I had read somewhere that “The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening” and “Donkey Kong Land” are the two best original Game Boy games ever made. Knowing how good Link’s Awakening is, I thought I’d finally sit down with Donkey Kong Land. My impression? It’s fun, but I don’t know if it’s the greatest of all time. I certainly had more fun playing Pokemon Blue. Still, at one point I said to myself, if I were a kid again on a very long car ride with nothing to entertain myself but a Game Boy and Donkey Kong Land, I’d be very grateful I had that combination. Though a bit simplistic, Donkey Kong Land intelligently brings the fun of the Super Nintendo Donkey Kong Country games to the much less powerful but portable Game Boy handheld console.
You’re going to notice when you first play the game that the graphics are a bit chunky. Remember that for the Donkey Kong series, 3D models were rendered on highly powerful workstations … and then turned into game sprites and backgrounds for DKL. So, because Game Boy has much less power than the Super Nintendo, and a lower resolution monochromatic display, you are going to notice things are rough around the edges. The game looks better in motion. Unfortunately, a lack of pixel precision means it can be hard to tell if you’re about to collide with an enemy, or if you’re in a safe spot. Also, widescreen visuals would have been nice, because sometimes it’s hard to see if an enemy is dead ahead.
The game-play is simple. You are mostly attempting to get to the far right side of the screen, and reach the stage exit. Of course, there’s a little more to it, with enemies to avoid, bananas to collect, and then grabbing the letters K-O-N-G in each level. A couple of things are worth noting. Actually defeating enemies is optional, and doing so doesn’t give you extra points. Also, the aforementioned collectibles just give you extra lives. Really, the goal is to get to the exit, unless there’s a boss fight, in which case you must attack the boss the correct number of times. It’s a simple formula, but this is more or less the formula that made Mario a success. Still, a points system would have been nice.
The music is mostly borrowed from the Super Nintendo game Donkey Kong Country. While unique tracks would have been preferable, I was immediately able to hum along. The biggest downside to Donkey Kong Land is the monochromatic display of the original Game Boy. This was a late Game Boy title, and had the game come out on the Game Boy Color, there could have been some really eye-catching visuals that would have made this closer to par with the SNES counterpart. Even at only two and a half hours of playtime, it’s impressive that they crammed as many levels into the game as they did. Part of the reason I could breeze through the game quickly is I used an emulator with a rewind feature turned on.
Donkey Kong Land is a fun time, but it’s short, and I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I were a kid. Surprisingly, DKL got two sequels, and you can bet that if they improve upon the original, I’m willing to give them a try. Though not likely to win a lot of originality awards, this does stand out as one of the better Game Boy games I’ve played, and probably one of the better known titles in the long-lived portable’s library. After all, Donkey Kong is now a key Nintendo franchise. But maybe DKL has a shortcoming in trying to “ape” (excuse me) the Super Nintendo game rather than attempting something unique. Donkey Kong Land is fun, but not especially remarkable.