Ranking the Donkey Kong Country series

Oh how I love the Donkey Kong country games! Ever since I played the first game around Christmas 1994, I’ve been hooked. All of the games feature a fun Nintendo protagonist and have excellent platforming controls. Not to mention the atmosphere, charm, whimsy, and creativity is astounding in each entry. It’s my third favorite series of all time (behind Zelda and Metroid). So let’s try ranking the Donkey Kong Country series!

5. Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie’s Double Trouble

This game had the misfortune of releasing right around the time the N64 did. And that wasn’t a “soft leap” like today’s console transitions-it was a mind-blowing revolution to the world of Mario 64, the likes of which had never (and possibly will never again) been seen! I completely missed out on the release back in 1996, and didn’t play it until more than a decade later when I was on a SNES nostalgia kick. And you know what? DKC 3 is a fun and charming game.

Donkey Kong Country 3 box, cart, player's guide, SNES controller, and banana

The “wooded North” motif of the game doesn’t quite stick the landing as much as the pirate theme of DKC 2 does. The soundtrack is serviceable, but David Wise’ genius is dearly missed. And level design leans a little too heavily into “gimmicky” rather than “platforming nirvana”. But I enjoy it! The fully navigable world map was a lot of fun, and several levels are just a delight. It’s at the bottom of this list, but don’t let that deter you from checking it out! (it’s difficult ranking the Donkey Kong Country series since all the entries are quality)

4. Donkey Kong Country Returns (Wii/3DS)

I remember watching E3 back in 2006 and seeing Reggie introduce the trailer for this game. I was ludicrously excited! A brand new Donkey Kong Country? Made by the phenomenal Retro Studios? Forget about it! I didn’t pick the game up until years later (I took a bit of break from gaming until the 3DS brought me back to it) but it was a joy to play! On first picking up the controller (or remote!) it definitely feels different than the classics series, but “just right” quick enough. I loved the throwback of so many classic courses from the original games, and remixed soundtrack. And dang was this thing tough! And in case you didn’t know, the 3DS version of the game fixes a lot of annoying control quirks from the Wii game. It’s now my preferred way to play.

Donkey Kong Country Returns Wii box, disc, manual, Wii remote, and 3DS version of game

3. Donkey Kong Country (SNES)

It is difficult to overstate how big a revelation this game was back in 1994. With the Nintendo 64 delayed and the Super Nintendo already several years old, Donkey Kong Country was the shot in the arm Nintendo needed to stay relevant. The graphics engine (developed with similar technology to Jurassic Park dinosaurs!) was just insane at the time, and utterly captivating, to say nothing of the delightful gameplay! The game was clever, easy to control, challenging but not too much so, and bursting at the seems with color and colorful ideas. My young daughters love watching me play this game, and always ask for “the water level” so they can listen to Aquatic Ambience! It was a cultural phenomena that’s still so nostalgic today. And I can’t believe Rare got it to run decently on Game Boy Color!

Donkey Kong Country SNES cart, player's guide, Game Boy Color box, Super Nintendo controller, and bananas
I also own the Game Boy Advance version of this game, because I just love it so much.

2. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

Honestly, this game and the ever elusive “Zelda Wii U” were the reasons I wanted to buy a Wii U console. As you already well know, I enjoyed Donkey Kong Country Returns, but felt a few elements were lacking. The trailers for this game looked like an improvement across the board, and lo and behold, it was! Once I popped the disc in I was enamored and couldn’t stop playing.

Tropical Freeze is absolutely delightful from start to finish. It bests its predecessor in every possible way, in my opinion. David Wise returns for amazing soundtrack that is only topped by DKC 2. The levels are ludicrously clever, each introducing a fun concept or mechanic, the ending before they outstay their welcome. I mean, just try to play through levels like “Grassland Groove” and not be utterly delighted! Dixie and Cranky as playable character is a fun choice than brings more diversity to the gameplay too. And the graphics are beautiful. My preferred way to play the game is now on my Switch, but I’ll always have a soft spot for the Wii U!

Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze on Switch and Wii U, in snow

1. Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest

DKC 2 is platforming perfection, and one of my top 10 games of all time. I still play through it every fall, in October, and wrote a full retrospective for the 25th anniversary in 2020! The original Donkey Kong Country was already outstanding, but Rare really took what they learned and cranked things up to 11 with the sequel. Everything in Donkey Kong Country 2 is polished to a sheen.

Donkey Kong Country 2 Cartridge, Box, Player's Guide and Nintendo Switch playing DKC 2
Please go play this game immediately if you haven’t. It’s on the Nintendo Switch Online service!

Every world, and every single level, is drenched in atmosphere. Diddy and Dixie Kong are extremely responsive to control, making movement a constant source of joy. The soundtrack is phenomenal-I mean every single track. Each theme perfectly suits the levels it was written formaking them all the more atmospheric. It’s got just the right amount of collectibles and meaningful rewards for finding them. The bonus rooms are fun, varied, and the perfect degree of challenge. All of the animal buddies have a plethora of entertaining abilities, and are peak adorable. Sound design? Impeccable. The level titles are catchy and memorable. Heck, even the FONT in the game even perfectly suits it. This is Rare at their most glorious.

Want more rankings?

If you enjoyed this list and are a fan of platformers, check out my top 10 best Mario games, rankings of the classic Sonic games and Shantae series! The DKC inspired Kaze and the Wild Masks is also lovely if you haven’t played it.

How would you go about ranking the Donkey Kong Country series? Or are you not a big fan? Do you think we’ll see a third game from Retro Studios to cap off a trilogy, or are they too busy with Metroid Prime 4? Let me know in the comments below!

5 thoughts on “Ranking the Donkey Kong Country series”

  1. I’ve just been thinking about playing these! I owned the original DKC when it was released – I remember it, Secret of Mana and Super SF2 coming out after SNES game prices were reduced to sub-$100 in Australia, which felt like a revelation at the time.

    I’ve never played any of the others in the series. I have the first four games on 3DS – I actually bought DKCR for my wife – so it must be time to go back and play through them.

    And that link to the TV ad sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole, starting with the ad for Zelda II – that ad was my gateway to the series. 🙂

    1. I wholeheartedly endorse a play through of the entire series! The original SNES games hold up magnificently and DK Tropical Freeze is a revelation. Now I’m just holding onto to those rumors that the Mario Odyssey team is developing a new 3D Donkey Kong game!

      And I LOVE the old game ads from the 90s. So nostalgic, and we’ll never see commercials like that again!

      1. Ha, I hadn’t heard that rumour yet but that is a truly exciting news! Although really, that team could be working on a boot-polishing simulator and it would still be pretty exciting. 🙂

  2. I think this ranking is the general consensus among our fellow gaming community. Well done!

    I’m excited to get into Tropical Freeze on the Switch.

    Nothing will ever compare to the excitement, anticipation and joy of Donkey Kong Country 1 for me. I even remember feeling that while DKC2 was “bigger and badder” than its predecessor, I still enjoyed the vibe of DKC1 more.

    Nostalgia fuels nearly (maybe all?) the gaming I do these days and the nostalgia of DKC1 is over the top for me. Do I fondly remember DKC2 and how cool those lava levels looked? Or how awesome the DKC2 players guide looked at blockbuster, but was $25 and out of reach? ($25 is almost a gameboy game!) DKC2 gets the most love from the community but DKC1 is a “gaming safe place” for me – even though I may only break it out every few years.

    Do we remember the DKC1 commercials Nintendo pushed out before release in 1994? The black box screen with huge white lettering spliced with gameplay video made me jump on my parent’s furniture and pretend I was Donkey Kong.

    1. Thanks Kamal! I think you’ll love Tropical Freeze :).

      I can very much see why the original Donkey Kong Country is a “gaming safe space” in a variety of ways. That was the first game I played after our second daughter was born, once we got a little settled. It was really soothing in a very stressful time!

      And I had totally forgotten that glorious commercial, but watching it again makes me both want to play through DKC right now, and go swashbuckling through a jungle!

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