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“Yes, we did go to the zoo and observe the gorillas”: The making of Donkey Kong Country

The birth of any game, especially in the early days of its development, always begins with conceptual drawings, sketches and inks. So you could argue that when Nintendo approached Rare and asked him to create a game with ‘better graphics than Aladdin’, it effectively wanted Rare to surpass Walt Disney. It’s like trying to beat Hulk Hogan in an arm wrestling match.

“We were experimenting with 3D technology very early on before Donkey Kong Country (DKC) started, but trying to implement an ambitious method in a real game situation was tough,” says lead designer Gregg Mayles.

“At that time, software houses outside of Japan were producing graphics that were considered superior to those produced in Japan. Nintendo visited us and we showed us a proprietary graphics system we were playing with, and that system became ACM. [Advanced Computer Modelling]. As a result, they asked us to make a game using the character of Donkey Kong.”

monkey going

Donkey Kong Land

old player

Donkey Kong Country has been praised for its stunning looks. Donkey and Diddy’s characters looked solid, lively and innovative as a result of the new 3D game design process. “The use of 3D modeling was a foreign concept to us (and the industry) back then. Once the character was modeled in 3D, we were able to view it from any angle and render 3D keyframes that were then converted into 2D images. Previously, animation was extremely labor intensive and required great artistic skill to get the right angles and lighting. This new computer-aided method allowed us to produce animations faster, to a higher standard, and with an unprecedented realistic look,” Gregg recalls.

Donkey Kong Land

The stages are meticulously arranged so that the player can ‘pass through’ obstacles first (i.e. if there was a swinging rope, it would swing towards you when it appeared on the screen, so you can jump right in). Watching a skilled player at levels like Barrel Cannon Canyon in full stream is probably the best example of this. If you time everything right, you can level up efficiently and impressively.”

It was rarely needed to get their stunning duo framed within a suitably immersive world. Because the Donkey Kong universe hasn’t been explored in great detail – aside from some stairs and beams – Rare has had a chance to make a significant mark on the series. It added a number of new Kongs to the game and even blurted things out by replacing a new Donkey Kong in the lead role.

“Initially, we wanted to include DK Junior as Donkey’s sidekick,” Gregg says. “Diddy Kong was our update to Junior, but Nintendo felt the character was too different and wanted Junior to be included in their original look or renamed our new character. We felt our new character would fit perfectly into the updated Donkey Kong universe, so we kept our character and “We gave it a different name. We had a sheet of paper that we handed back and forth with potential names scribbling. Some of them were hilarious: Diet DK, DK Lite, and Titchy Kong. We decided on Dinky Kong, but after legal advice we decided to switch to Diddy.”

Donkey Kong Land

Donkey Kong Country is known for introducing a friend system to its gameplay; This is a feature Rare will continue to tweak throughout the series. Gregg explains how the unique tagging system came about. “The second character was originally conceived as an ‘extra hit’. If the player has both characters and the main character is shot, the latter can continue and the player doesn’t die,” Gregg says.

“An initial decision was made to keep the screen as free as possible, so we threw in an energy bar. It had to be visual. Based on Mario’s ‘big Mario returns little Mario’ system, I thought a second character could fulfill this role, look visually stunning. “And we thought it could give the player the feeling that they’re not alone in the game. As we developed the game and its sequels, the second character became an integral part of the games rather than being an extra hit.”

business monkey

Donkey Kong Land

Ironically, reflecting the wall of suspicion that Donkey Kong faced from its American distributors in 1981, Rare’s approach to the series was met with similar skepticism when the team traveled to Kyoto to show the game to the original creators. “We had an unforgettable visit to Nintendo’s headquarters in Japan. Even though it was my first visit to what many would describe as the mecca of video games, I was surprisingly calm at the time,” says Gregg.

“We were there to show the people who created the original character an early version of the game. Many at Nintendo were seeing the game for the first time, and our radical approach to graphics didn’t go too well at first. Mr. Yokoi [Game Boy creator] ‘It looked very 3D,’ he commented. Miyamoto much more quickly appreciated what we did and gave his approval. Mr. Miyamoto and his team used their unique experience to give us some tips on how to smooth out some of the rough edges and suggested that DK would be fine with a swipe of the hand. We thought that would be great too, so we included this even though we were only weeks away from the deadline.”

Donkey Kong Land

Gregg Mayles

DK Country was published in a period of change in the industry. It could easily be drowned out by the noise of the huge visual leap that 32-bit games make. Fortunately, the release of DK Country has proven to be just as seismic. It has sold over 8 million copies, making it one of the best-selling 16-bit games of all time. Gregg remembers when they first introduced the game.

“The conference was finally made for the DRC announcement,” he says. “People were expecting something big, but they thought it would be about the N64. The game looked amazing and I heard people say that Project Reality (the development name for the N64) looked great. Then, when it was announced to be an SNES game, there was a moment of surprise before everyone started cheering. There was silence (except for me, who was wondering how we’d finish in time). I think I had a few celebratory beers at the Nintendo party that followed.”

When Gregg is asked how he reacted when people told him they preferred Donkey Kong Country to Miyamoto’s Super Mario World, he replied that he was honored but quick to defend Mario. “I think the style of play is very different; “Super Mario World was sublime and complex, best enjoyed at a slower pace, while Donkey Kong Country was flashy and brash, best played at a faster pace,” he explains. “If I was honest, I would say Mario is the best game. My personal opinion is that DKC2 is a better game than DKC because we try to combine more of the complexities that make Mario so compelling, while maintaining our desire for fast and fun gameplay. “


This feature was first old player magazine. For more great resources like the one you just read, be sure to subscribe to the print or digital edition at My favorite magazines.


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“Yes, we did go to the zoo and observe the gorillas”: The making of Donkey Kong Country

The genesis of any game, particularly in the early days of its development, always begins with conceptual drawings, sketches and inks. So when Nintendo approached Rare and asked it to create a game that would have ‘better graphics than Aladdin’ you could argue that it was effectively asking Rare to outdraw Walt Disney. That’s like trying to beat Hulk Hogan in an arm wrestle. 
“We were experimenting with a very early form of 3D technology before Donkey Kong Country (DKC) began, but actually trying to implement an ambitious method into a real game situation was difficult,” recalls lead designer Gregg Mayles. 
“At the time, software houses outside Japan were producing graphics that were considered superior to those produced inside Japan. Nintendo visited us and we demonstrated a proprietary graphics system that we were toying with, which became ACM [Advanced Computer Modelling]. As a result they asked us to do a game using the Donkey Kong character.” 
Going ape

Donkey Kong Country was praised for its stunning looks. The characters of Donkey and Diddy looked solid, crisp and innovative – a result of the new process of 3D game design. “The use of 3D modelling was an alien concept to us (and the industry) at the time. Once the character was modelled in 3D we could view it at any angle and render 0out the frames of 3D animation that were then converted to 2D images. Previously, animation was extremely labour-intensive and required great artistic skill to get the angles and lighting correct. This new computer assisted method enabled us to produce animation quicker, to a higher standard and with a previously unseen realistic look,” recalls Gregg. 

“The stages were painstakingly arranged so that the player could ‘go first time’ past obstacles (ie if there was a swinging rope then when it came on screen it was swinging towards you so you could jump onto it straight away). Watching a skilled player in full flow on levels such as Barrel Cannon Canyon is probably the best example of this. If you time everything correctly, you can get through the level efficiently and impressively.” 
Rare needed to ensure that its dazzling duo would be framed inside a suitably striking world. As the Donkey Kong universe – save for a few ladders and girders – hadn’t really been explored in any great detail, Rare had the chance to leave a significant mark on the series. It introduced a number of new Kong’s into the game and even smudged things up by supplanting a brand new Donkey Kong into the lead role. 
“We initially wanted to include DK Junior as Donkey’s sidekick,” says Gregg. “Diddy Kong was our update of Junior, but Nintendo felt that the character was too different and either wanted Junior to be included in his original look or the name of our new character to be changed. We felt that our new character perfectly suited the updated universe of Donkey Kong so we kept our character and gave him a different name. We had a sheet of paper that we passed around where potential names were scribbled down. Some were hilariously bad: Diet DK, DK Lite and Titchy Kong. We settled on Dinky Kong, but after legal advice decided to change it to Diddy.” 

Donkey Kong Country is renowned for introducing a buddy system into its gameplay, a feature that Rare would continue to tweak throughout the series. Gregg explains how the unique tagging system came about. “The second character was initially designed as an ‘extra hit’. If the player had both characters and the leading one was hit, the second one could continue and the player would not die,” says Gregg. 
“An early decision was made to keep the screen as clutter free as possible, so that ruled out an energy bar. It had to be visual. Basing it on Mario’s ‘big Mario returns to little Mario’ system we thought a second character could perform this function, look visually impressive and give the player a feeling that they were not alone in the game. As we developed the game and its sequels further, the second character became more of an integral part of the games rather than just being an extra hit.” 
Monkey business

Ironically, mirroring the wall of doubt that Donkey Kong faced from its American distributors back in 1981, Rare’s treatment of the series was met with similar misgivings, when the team travelled to Kyoto to unveil the game to it’s original creators. “We made a memorable visit to Nintendo’s HQ in Japan. I was surprisingly calm at the time, despite it being my first visit to what many would class as the Mecca of video games,” says Gregg. 
“We were there to demo an early version of the game to the people that created the original character. It was the first time many of the people at Nintendo had seen the game, and our radical approach with the graphics didn’t initially go down too well. Mr Yokoi [Game Boy creator] remarked that ‘It looked too 3D’. Miyamoto was much quicker to appreciate what we had done and gave his approval. Mr Miyamoto and his staff used their unparalleled experience to give us some input on how we could smooth out a few rough edges and suggested that DK would look good with a hand-slap move. We thought this would be cool too, so even though we were only a few weeks away from the deadline we included it.” 

Gregg Mayles

DK Country was released during a period of shift in the industry. It could have easily been drowned out by the noise made by the gigantic visual leap that 32-bit gaming had made. Thankfully, DK Country’s release proved to be just as seismic. Selling over 8 million copies, it became one of the biggest-selling 16 bit games of all time. Gregg remembers the first time they showcased the game. 
“The conference built up to DKC’s announcement at the very end,” he says. “People were expecting something big, but they thought it was going to be about the N64. The game looked spectacular and I heard people around me saying that Project Reality (N64’s development name) looked great. Then when it was announced it was a SNES game, there was a moment’s stunned silence before everyone started clapping (apart from me, who was wondering how we were going to finish it on time). I think I had a few celebratory beers during the Nintendo party that followed.”
When asking Gregg how he reacts when people tell them that they actually prefer Donkey Kong Country to Miyamoto’s Super Mario World, he says he feels honoured but is quick to jump to Mario’s defence. “I think the style of play is very different; Super Mario World was sublime and intricate, best appreciated at a slower speed, whereas Donkey Kong Country was extravagant and brash, better played at a faster rate,” he explains. “If I was honest though, I would say Mario is the better game. My personal opinion is that DKC2 was a better game than DKC as we tried to incorporate more of the intricacies that made Mario so compelling but at the same time retaining our desire for fast, fun gameplay.”
This feature first appeared in Retro Gamer magazine. For more excellent features, like the one you’ve just read, don’t forget to subscribe to the print or digital edition at MyFavouriteMagazines.  

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