Given a mere 14 months to develop their re-imagining of Nintendo’s infamous ape, the team at Rare conjure technical magic to get Donkey Kong Country on shelves in time for Christmas 1994.
Kings of the Jungle: The Making of Donkey Kong Country
Table of Contents
- Chapter 1: New Ape on the Block
- Chapter 2: Technical Wizardry
Chapter 2: Technical Wizardry
For Steve Mayles, deciding on a style of movement was much simpler than manifesting movement on the screen. “In those days, there were no tutorials, no documents on the Internet that you could read over. You had to work out everything for yourself.” Working on one of Rare’s Silicon Graphics machines, Mayles groped around the Alias PowerAnimator software. Once he got the hang of the basics of creating 3D models and breaking them down to sprites, the rest came naturally.
“One of the benchmarks in animation was Aladdin [on Sega Genesis],” Mayles said. “That game was highly thought of. It had animation [created by Disney animators], and here we were, realizing that we could do anything, make anything look fantastic in 3D. It was a simple process when you got the hang of it. It almost felt like cheating: we learned this stuff in just a few weeks, and suddenly we were able to make animations that looked better than anything that anybody else had done up to that point.”
Part of Sutherland’s job involved importing characters and levels into the game. Oftentimes, that meant downsizing Mayles’ lovingly-crafted characters to work within the limits of the SNES hardware. “If I handed Chris Sutherland a disk with a 16-frame walk animation, he’d probably only use every other frame,” Mayles said. “That was something beyond my control. It would really wound you up when you made this great-looking animation, only for the programmers to chop it to pieces. But that had to be done to fit it in the allotted space.”
Creating levels and effects, such as a light snowfall that grows into a blizzard as players move through a level, required more technical wizardry. Early on, Sutherland and the Stampers worried that the SNES hardware would crack under the strain of the richly detailed levels the artists were turning out. Their doubts were assuaged after they enacted a two-step process. “The first part was taking a single pre-rendered background screen and then cutting it up into squares with the correct colour palettes that could replicate that image on the SNES,” Sutherland explained. “The second stage was to find places where pieces of the image could be repeated elsewhere to save video [memory] space whilst still remaining visually impressive overall.”
Gameplay-wise, DKC came together smoothly. “Super Mario games definitely were a big influence. Those games do some nice work at introducing new features at a steady rate to keep the player interested, and that was something we wanted in DKC,” Sutherland said. Every level overflowed in DKC overflowed with bonus stages, bananas and K-O-N-G letters that netted players extra lives, and unique settings such as mining caverns, treehouses, and jungles.
Many levels were designed around unique mechanics. In Stop-and-Go Station, invulnerable golems charged blindly until players touched red STOP barrels, putting them to sleep for a short amount of time. Particularly memorable were two mine cart-themed levels where players had to ride an out-of-control cart across broken rails, jumping at just the right moment to avoid plummeting into pits.
According to Gary Richards, “It was always the plan to have as much diversity as possible. The art guys experimented with the new technology and produced loads of backgrounds and ideas.”
Arguably the biggest innovation in gameplay was the clutter-free UI, which let players soak up the game’s drool-worthy graphics without visual distractions like remaining lives and a health bar. Of course, clearing the UI presented a problem: Gregg Mayles and Chris Sutherland needed a way to convey to players how much damage they could take before losing a life. Their solution was to give DK a partner, the diminutive Diddy Kong. Donkey and Diddy Kong effectively became the damage meter. Both characters could absorb one hit, and the player lost a life if both monkeys were defeated. Players could regain life by rescuing fallen partners from “DK” barrels scattered across each level.
While Diddy served as an intuitive life bar and able partner, Rare had ulterior motives for creating a brand new sidekick for Donkey Kong. “Originally, we wanted to use Donkey Kong Junior as one of the characters, but in the end we stuck with our visuals and rebranded him as Diddy Kong,” Chris Sutherland explained.
To further distinguish DKC from Super Mario games, Rare devised dexterity-based challenges such as a sequence of barrels hanging in midair. Players navigated them by shooting their characters from one barrel to the next. Most barrels swung back and forth quickly, making it hard to line up shots. “With Mario, you can often play at a faster pace as long as you are ready to react with good timing. That was something we wanted in DKC, such that when you were playing well, it all feels very fluid,” Sutherland explained.
The Donkey Kong Country team had approximately 14 months to turn out a hit if they wanted their game on shelves in time for 1994’s holiday season. When the hours got long—12- and 14-hour days, plus weekends, for several months—sleep deprivation set in. Sutherland recalled one day where he was expected at the office early to produce a prototype of the game. “I must have slept in, because I awoke to hear someone outside my upstairs flat throwing stones at my window. I looked out the window and saw Tim and Gregg. When I got in I saw they had placed a fast food breakfast on my desk ready for me.”
Not even a crunch schedule could deter the team from working on DKC, who viewed the project as a labor of love. “Everything was going in the right direction,” Steve Mayles said. “When you saw Tim Stamper there as long as you were, putting in all the hours—that was the sort of thing that inspired you to go the extra mile.”
For Rare and Nintendo, DKC was more than just another game. The flashy 3D graphics of the Sony PlayStation, Sega Saturn, and other new consoles looming on the horizon were catching the eyes of consumers, who had begun to view their SNES and Sega Genesis boxes as old and crusty. Nintendo was banking on Donkey Kong Country to be the game that convinced customers that the SNES was still a contender.
Rare’s developers felt the pressure they were under, but didn’t let it shake them. At the Consumer Electronics Show held in Chicago during the summer of 1994, Rare brought DKC to the show floor. Attendees took one look and assumed that the future of Nintendo had arrived a few years ahead of schedule. “Nintendo was building up hype around the Nintendo Ultra 64, which was called Project Reality back then. People saw our Donkey Kong game and thought it was running on Nintendo’s new hardware. When they found out it was running on the SNES, they were just amazed,” Steve Mayles recalled.
Donkey Kong Country landed in stores in stores on November 21, 1994, just in time for a holiday push. Within months, the game accomplished exactly what Nintendo needed it to do. Early reviews raved about the graphics, gameplay, and secrets to find. More than 20 years and nine million sales later, gamers are still having a blast running, jumping, and swinging through the jungle alongside Donkey and Diddy Kong.
“For me, I’ve always wanted to reach as many people as possible with videogames, and this was one step towards that. Also, I recall Tim’s intent was that DKC should still look good, even many years in the future. I think that’s been proved out to be very much the case,” Chris Sutherland said.
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