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History Lesson: The Rare triumph of Donkey Kong Country

By Matthew Castle on Sunday 23rd Feb 2014 at 10:00 AM UTC

The grand revival of the Donkey Kong Country series on Wii caught almost everyone by surprise.

Few expected it to return, fewer still clamoured for it to do so. But this wasn't because the SNES originals aren't fondly remembered; rather it's because they were seen as being very much games of their time.

The Donkey Kong Country games were graphical powerhouses by 1994's standards, but most believed that the platforming that lay underneath was deeply ordinary. Even Shigeru Miyamoto, as folklore has it, wasn't a fan.

The quote commonly attributed to him runs along the lines of: "Donkey Kong Country is proof that people will play anything if the graphics are good enough."

But nothing offers more perspective than the passing of time, and the fact is that, 20 years on, the latest big game on a Nintendo home console is Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, a direct continuation of the Donkey Kong Country lineage.

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It goes to show that Donkey Kong Country was much more than mere eye candy after all, and suggests that those who wrote off the platforming so flippantly did Donkey Kong - and developers Rare - a massive disservice. And it turns out Shigeru Miyamoto wasn't one of them after all.

In an interview at E3 2010, Miyamoto addressed the long-standing rumour that he thought Donkey Kong Country was a load of old ape. "I just want to clarify, that's not the case," he said. "I was actually very involved in [the making of the game], emailing [Rare boss] Tim Stamper almost daily right up until the end."

Yep, it seems Nintendo is so secretive and insular, it was perfectly content to let rumours that its most inspirational designer hated an entire Nintendo franchise float around the internet until directly challenged.

Still, it had been common knowledge for some time that Miyamoto was involved in the production of Donkey Kong Country on a quality control basis (a role he once again took while working with Retro Studios on Donkey Kong Country Returns). He also designed the revamped Donkey Kong character (still used to this day), although Rare was given free rein to stamp its authority on the rest of DK's world.

This is why Rare was given Donkey Kong, you see. At this point in time, Ol' Donks was essentially a dormant character, and Nintendo wanted a game that would reintroduce him into the wild and build up a new back story for him.

However, Nintendo and Rare didn't always see eye to eye, as Rare's creative director Gregg Mayles once recalled during an interview with Edge magazine. "Originally we were going to use Donkey Kong Jr as Donkey Kong's sidekick, but we'd re-imagined him as what became Diddy," he said.

"Nintendo wasn't happy with that, it wanted him to look more like Donkey Kong in a nappy. But we wanted something a bit more dynamic, something that could jump around, so we went with our new character, but decided to call him something else." So now you know who to send the death threats to. [Just kidding - Legal Ed]

He continues: "We originally named him Dinky Kong, but when we tried to copyright the name, we got in trouble with toy manufacturers." Dinky, if you're not aware, make die-cast model cars. We wonder if there was ever a Tonka Kong?

But how did a small studio from the leafy Leicestershire suburbs manage to get its hands on the most famous ape since King Kong? It's a story we've covered before but it's worth repeating for posterity.

Nintendo had originally invested in Rare in order to use the studio's state-of-the-art Advanced Computer Modelling rendering equipment (which had previously been put to use at the high end of the car industry). This enabled Rare to digitise 3D wireframe models and cram them into an interactive 2D gaming space.

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Although the results look a bit angular today, the pseudo-3D effect captured the imagination of a gaming public who were convinced we'd be living in a virtual reality world by 1998. To them, Donkey Kong Country's space-age visuals seemed to be the first step on that path.

It's ironic that years later, Country's wireframe graphics have been scrapped and it's the platforming that lives on. The Donkey Kong Country games were conservative in design, and that's probably why many critics believed them to be all mouth and no trousers.

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They're simple platformers where Donkey Kong and his Kongtourage have no loftier goal than running right until they hit the goal, but the level design was held to the same high production values as the graphics and the (excellent) soundtrack, and the result was a magnificent trilogy of titles that managed to squeeze a huge amount of variety out of a small number of gameplay devices.

There's really no point elaborating on them more than that - they're simple games, expertly written. So well written, in fact, that Donkey Kong Country Returns devs Retro Studios, who ripped apart the Metroid template so voraciously with Prime, decided its best course of action this time was to directly ape Rare's old notes. Looks like, er, Miyamoto was right all along?


The Kong And Winding Road

Back in the day the Kong family tree consisted of a single branch linking Donkey Kong and his son, Donkey Kong Jr. Since the Rare reboot that tree has turned into a massive oak, with more branches than Starbucks.

Not every member of the Kong family gets as much attention as Donkey and Diddy do, though. Here are eight Kongs who we'd consider black sheeps of the family and have yet to star in their own game (as well as one who maybe did... it's all still a bit of a mystery).

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