Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The History of Donkey Kong, Part 2: The Rareware Years

Welcome to part two of The History of Donkey Kong! If you have not read part one yet, then you can click here to find it.

Just a few months after the release of the 1994 Game Boy game entitled Donkey Kong, Nintendo would publish a new game staring the famous ape for their Super Nintendo Entertainment System. However, this time, the game was not developed in house by Nintendo's own developers, but by a British company known as Rare. Before delving into the impact Rare's game had on the series, there is a bit of history to cover when it comes to how the game came about.

The story of how the British developer became involved with Nintendo and their famous Donkey Kong franchise predates the 16-bit era. Rare was a rather prolific developer during the days of the 8-bit home consoles, developing and releasing over forty games for Nintendo's original home console, the Nintendo Entertainment System. They ended up making a large margin of profit off of their games, and when the NES's successor was released in the early 1990s, Rare decided to limit the amount of games they would release. Instead of putting their money toward developing a large number of games, Rare decided to invest in an expensive computer that could render high quality 3D graphics from a company called Silicon Graphics. The decision to purchase the computer ended up making the developer one of the most technologically advanced video game companies in the United Kingdom at the time.

Rare decided to use their newfound technology to create a demo of a boxing game that could run on Nintendo's new 16-bit console, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, or the SNES for short. In 1993, representatives from Nintendo were visiting the British developer when they saw Rare's boxing game. The representatives were so impressed by what Rare could accomplish on the SNES that they immediately informed the higher ups at Nintendo's Kyoto headquarters.

After seeing the demo, Nintendo's top executives were blown away by what Rare had managed to produce and ended up purchasing a 25% share of the company, which later expanded into a 49% share, meaning the British developer could now only create games for Nintendo's consoles and handhelds. They then told Rare to create a game that looked better than Aladdin, probably referring to the Sega Genesis title that was lauded for its stunning visuals and fluid animation. Nintendo recommended that Rare create a game starring Donkey Kong, since the ape's universe had not been expanded upon yet.

After receiving the okay from Nintendo to develop a Donkey Kong game, Rare took a large financial risk and bought a considerable amount of Silicon Graphics computers to aid their development. They started to model Donkey Kong in 3D, and they had to go to their local zoo in Twycross to study the apes to see how they looked and moved in a real environment. Rare ended up slightly altering the famous ape's design after their trips to the zoo, and the new design eventually became the design fans equated with Donkey Kong.

During development, one of the first problems Rare ran into was the issue of fitting the game onto a Super Nintendo cratridge. The 16-bit console was not powerful enough to model the new models of Donkey Kong, the environments, or the animations in real time. To get around this issue, the developers are Rare created their own compression technique in house, which they ended up calling Advanced Computer Modeling, or ACM. This allowed the company to model and animate the game on the Silicon Graphics computers they bought and then convert the data into layered sprites on the SNES. 

Once they started designing the gameplay for their new Donkey Kong game, Rare looked to Nintendo's famous platforming series for inspiration. After studying various ideas and concepts from the Super Mario games, the British developers decided they wanted the gameplay to be so streamlined that the player could defeat every level without stopping. This resulted in fast paced gameplay that would eventually become one of the most loved aspects of their new game. Rare also decided during development that they did not want a HUD, or heads-up display, cluttering the screen, so the came up with the idea that Donkey Kong could only take one hit her before dying. Of course, the game would be too difficult if that one hit was the only hit you could only take before losing, so the developers are Rare came up with the idea of a buddy system. After Donkey Kong was hit, a new Kong would take his place in the overworld.

Originally the buddy was supposed to be Donkey Kong Jr., but Rare ended up completely redesigning the younger ape. When the developers at Nintendo saw the new design for Donkey Kong Jr., they felt that his design had changed too much. To please the video game giant, Rare ended up turning Donkey Kong Jr. into a completely new character named Diddy Kong. This new character ended up being faster and more agile than Donkey Kong during actual gameplay, offering some variety between the two characters.

Near the end of development, Rare showed off a version to the higher ups at Nintendo's headquarters. Many staffers voiced their skepticism about the game, including Gunpei Yokoi. Nonetheless, the man whose opinion really mattered, Shigeru Miyamoto, approved of what he saw. He even started giving a few tips to the development team, one of which led to Donkey Kong's now signature move, the hand slap.

After a total of one and a half years of development, Rare released Donkey Kong Country for the SNES in late 1994. When the game hit store shelves, it received universal praise from both critics and gamers for its fast paced gameplay, stunning visuals, and atmospheric music. Despite the great reception, the developers are Rare were worried about their game would underperform commercially, due to the fact that the upcoming 32-bit consoles, the Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation, were all the rage at that point. As we all know now, the hype for the next generation did not impact sales of Donkey Kong Country at all. The game ended up selling around nine million copies and became one of the SNES's best selling games, managing to successfully revive a franchise that had not seen a major commercial success in over ten years.

Not only did Donkey Kong Country become of the Super Nintendo's success stories, but it also expanded greatly on the Donkey Kong universe. Before Rare got their hands on Nintendo's oldest franchise, the Donkey Kong series only had a handful of characters and locations. With the release of Donkey Kong Country, gamers were introduced to a new world called DK Isle, the island that Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong called home, and a completely new cast of characters. 

These new characters were Cranky Kong, Funky Kong, Candy Kong, and King K. Rool. Cranky Kong was Donkey Kong's cantankerous grandfather and the original Donkey Kong from the 1981 arcade game. Candy Kong was Donkey Kong's love interest and girlfriend who saved your game for you, and Funky Kong was a surfer who provided Donkey Kong with a quick way to get from world to world. Last but not least, King K. Rool was the evil reptilian leader of the new enemies of the game, the Kremlings, who stole Donkey Kong's hoard of bananas.

In addition to the new characters, Donkey Kong Country added many new gameplay elements that were well received, with the most of notabale of which being the inclusion of animal buddies. While a variation of the concept of animal buddies had been seen before in Super Mario World in the form of Yoshi, Donkey Kong Country had five wildy different animals that would help you along your journey. These included Rambi the Rhino, Enguarde the Swordfish, Expresso the Ostrich, Squawks the Parrot, and Winky the Frog. 

Along with the animal friends, Donkey Kong Country included a multiplayer mode that allowed two people to play through the main game together. While one player would control Donkey Kong himself, the second player would control the more agile Diddy Kong. Yet another addition to gameplay was the inclusion of multiple collectible items for the player to find as they played through the game. If the player managed to collect a certain amount of the collectibles scattered across each level, then they would be rewarded with an extra life. One of the collectibles, bananas, would eventually go on to become one of the staples of the entire Donkey Kong franchise.

With the success of their newly released game, Rare decided to follow it up with a sequel where Cranky Kong argued that the original Donkey Kong Country was only successful because of the new, fancy graphics. To prove he was right, he arranged for K. Rool to steal his grandson's banana hoard once again, forcing Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong to go on an 8-bit adventure for Nintendo's Game Boy. In the summer of 1995, gamers had the chance to experience this new, less colorful adventure known as Donkey Kong Land, which was released on a special yellow cartridge for the Game Boy.

Rare's newly released game borrowed numerous elements from the SNES title, including two of the animal buddies, the ability to play as Diddy Kong, the high number of collectibles, and the overall gameplay. However, the Game Boy game did have its own level designs, bosses, and story, which differentiated it from its console predecessor. In addition, Donkey Kong Land only had four worlds and it was also only a single player game despite the inclusion of Diddy Kong.

Donkey Kong Land received praise from critics and sold a large amount of copies, but just like the 1994 Donkey Kong game for the Game Boy, Donkey Kong Land was overshadowed by another game in the series that was released for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Just a few months after the release of Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong's 8-bit adventure, Rare released the next game in their Donkey Kong Country series, Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest.

Although the 1995 SNES adventure was a sequel to a game staring Donkey Kong, the ape was not available to play as due to the fact that the nefarious King K. Rool, under the alias of Kaptain K. Rool, kidnapped him in an elaborate plot to steal the ape's hoard of bananas again. It was now up to Donkey Kong's loyal sidekick, Diddy Kong, to explore the home base of the Kremlings and rescue the ape from the clutches of evil. Of course, Diddy could not do it alone, so he enlisted the help of his girlfriend, Dixie Kong.

Donkey Kong Country 2 played very similarly to its predecessor, but with a few key additions. The first was obviously the lack of a big, strong character to play as and the inclusion of a new, smaller playable character. Despite Dixie's small size and stature, she was not as fast or agile as her boyfriend, but she did have the ability to hover in the air for a short amount of time. Both characters in the new duo were also able to pick up the other other character and toss them short distances, which allowed for the player to reach new heights and areas that they could not reach in the previous game.

Furthermore, there were five new animal buddies in the game to aid the Kongs on their journey to rescue Donkey Kong. These new animals included Rattly the Rattlesnake, Squitter the Spider, Clapper the Seal, Glimmer the Anglerfish, and Flapper the Parrot. The five new animal buddies in conjunction with four returning animals from Donkey Kong Country and Diddy and Dixie Kong's new abilities provided a gameplay experience that was different enough from the first Donkey Kong Country to be fresh, but also familiar enough to entice returning players.

Gamers would use these new abilites to make their way through more difficult and better looking levels, attempting to collect an array of new collectibles, such as DK Coins, Banana Coins, and Kremkoins. Unlike the original Donkey Kong Country, one of the new collectible items, the Kremkoins, unlocked an extra, secret world for fans to play through if they managed to collect all of them.

If the inclusion of Dixie Kong, new animal buddies, the new collectibles were not enough, Rare also introduced gamers to two new characters, Wrinkly Kong and Swanky Kong. Wrinky Kong was Cranky Kong's wife, and she offered players the ability to save their game since Candy Kong was no longer present, and Swanky Kong was a game show host who would allow Diddy and Dixie Kong to play mini games at the cost of a few Banana Coins.

Because of the better visuals, sublime soundtrack, and sheer amount of new content Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest introduced to the series, it was praised by fans and critics alike. While it did not sell as well as the first Donkey Kong Country, many fans today regard the second game as the better of the two.

Following the release and success of their second Donkey Kong game for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Rare developed a second Donkey Kong Land game for the Game Boy. Diddy and Dixie Kong returned once again in Donkey Kong Land 2 in the fall of 1996. While the first Donkey Kong Land differed greatly from the game that inspired it, Donkey Kong Land 2 had quite a bit in common with Donkey Kong Country 2. The level names were the same, the worlds were the same, the bosses were the same, and the story was similar. Although many aspects were identical to the 1995 SNES game, the layouts of the levels were changed in Donkey Kong Land 2. Even with the large amount of similarities, the Game Boy game went on to be a financial success, selling millions of copies world wide.

Around the same time Donkey Kong Land 2 hit store shelves, Rare released the third Donkey Kong Country game for Nintendo's now aging Super Nintendo Entertainment System. It was titled Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong's Double Trouble, and it no longer starred Diddy Kong or Donkey Kong, due to the duo disappearing after exploring some islands. For the third time in a span of two years, players would be introduced to a new playable character that would tag along with an already known character. In this case, Dixie Kong recruited her younger cousin, Kiddy Kong, to join her in an adventure to find and rescue the two missing Kongs.

Just like the first two, the third Donkey Kong Country game introduced new items to collect, characters to meet, and animal buddies to befriend. But in this game, Kiddy Kong was the only new Kong to be added to the growing list of characters, and instead of introducing the players to more Kongs, the game introduced them to a group of bears known as the Brothers Bears. Also, while adding Ellie the Elephant, Parry the Parallel Bird, and Quawks the Parrot to the roster of animal buddies, Donkey Kong Country 3 removed quite a large number of already established animals, with only Squawks the Parrot, Enguarde the Swordfish, and Squitter the Spider returning.

Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong's Double Trouble received favorable reviews and ended up selling millions of copies world wide, but it was not as successful or as well received as the second Donkey Kong Country game due to the fact that it did not improve on the previous formula nearly as much as Donkey Kong Country 2 did. Additionally, Nintendo's new console, the Nintendo 64, had just launched a few months prior to the release of the third game in Rare's trilogy, which impacted sales some. The industry, along with gamers, had moved on from the the 16-bit era and were excited for new games using polygonal models.

But before fans of the Donkey Kong series would be introduced to a fully realized 3D Donkey Kong game, Rare had one last 2D sidescrolling game to make. The year after the Donkey Kong Country trilogy was finished, Rare, for the third and final time, created a Donkey Kong Land game. Like the other two previous games in the Game Boy trilogy, the third Donkey Kong Land game borrowed many aspects of Donkey Kong Country 3's gameplay. Donkey Kong Land III had the same bosses, playable characters, and setting. However, it did change the level names and worlds, making it more different from Donkey Kong Country 3 than Donkey Kong Land 2 was from Donkey Kong Country 2. While the game was received well by critics and fans, it was the worst selling game out of the three Donkey Kong Land games.

By 1997, it was clear it was time for Donkey Kong and his new cast of friends and family to move into the realm of polygons. Donkey Kong's original nemesis, Mario, had already made the jump from 2D to 3D the year prior, and fans were eagerly awaiting to see what Rare had in store for the Kongs. However, gamers would have to wait a couple of years before Donkey Kong's first and only original adventure for the Nintendo 64 was released. In the mean time, Donkey Kong and friends appeared in countless spin off titles and party games due to the popularity of the Donkey Kong Country and Donkey Kong Land games.

From 1996 to 2000, Donkey Kong appeared in titles such as Mario Kart 64, Mario Tennis, Mario Party, Super Smash Brothers, and Mario Golf as a playable character. Not a single other Kong introduced during the Super Nintendo years appeared in these games, but it is worth noting that the long forgotten Donkey Kong Jr. did make an appearance in Mario Tennis for the Nintendo 64 as a playable character. It would be the last time the young ape would appear as a playable character in a video game.

Although Diddy Kong did not appear in any of the spin off titles Donkey Kong appeared in, the smaller Kong did get his own spin off titled Diddy Kong Racing, which was released in 1997. Originally, the Nintendo 64 racing game was going to be another entry into Rare's old RC Pro Am series, but Nintendo persuaded the British developers into including Diddy Kong to make the game more marketable. The game itself was rather unique for a racing game, due to the inclusion of a story, which was about an evil wizard named Wizpig attempting to conquer Timber Island. There was also an adventure mode with a hub world and three different vehicles to use based on the environment you were racing in.

The races in Diddy Kong Racing were similar to races in Nintendo's Mario Kart series, but with a few major differences. The game's world was divided up into five different areas, with each area having a certain number of races. In these races, your goal was to come in first so you could win a gold balloon. This was due to the fact that in order to unlock the next race in each area, the player needed to collect a certain number of gold balloons, and the main way to earn them was through winning races. Later in the game, the player was also tasked with the duty of collecting a certain number of silver coins while still managing to come in first in order to earn a gold balloon.

After coming in first in every race, the player would face off against a boss. These boss races were usually more difficult due to the boss' speed and their ability to attack you without using items. When you managed to defeat the boss, the player was given a piece of Wizpig's amulet, which, when the player collected every piece of the amulet, they would face off against Wizpig himself.

Diddy Kong racing ended up being praised by racing fans, critics, and Donkey Kong fans due to its unique structure and world. It is still regarded as one of the best racing games on the Nintendo 64, and fans are still enamored by the diversity and fun gameplay the 1997 game provided.

During these years of spin off titles featuring Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong, an animated television show called Donkey Kong Country was produced. It took place on DK Isle, and it starred many of the Kongs introduced in the Donkey Kong Country series, such as Candy Kong, Dixie Kong, Cranky Kong, and of course, Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong. The show only lasted for two seasons and a total of forty episodes, but its existence proved how popular the Donkey Kong series had become in a mere four to six years.

Finally, in 1999, after years of spin offs and a television series, Rare released Donkey Kong's first 3D adventure for the Nintendo 64, Donkey Kong 64. King K. Rool was back and more sinister than ever. He had built a new weapon called the Blast-O-Matic, which he was going to use to destroy DK Isle, but unfortunately for him, his new weapon malfunctioned just as he was about to use it. To buy time while he fixed it, he kidnapped four of the Kongs and stole Donkey Kong's hoard of Golden Bananas. 

The game was packed with so much content that it was actually the very first game to require the Nintendo 64's expansion pak, which expanded the Nintendo 64's available RAM from 4 MB to 8 MB. There was a total of five different characters to play as, eight large and open worlds to explore, tons of new collectibles, ranging from Golden Banans to Crystal Coconuts, and additional modes to play in outside of the main game. While this sounded good on paper, many long time fans were miffed by the finished product they waited so long for.

One of the main things these fans took issue with was the fact that Dixie Kong was not in the game. In her place a completely new Kong named Tiny Kong, Dixie's younger sister. Fans felt like Tiny was a blatant clone of Dixie, mainly due to her ability to float in air for a short amount of time using her hair. 

Additionally, many characters and their relationships were changed for the Nintendo 64 adventure, the most notable of which being that Donkey Kong was no longer the grandchild of Cranky Kong, but his son instead. This meant that the Donkey Kong gamers had been playing as since 1994 was actually Donkey Kong Jr. Also, Winkly Kong was now dead and only appeared as a ghost to help out the five Kongs on their journey to save DK Isle. 

The actual gameplay of Donkey Kong 64 had more in common with Rare's other noteworth platforming series, Banjo-Kazooie, than it did with the previous Donkey Kong games. Instead of levels and worlds being linear progressions like in the Donkey Kong Country and Donkey Kong Land games, each world of Donkey Kong 64 was a large, open environment that allowed the player to go anywhere as long as they had the ability to do so. Scattered around these worlds were Golden Bananas and regular, colored bananas that the player had to collect in order to proceed to the next world. The gameplay of Donkey Kong 64 was actually so similar to that of Banjo-Kazooie that one of the worldss, Fungi Forest, was originally designed as a level for Banjo-Kazooie before being scrapped and moved to Donkey Kong 64.

The gameplay, collectibles, and status of characters weren't the only things to change in Donkey Kong 64, as the Kong family saw the addition of three new characters. As previously mentioned, one of the three was Tiny Kong, while the other two were Lanky Kong, a strange looking orangutan, and Chunky Kong, the cowardly cousin of Dixie and Tiny Kong, and also Kiddy Kong's older brother. A weasel named Snide also joined the cast of characters and provided the Kongs with information on how to deactivate King K. Rool's Blast-O-Matic machine.

Despite the game having much in common with Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Kong 64 did keep some elements from the sidescrolling games. Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong once again returnred as playable characters, and the animal buddies Enguarde the Swordfish and Rambi the Rhino also returned for another adventure, albeit this time, Rambi and Enguarde were much more limited. They each only appeared in one portion of one world, and Donkey Kong was the only Kong who could use Rambi, while Lanky was the only Kong who could use Enguarde.

Even though there were changes fans were not happy with, Donkey Kong 64 received reviews praising the gameplay and platforming elements. It also went on to sell around five million copies worldwide, becoming a financial and commercial success.

After the release of Donkey Kong 64, it was clear that the Nintendo's 64 life was coming to an end. Sega had already launched their Dreamcast system, and Sony was planning on releasing the Playstation 2 in 2000. Gamers eagerly anticipated the next generation of Donkey Kong games, wondering what Rare could come up with next. In 2001, Rare and Nintendo showed off a trailer for a sequel to Diddy Kong Racing, this time starring multiple characters from the Donkey Kong universe. Donkey Kong, Diddy Kong, and Tiny Kong were shown racing on enemies and animal buddies originating from the Donkey Kong Country series.

Sadly, gamers would never get to play the next generation racing game. In 2002, it was announced that the founders of Rare and Nintendo had both sold their shares of the company to Microsoft for $375 million US dollars. The new console developer owned one hundred percent of the company after the buyout, meaning Rare could no longer create games for Nintendo's home consoles.

After the Rare buyout, no one knew what the future held for Donkey Kong. For the eight years before the purcahse, Donkey Kong had been synonmous with Rare. The future was full of mystery and worry, and no one could have predicted the rocky future the Donkey Kong series would soon experience.

Coming soon: The History of Donkey Kong, Part 3: Donkey Kong After Rare.


  1. Good post, it's well researched and well documented. It's interesting to see how Donkey Kong's roots came from ... well, all over the place. It's a very intriguing history, and I really have to go back and read the first part.

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