Donkey Kong Country: ranking the series

The Donkey Kong Country series rightfully rests among the greatest of 2D platforming franchises, but how do the games stack up against each other? At five games old and without a single dud, the influence and reach of the Donkey Kong Country games are enormous. The series defined the funky and spunky identity of one of the most iconic characters in gaming, catalyzed Rare’s incredible partnership with Nintendo, and built some absolutely fantastic adventures to boot. Ranking all of the Donkey Kong Country games is no easy task, but as a long-time fan of the classic series, I feel that I’m up to it, and I gave it my best shot. Here’s my ranking of this spectacular platforming series.

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

Donkey Kong Country 3 is a good game. It’s far from a great game, though, and that’s enough to firmly establish it as the worst Donkey Kong Country game in the rankings. Releasing quite late into the SNES’s life, Donkey Kong Country 3 lacks the series’s notable difficulty and outstanding level design. It’s a solid platformer that is still worth playing thanks to franchise hallmarks like excellent art, tight gameplay, and a wonderful soundtrack, but it pales in comparison to the rest of the series.

4. Donkey Kong Country Returns

2010’s long-awaited revival of the series came from Retro Studios, who brought Donkey Kong Country back into the limelight after a 15-year hiatus. Retro successfully revived and reinvigorated the series with fun level design, including new rocket barrel levels, which are a favorite of mine, and silhouette stages, which have since appeared in many other platformers on account of how satisfying they are to look at. Returns also enjoys nice, colorful art direction and great music, as well as some actual difficulty — something fairly uncharacteristic of post-GameCube-era Nintendo. Returns reminded the gaming world just what Nintendo’s most famous ape is capable of, kick-starting a duology that stands among Nintendo’s best efforts of the 2010s.

Donkey Kong Country Returns rankings

Even at the time, however, Returns did not quite live up to the pedigree of the series’s first two games. The art style lacked the same retro charm as the SNES originals. The new Tiki enemies couldn’t compare to the wacky Kremlings and K. Rool. (Nobody’s asking for Returns‘ final boss, Tiki Tong, to round out the Smash Bros. Ultimate DLC.) The level design was excellent but not as memorable as that of the first two games. Matching the originals is a very tall order for any game, though, and the fact that Returns lands in fourth place on this list in no way indicts its status as a high-quality platformer. It’s a fantastic game that introduced many fans to the series, myself included.

3. Donkey Kong Country

As the first game in the franchise, Donkey Kong Country encapsulates everything that makes the series substantial to its genre, characters, and Nintendo. From the title screen and opening levels, the game wastes no time in establishing the iconic atmosphere, excellent gameplay and difficulty, and lovely graphics. Throw in a spectacular soundtrack from David Wise, and you’re in business.

Ultimately, I place the original Donkey Kong Country over Returns in ranking because of a divisive aspect of the series’s first two games that I love: the limited saving. In the first two SNES titles, once you enter a world, you can’t back out of it until you unlock a warp point. So, to save your game, you have to reach either the world’s save point or its warp point by beating a handful of levels — often difficult ones. The feature is rightfully annoying to many gamers, but it enhanced my experience with palpable tension and challenge that just felt so damn rewarding to overcome and made the journey through those levels just that much more memorable.

The original Donkey Kong Country kicks off the series with a bang. It was a tough act to follow, and the games that eventually surpassed it are two of Nintendo’s finest.

2. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

Retro Studios struck gold here. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze advances the excellent groundwork from Returns and reaches a few series highs in doing so. The brilliant level design and satisfying gameplay are as excellent as ever. The soundtrack is arguably the best of any game in the series. The gameplay feels perfect, nailing the moment-to-moment platforming, mine cart levels, and boss fights. It’s one of the best platformers ever made. I’ve got nothing but praise for Tropical Freeze.

Donkey Kong Country tropical freeze rankings

Because of how damn great this game is, the franchise’s two best titles can be awfully hard to choose between. As my pick for the second-best game in the franchise ranking, I believe that Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze and the (now obvious) number one pick rest in their own echelon of incredible platforming, and either one of these two titles is completely worthy of the number one ranking. The other games on this list are fantastic, but the peak of the Donkey Kong Country series is the peak of 2D platforming.

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

When it comes to Donkey Kong Country 2, you aren’t just discussing the greatest Donkey Kong Country game. You’re talking about one of the best 2D platformers, one of the best SNES titles, and one of the best games of all time, period. It’s a lovingly crafted, expertly designed adventure that shines the entire way through.

Donkey Kong Country 2 ranking rankings

Donkey Kong Country 2 excels in many of the same ways as the rest of the series. You’ve read me discuss fantastic level design and lovely graphics and music for each game on this list now. Donkey Kong Country 2 stands even above the rest, however, with a certain fluidity that just can’t be matched. Compared to the rest of the series, I found the levels more memorable, the soundtrack more engaging, and a perfect amount of challenge with a fantastic final boss fight. I vividly remember staying up until 5 in the morning one summer night trying in vain to reach a save point in the last world, losing over 30 lives on my way to a game over. That was rough, but immediately clearing it the next morning? Priceless.

As one of the medium’s best, Donkey Kong Country 2 earns its spot at the top of this ranking list, but the main idea that this list should show you is just how incredible this entire series is. It’s now been seven years since the last game in the franchise — that’s a gap half as long as the one dividing Donkey Kong Country 3 and Returns — but I have hope that it’ll return in some form down the line, whether in the rumored upcoming DK project by the 3D Mario team, in another game by Retro Studios, or in some totally new form. However and whenever that coveted next entry does arrive, one thing is painfully clear: It’ll have very, very big shoes to fill.

Nick Pearson
I'm the Reviews Editor here at Nintendo Enthusiast, and I'm a major fan of all consoles and eras.