Why Donkey Kong Country Works / HOTCYDER

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It was the year 1980, and Nintendo was in
trouble. Having failed to conquer North American so
far, they needed a title that against all odds would put them on the map. Designed to run on leftover arcade boards,
reworked from a failed licensing attempt and lead by a young and untested Industrial Designer
– who had high hopes for what was his first and possibly only project. All they needed was a name, one mandated to
appeal to an English audience. Using a japanese to english dictionary, they
made the decision to name the game after it’s unique antagonist; a stubborn ape. Released in 1981, Donkey Kong was seen as
a landmark game for its time. Having turned around the fortunes for it’s
parent company and made a star of it’s lead designer – Shigeru Miyamoto, it became a
phenomenon that’s remained relevant in both video-games and pop-culture nearly 40 years
later. Without it – video games as we know them
wouldn’t exist in the form we recognise them today. Nearly 15 years later – and the after total
revitalisation of the home console market and the games industry at the large – the
land scape looked very different from the days of Donkey Kong. The question was: How could you update a character
with such reverence for a new generation of players? Miyamoto would return to Donkey Kong for a
Gameboy port that expanded on elements of the original title – where the arcade’s
first 4 levels was just the tip of the iceberg. An excellent puzzle platform game – where
the protagonist’s full transformation into Mario allows a much greater breadth of moves
then was available in the base game, and new mechanics and a much improved presentation
rounds out what is a pretty solid package. But, this was only a small evolution of the
original game, and players didn’t have to wait long for a total (rare)-revolution
of the franchise. Released in 1994 for the Super Nintendo; Donkey
Kong Country was another watershed moment for the stubborn ape. The game wasn’t developed internally at Nintendo,
but instead was entrusted to the British studio Rare. Having cut it’s teeth on early PC and NES
titles, the company was brought on as a second party by Nintendo due to a proven track record
– not to mention their mastery of a technology that would be Donkey Kong Country’s biggest
selling point. Quite unlike anything else at the time, Donkey
Kong Country’s presentation was leagues ahead of the competition. With Nintendo losing the market interest against
the mega drive – and the incredible first impression that Sonic the Hedgehog made to
consumers, this new title once again put Nintendo one step ahead of the competition. Using pre-rendered cgi for characters and
backgrounds, not to mention a stellar soundtrack that made the most of the consoles unique
sound chip, even Nintendo’s own efforts didn’t match the fidelity of Rare’s title. The first of three titles in the series, the
franchise would be amongst the consoles best selling games, and regarded as some of the
finest platforming games of all time. But, Presentation is only one half of the
DKC’s lasting appeal – and as it’s graphics become more rudimentary year on year, you
get a better appreciation a forgotten strength of the title – the quality of it’s gameplay. I’m Games D – and I’m going to tell why
Donkey Kong Country works. – When giving the reigns of one of videogames’s
most important characters, and asked to update them for a more sophisticated audience, the
question is what changes and what remains. It’s interesting to see what elements of the
original Donkey Kong are brought forward into Donkey Kong Country. Gameplay no longer reflects the vertical obstacle
course of the arcade game, but instead takes the form of a traditional side-scrolling platforming
game – much in the mould of Super Mario. The similarities only run skin deep – Donkey
Kong threw barrels – and so barrels are given a bigger importance in this game. They’re weapons, check-points, cannons, additional
new characters, or whatever interesting forms they can be repackaged as. Donkey Kong JR climbed vines to traverse obstacles
– and so the now adult junior can grab onto vines and ropes to swing over pits like Tarzan. Donkey Kong is an Ape, and as the propagated
stereotype goes, Apes love bananas – so Bananas both provide a central plot point
to the title, not to mention act as simple collectables to lead players and incentivise
platforming challenge. Apes live the rainforest – and so levels
move away from the abstract industrial setting of the arcade game, and instead reflect more
natural settings – dense jungles, ancient ruins, creepy caves and snowy mountain tops
– all of which are rendered in high detail, with additional weather and daytime effects
added to set mood and tempo per level. With the freedom available to do their own
thing – Rare expanded the scope of Donkey Kong’s world – introducing new characters,
new enemies, a new antagonist, and stories to tie them all together – not to mention
redesigning the titular character, and bringing back the original arcade Donkey Kong as the
old and arrogant Cranky Kong – a character who must of went through very serious atrophy
since the third Donkey Kong game. The narrative of the games are simplistic,
but this extra layer of context adds to the character of the game – and became something
of skill for Rare going forward. Mechanically, where the game differs from
the original game – as well as Nintendo’s own platform games – is in the execution
of it’s controls, the variety of it’s levels and the tempo of the gameplay. Donkey Kong had a simple set of inputs the
player can perform – a jump button, an attack button that’s modified by the context of your
movement – hold it to run, tap it to perform a roll, slap the ground when holding down
the d-pad, pick up a barrel you’re standing over, and throw it when the button is released
– and when you pick up Diddy Kong, you can swap the characters around at any time with
a push of a button. Donkey and Diddy have different physics to
their movement – with the larger kong feeling heavier and stronger, and the smaller lighter
and quicker – each better equip for certain situations. In the second and third games, new kongs would
be swapped into the cast with new abilities – such as Dixie’s hovering hair or Kiddie
Kong’s rolling hops. Each fits the game they were designed for,
and all add flavour to those title’s platforming challenges. Much like Nintendo’s own platformers, levels
will introduce concepts and gimmicks that are iterated on and mixed together in later
levels; and these can be anything from new environments with different physics, new enemies
with unique behaviours, complex platforming challenges, animal buddies that re-contextualise
your control scheme, and many other ideas. Earlier levels focus on one or two of these
ideas, but later and final levels will challenge you on all these gimmicks to test your mastery
of the title. Where Rare naturally expanded the scope of
this gameplay was in giving DKC a lot of verticality and depth fitting of it’s graphics. On many levels, top paths, swinging ropes,
hidden cannon barrels and secret rooms can be found off the main path. With small objectives like collecting KONG
letters, extra lives, tokens and bananas – there’s an encouragement to go off the intended path
– and the game is stronger for it. Secret levels in particular had mini-games
or light challenges that provided fun diversions to the main objective of the game – another
calling card Rare would return to in later games. However, the greatest trick that Donkey Kong
Country pulls is the natural rhythm of it’s levels. Enemies, Obstacles, Platforms and Collectables
all have a bouncy and repetitive movement to them – and finding the beat of a level
makes the biggest difference in your rate of success. It’s not just about pressing the right buttons,
but it’s also about pressing them at the right time, and pulling off the more complex strings
of challenges in a single, unbroken movements is perhaps some of the games most satisfying
moments. Where the games falter, and where much of
the challenge is derived, is in just how much information the player is given. The camera is very close to the characters,
and movement is so quick that players can and most likely will bump into enemies and
obstacles just off screen. With only a single hit point to bank on, lives
are lost thick and fast – and the intended speed which the games are designed to be played,
it means that you’re likely to burn through them when you first enter a level. The minecart sections in particular are notorious
for their fast and dangerous design – with the entire levels taking place over enormous
bottomless pits. Still, all three games present levels that
are puzzling and playful, where finding their beat and solving their new challenges gives
players plenty of incentive to keep playing. Even stripped of their presentation, they
remain excellent examples of the genre – very different to Nintendo’s own output, and a
cut above the rest. It’s a shame that Rare didn’t quite manage
to translate the appeal of these titles to Donkey Kong 64 – with both it’s mechanics
and aesthetics left behind. More in the mode of a large adventure game,
it once again only takes the most skin deep elements – Bananas, Barrels, Rainforests,
The growing cast of Kongs and the lore of the Donkey Kong world. I haven’t had a chance to play them myself,
but it’s good to see a return to the style of the original games in Retro’s revival of
the series… aptly titled Donkey Kong Country Returns. With Real-time graphics that better the pre-rendered
look of the originals, but gameplay that remains faithful to their rhythmic challenges, introduction
of new ideas per level and push for meeting smaller objectives, it’s good to see that
– more than 20 years on from Donkey Kong Country – the spirit of these games remains
for everyone to appreciate. Rare’s role in the revitalisation of one of
Nintendo’s earliest and most important characters is to be commended. Having used the Arcade game as a jumping off
point for a brand new franchise, and bolstered by it’s cutting edge presentation, the studio
created a trilogy of games that other character platformers of the time couldn’t compare to,
and could even compete with Nintendo’s own Super Mario. It’s inspiration for old games that could
be new again, and that while presentation may age, good design never goes out of fashion.

 

13 Responses

  1. Zac Frazier

    August 21, 2017 10:52 pm

    From how you describe it, it feels like DKC functions as a better Sonic game? Both are about gaining speed, but DK goes about it in that you have to maintain a rhythm of speed, whereas Sonic is ideally played at a nonstop consistent pace. DK is just better though because it isn't a miserable time before you've mastered a level enough to learn the depths of how to keep up a higher BPM.

    Reply
  2. PerrydactylShow

    August 22, 2017 2:53 pm

    Really great video! I love your discussion about momentum and level design giving a certain rhythm to it all. That is exactly what it's about and it's amazing. I will say, I was a little surprised that it took you about 4 minutes to get to DKC, but the intro was pretty good despite that. Great job, man!

    Reply
  3. ehmaysi

    August 22, 2017 3:39 pm

    I can't watch it all now, but I'm already into this from the short bit I was able to catch. Good stuff man, super well presented

    Reply
  4. imKranely

    August 23, 2017 8:41 am

    So jealous of your editing skills and your great ability to come up with great segues. When you mentioned DK 64 then put in the clip "here we go" it was just brilliant. This overall left me wanting to learn all about Donkey Kong, and as a scholar, any answer/statement that rises new questions is always welcome. 🙂

    Reply
  5. Nathan Scott

    August 30, 2017 3:32 am

    I finally got around to watching this. Great video man. I love the old Donkey Kong arcade game, and whenever I play games like that I always want to play as the villain too. Donkey Kong Country kind of satisfied that for me.

    Reply
  6. Recht_voor_zijn_raap

    October 3, 2017 2:24 am

    Great video m8… Very well made … You deserve more subscribers… So I'll help and subscribe myself 😉 … Keep up the good work.

    Reply

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