A common criticism of the Game Boy era is that its library is essentially stripped-down, colorless versions of the NES and SNES's set of games. I've always found this to be an unfair complaint since there're many Game Boy games that are particularly well-designed, memorable, and occasionally even better than their big brothers on the consoles. Donkey Kong '94, Link's Awakening, Mega Man V and Oracles are notable in their own venerable series, not to mention great original IPs like Mole Mania, Pokemon, Mario's Picross, and Kirby's Dream Land.
Donkey Kong Land is not one of those games. It is a stripped-down, less-polished version of Donkey Kong Country.
Which isn't to say it's a port. Unlike its sequels, Donkey Kong Land is, in fact, a fully original adventure with all-new levels, new bosses, and a few new environments. The basic story is sort of funny in its self-awareness: Cranky is upset that Donkey Kong Country (yes, the SNES game) was popular and claims it's only because of its newfangled graphics. Diddy and DK contest that people liked the game because it was fun, and to prove it, everyone strikes a deal for K.Rool to steal the Kongs' banana horde again to test their mettle in an 8-bit adventure. This weird and amusing backstory is only in the manual, though, and has no representation in the game itself (sadly).
The core platforming gameplay is familiar enough for anyone who's played the beloved SNES trilogy, but after a few levels, it becomes apparent that whatever Land this is, it doesn't quite look or feel as good as the Country we came from. The 8-bit version of Rare's rendering technology is kind of impressive, but it comes at a big price: the camera feels very close throughout the whole adventure. All too often, the vertically-designed levels will have you drop to a platform below, only to be immediately bitten by an unseen enemy. More troubling is that when the screen moves upward, it's a crap-shoot whether dropping below will kill you or not; it often turns the blank area below the Kongs into a pit for some reason, so dropping towards a previously safe platform will--like so many Contra waterfall stage deaths--suddenly result in an insta-kill.
Not only that, but depending on where your Kong is located upon getting hit (like, say, on a vine touching a previously-unseen Zinger because the level designers are sadistic and the game is filled with blind spots), there's a bug where the game sometimes doesn't give you your second Kong at all, and just treats the first hit as a full death. The physics themselves never quite feel right, with our heroes falling just a little too quickly and having little of the rewarding momentum of the SNES titles.
There are some other concessions due to the insistence on sticking with the rendering style, like the game's strange sense of scale. K.Rool once towered over DK, here he's only slightly taller than Diddy, and the other bosses are all no bigger than your average grunt enemy. It can also be difficult to make out what certain objects are thanks to some busy backgrounds and ornate environments, further hurting the visibility. I've never agreed with the assertion that Retro's DK games had trial-and-error segments, but this one absolutely does.
The new environments, incidentally, are strange-looking and often don't fit the established art style very well. A couple of the city stages are cool, but there're an equal number of bizarre environments that don't come together well.
The music is okay. The chiptune remakes of songs like Jungle Hijinx, Gangplank Galleon and Aquatic Ambiance work decently, but the new stuff is pretty unmemorable and not terribly characteristic of the series.
If you can get past those issues, there's a reasonably large game here, with the usual bonus barrels and a fairly good variety of environments. Some stages are interesting and there's a decent amount of variety for a pre-DKC2 era game. But ultimately, the gameplay flaws and frustrating elements really hold it back for me. As a kid, I didn't really notice the game design issues, but it made for a very frustrating experience being blindsided by sudden enemies and pits-that-didn't-exist-before over and over.
And the ending is terrible too. 100% completion and what do you get? "CONGRATULATIONS." Yes, with the period. Almost like the game is mocking you for sticking with it to the end. Maybe Cranky was right after all.