Why Donkey Kong Country was a Technical Marvel
It may be hard to cast your minds back to November 1994 (especially if, like me, you were only born in 1998), but it was a time in gaming’s history when so much that we now take for granted seemed like astronomical leaps in technology and design. At the cutting edge of 16-bit software development was a studio situated in the small English village of Twycross. They were looking to evolve the iconic ape who had helped kickstart Nintendo’s meteoric rise to success. And in order to achieve their ambitious dream, Rare had to do make the aging SNES hardware do things that shouldn’t have been possible. The result, of course, was Donkey Kong Country, and 25 years on, the game’s lasting appeal is a testament to its technical innovations and creative ingenuity.
Donkey Kong Country’s greatest technical accomplishment was converting 3D rendered images onto a console designed for 2D sprites. It was also Rare’s greatest challenge. By 1993, the studio was already experimenting with Silicon Graphics workstations that allowed the developers to try their hand at creating 3D digital models. These workstations were expensive and prone to overheating, making for an uncomfortable working environment that would often climb above 32°C. Massive air conditioning units had to be installed to keep the hardware functioning, which would have been an additional cost to the £80,000 spent on each workstation.
Despite these challenges, the studio had the foresight to see the benefit of investing in this exciting new technology. It was a sentiment echoed by Nintendo, who sent senior staff to the British studio and saw the potential of 3D pre-rendered images in an unreleased boxing game that Rare was in the early stages of developing. It was enough to convince the “Big N” to purchase 49% of Rare, making them a valuable second-party studio and giving them the resources to fully commit to their dream of pushing the boundaries of home console gaming.
More SGI workstations were acquired, and development could properly begin on a new game focusing on an established Nintendo character. Despite already being a gaming icon in 1994, Donkey Kong’s appearances in new titles had largely dried up since he terrorised the arcades of the early eighties. Rare’s commitment to the great ape took them to the local Twycross Zoo, world renowned for its collection of primates, where they attempted to observe the gorillas for Donkey Kong’s animations and sound effects. Unfortunately, the rather docile gorillas offered little in terms of modelling an energetic platforming mascot, so DK’s movements were based on galloping horses and his noises came courtesy of Rare staff members.
The SGI workstations were running Alias PowerAnimator, a 3D modelling and animation tool that proceeded Maya and was included in development kits for consoles as recent as the Wii. Rare was determined to create all assets in the game through 3D modelling, right down to the in-game lettering. They decided to name their revolutionary process “Advanced Computer Modelling”, or ACM for short. This process started with a wire-frame model that was then filled in with textures. A bone structure was added to allow for complex animations and the models were then posed and key framed. Rendering was a time investment, often taking overnight to complete a single model.
Rare’s inventiveness shone through with their decision to simply convert each still 3D image from the workstations over to the Super Nintendo as sprites. The compression process obviously lowered the picture quality of the models, but crucially, this took away any of the heavy lifting of rendering 3D images from the aging SNES hardware. Donkey and Diddy Kong, as well as the world they inhabited, still held a volume and detail that was unseen on 16-bit consoles at the time. However, the game could also still play smoothly thanks to the assets being created on external hardware.
Compare this to Star Fox, which had released on SNES the previous year. While a classic game that broke ground in its own right, Fox McCloud’s debut outing required the Super Nintendo’s GPU as well as the custom Super FX chip that was built into its cartridge to render the polygonal graphics in real-time. The result is a game that can only just muster the most basic of flat, geometric graphics, and worse still, feels choppy to play. Donkey Kong Country moves with the fluidity of any great platformer and its visuals capture a colourful vibrancy that has ensured its agelessness.
It’s also important to remember that, in 1994, 3D computer animation was still on the cutting edge of entertainment media. The PlayStation and Sega Saturn had only just released in Japan, and films had only recently begun incorporating CGI technology with blockbusters like Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) and Jurassic Park (1993). Even the original Toy Story was still a year away from releasing when Donkey Kong Country first hit the shelves. It’s a testament to Rare’s infamously hyper-focused work ethic and dedication that gave them the drive to accomplish their incredibly ambitious goals.
Finally, it would be a disservice to discuss Donkey Kong Country’s technical achievements without mentioning the game’s mesmerising soundtrack. Composers David Wise and Eveline Fischer had to work technical wizardry to get their rich-sounding creations onto the 64kb Super Nintendo sound chip. This required the game’s engineers to free up as much memory as possible to incorporate all of the music and sound effects, while the composers had to use a music tracker to program in each individual note of the various sample instruments. It was a laborious task, but one that has resonated with gamers’ ears in the 25 years since.
The story of Donkey Kong Country’s development is one of perseverance and innovation. Rare’s refusal to compromise on their vision resulted in a game released on yesterday’s hardware that showed the possibilities of tomorrow. They took a classic icon of gaming and used him to prove how much further gaming could progress. And a quarter of a century later, we’re still going bananas for it.