell and a series of credits rolled. We roared in excitement I couldn’t believe it. With one life we beat the boss and finally beat the game. We put our controllers down, jumped up and cheered.
It wasn’t over.
The credits finished and without warning, King K. Rool jumped up with a vengeance. He came crashing down, catching the unsuspecting Diddy off guard.
We had lost. The greatest hot dog in history was just handed to us by the game itself. DKC had successfully trolled our attempts to win and because we had no save points, we had to replay multiple grueling levels flawlessly to get another shot.
It was like that State Farm commercial with the fisherman “Ooh you almost had it. Gotta be quicker than that.” DKC got us good.
It would be another month before we could meet back to try again.
The next go around we decided to do some map hopping, going back to some easier levels so we could farm up on lives. Once we had collected a good four or five lives we made sure to hit the save point.
Good thing we did too because we needed them. It seemed either we were rusty or King K. Rool was hell bent on breaking us (or maybe a little of both). We kept getting crushed under the girthy pirate king or smashed by one of the falling cannon balls.
Eventually we had to postpone and play the next week. It started off the same with farming up for lives but this time around we were better rehearsed and more prepared than before.
We only donated a few hot dogs to the cause before finally making it to the point that crushed us so cruelly before. They don’t call him K. Rool for nothing.
But we knew what to expect this time.
A few hops and some crown chucks (seriously, where do these crowns keep coming from? Does he have a kangaroo pouch of crowns? Actually, I’d rather not know) and we were once again walloping the gator boi on his head.
Just like Carole Baskin’s first husband, the king was dead.
This time we made sure we had won! The game ended with Cranky Kong sitting in his rocking chair outside his jungle cabin.
I found it to be an interesting moment because if you don’t find all the secrets and clear the game 100% like we hadn’t, Cranky will encourage you to continue exploring before informing Donkey Kong to check his newly stockpiled banana horde.
I felt this was kind of special because it was an age before console achievements and trophies and yet it still encouraged you to play to completion.
However, after two years of getting together on odd weekends, reminiscing, playing and hot-dogging, our adventure with Donkey Kong Country had come to its end. I gained a newfound respect for retro game designers and their cunning level-crafting. Donkey Kong Country brought an amazing experience and it was a blast to play.
DKC helped to rekindle an old friendship as well as giving us those breaks in life we need to keep up with the day to day. Thanks to that, Donkey Kong Country will always have a special place in my heart.
Over the two years it took us to beat DKC a lot would take place – girlfriends, marriage, college, career changes – but these weekend gaming sessions kept us grounded as we both moved on to the next chapters in our lives.
As for Chris and I, they say in life, true friendships are strengthened through struggle and victory. We go way back. He’ll always be my brother from another mother.