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Donkey Kong Country's Fate Was Determined By A Risky Rare Investment

Posted by Thomas Whitehead

"The rendering of each 3D model would take ages"

With Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze currently entertaining Wii U owners, it's only natural for those with long memories to cast their minds back to where the franchise began. Donkey Kong Country on the Super NES remains one of the 16-bit system's most iconic games, and sits at the forefront — along with various other titles — of Rare's legendary partnership with Nintendo. When some make comparisons between Texas-based Retro Studios and the role of the UK-based Rare in past Nintendo generations, it can only serve as a major compliment to the U.S. studio.

With this being our Month of Kong on Nintendo Life, we sat down for a detailed chat with two former Rare employees that played integral roles in the original Super NES title — Brendan Gunn and David Wise. While Wise is well-known for the title's soundtrack and has made a triumphant return in Tropical Freeze, Gunn's role as Technical Programmer was vital in delivering the game that would go on to be the second highest-seller on the system. The visuals may have aged by modern standards, but it can't be underestimated how impressive those rendered graphics were when the game was released — it was a revelation.

As part of a full interview to be published later today, Gunn and Wise outlined how Rare's founders — Chris and Tim Stamper — took a major financial risk to pursue a new graphical style which, at the time, was unheard of in the home console space.

Wise: I think the machines were around £80,000 each. Incredibly expensive even then, so they really did go out on a limb to buy two of these machines. Senior staff from Nintendo were visiting at the time that the boxing game was being worked on, and seeing that sealed the deal. Rare showed them this working demo with rendered graphics which nowadays probably wouldn't look like much, but at the time it was like chalk and cheese when compared to other games.

The rendering of each 3D model would take ages. We'd work till 11PM at night, go home and in the morning the image might have finished rendering — it took that long for these huge machines to do it.

Gunn: We had this massive air conditioning unit just to cool these SGI machines (laughs). We could all be suffering in the summer but as long as computer didn't overheat, it didn't matter.

I remember the first time I saw the rendered Donkey Kong model on-screen and it looked like a real, solid thing. In the old days, stuff used to be hand-drawn on tracing paper and then someone would have to draw a grid over it and decode it by hand, so rendering it saved a bit of effort in that respect.

The rest is history, as Donkey Kong Country wowed reviewers and gamers alike, establishing Rare as a household name and revolutionising DK as a character. An initial risk, and the fortune that decision brought in catching the eye of Nintendo, played a role in bringing us many outstanding titles after Nintendo purchased a major share in the company.

Be sure to check back later today for the full interview, as we delve into the making of Donkey Kong Country in detail.

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User Comments (39)

Lord

#2

Lord said:

It was this game which gave the impression that the console was more powerful than it was. And in turn creating an art style of its own.

Kirk

#3

Kirk said:

I remember when I first used a Silicon Graphics machine in my college course for 3D animation, back in 1996...

Very impressive tech at the time.

WaveyChristmas

#7

WaveyChristmas said:

Aside from the dazzling surprise pre-rendered DKC visuals during the SNES days, i found the core gameplay to be somewhat lack luster. It felt stripped down and very simple compared to the likes of Super Mario World which screamed NextGen. :O

Miyamoto even stated that he didn't like it, but he's singing a different tune these days....but we all know it's BS. ;)

WaveyChristmas

#8

WaveyChristmas said:

@Nintenjoe64

I never owned DKC, but I remember my jaw semi-dropping when i saw it for the first time at my best friends place who was bragging about how amazing the graphics were and how the genesis couldn't dream of delivering the same graphical power. :P

But the more i played the game, the more i disliked it. Lack luster 'previous generation' gameplay layered in cutting edge prerendered visuals(then again, something was off about some of the animations and environment interaction)

That day, i went back to playing Zelda II: Adventure of Link(favorite zelda ever hehe) and never looked back. :P It wasn't until a few or so years later where i finally finished DKC. Thought it was alright, but it aint got nothing on Super Mario World or some of the greatest 8-16bit platformers on the NES & SNES. I liked DKCII Diddy's Quest a little better

Whopper744

#9

Whopper744 said:

Great memories with the DKC series with my dad mostly. Happy to be paying Tropical Freeze 20 years later now.

eviLaTtenDant

#10

eviLaTtenDant said:

It sure looked great on that video cassette that was packed in with a gaming mag back in the days.

ddbangsy

#11

ddbangsy said:

I still think this looks great today. I love the art style and colour used within this game, and Diddy's Kong Quest.

element187

#12

element187 said:

@Kirk we had them at work around that time. It was cool to see the simulation programs Lockheed Martin was doing with them... I remember looking at it thinking, someday we will be playing video games that look like that. PC gaming hit that point a few years later, consoles didn't get to that point until 10 years later

NintyMan

#13

NintyMan said:

I still think Donkey Kong Country looks great even today. I was only a year old when the game released and wasn't around in the past gaming era, but I was still very impressed. Now it is startling to imagine the graphic revolution this made back in those sprite days.

Birthday_Boy

#14

Birthday_Boy said:

So, you posted an article on an interview to be posted later?
That seems like a desperate attempt for more clicks.
But it's not like this is the first time its been done.

unrandomsam

#15

unrandomsam said:

It was PAL optimised properly that is what made me like it. (At the time when Nintendo never bothered at all).

ricklongo

#16

ricklongo said:

Oh, Nintendolife, you're such a tease! :P

Can't wait for the full interview. I simply can't get enough stories and data about the making of one of my favorite series of all time.

TruenoGT

#19

TruenoGT said:

A Yankee here, can someone explain the phrase "like chalk and cheese"? From the context, I'm assuming it means "great", but what do I know? :)

Kamalisk

#20

Kamalisk said:

@TruenoGT Chalk and Cheese are nothing alike. It just means that two things couldn't be more different. In the case used above, he means that the graphics of DKC looked so much better than current graphics, it wasn't even a comparison.

Monkeh

#22

Monkeh said:

As a six year old kid, my first introduction to Donkey Country was while me, my sister and my parents were on holiday in the US and there was a demo-stand at one of the airports we went through. I was seriously blown away and had never seen a game this pretty before! After having seen that, I knew I needed a SNES. And so, a few months later, I got the SNES-DKC-pack for Christmas! :)

Once I've finished DKC:TF, I think it's about time I replay DKC1/2/3, which IMO still look great to this day (though some anti-aliasing would be nice :P).

EDIT: Also, I can't wait to read the full interview!

SammytheSaiyan

#23

SammytheSaiyan said:

I wish I was around for the mid-90's. I was born in 1998 so I missed a whole lot of significant gaming-related events that occurred in the 1980's and 1990's. However, I suppose I was born shortly after the release of Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (my favorite Legend of Zelda game) and I was around for the release of Sonic Adventure and Super Smash Bros. :D However, I didn't become interested in gaming until I was 2 years old.

Kirk

#25

Kirk said:

I've never really liked that pre-rendered shiny rubber/plastic look all that much but I can totally appreciate how technically impressive it was back in the day and the massive positive impact it had at the time.

I just wish they'd move a bit further away from the rubbery plastic look with the new Donkey Kong Country games. I mean we've learned a lot of lessons since the early days of these rendered computer graphics and one of them is that art style is far more enduring than visuals based on showing off impressive tech for the time.

Yoshi's Island >>>> All over Donkey Kong Country and not just it's visuals, that still look scrumptious to this day, but in basically every single way possible imo (well, the music could be argued).

Such a pity that New Yoshi's Island has basically p*ssed all over that notion and went for some kind of crappy rendered shiny plastic look (totally going against the original games aesthetic ideals in the first place), supposed to look like oil painting one presumes, that just looks pretty f******g fugly and already dated imo.

PS. This dislike of these pre-rendered cg visuals is coming from someone who actually worked as one of the main artists on DKC Color for GBC so it comes from the heart.

NathanVS

#29

NathanVS said:

I wish Nintendo will re-release the DKC trilogy with an HD upgrade. It would be so sweet!

warlocknem

#31

warlocknem said:

The DKC games were extremely fun (more notably the first one) and to a degree pretty nice to look at but even for their time you could feel the limitations set upon them by the hardware. I still loved my SNES and those games either way.

CanisWolfred

#33

CanisWolfred said:

@DestinyMan I agree, it actually looks pretty good. More because of the art style and charm packed in than the technical achievement, though, but that goes for any game, now doesn't it?

duffmmann

#34

duffmmann said:

I think a lot can be said for what Square managed to do with Mario RPG on the system as well. The game looks like it could have been an early N64 game.

JebbyDeringer

#35

JebbyDeringer said:

And the biggest mistake Nintendo ever made was letting them go.

I loved the game back in the day and still do. It's a tight package in every regard. I've never been a big fan of pre-rendered graphics and the look of the trees always bugged me in DKC. Even so I find it still looks great provided you play it on an old CRT screen. It definitely translates much worse than hand drawn sprite games to modern televisions. The later games tended to look a little bit more polished in their environments but there is something about the first one that sets it apart. I love the loneliness you feel when playing them and the atmospheric music and sound.

jayclayx

#36

jayclayx said:

this game just killed the mega drive genesis, it was the most beautiful cool platform ever made on earth and all in a snes cartridge, beautiful music, oh old rare we miss you.

JaxonH

#37

JaxonH said:

I LOVE the original DKC games. Beautiful, hard, and flawless gameplay. The roll jump mid-air has always been the defining characteristic of the DKC series. Something you just can't do in other games.

But as much as I love the original trilogy, I think the newer Retro developed games are MUCH better. The gameplay has been finely tuned to even greater perfection, and I absolutely adore the art style and graphic design. They really nailed it on the head. I couldn't imagine a DKC game looking any better than what Retro has done in Tropical Freeze. Or playing any better, for that matter.

StarDust4Ever

#38

StarDust4Ever said:

It's Donkey Kong. Big hairy Ape. SNES Donkey Kong Trilogy was, well Retro Donkey Kong minus the hair. What's more to love?

MekkaGodzilla

#39

MekkaGodzilla said:

I remember seeing pics in magazines back in maybe 1993, and being blown away. It just looked amazing compared to games like Megman X I was playing at the time.
Then when I finally got a copy, I was very impressed by the cartridge. It was the heaviest SNES cart I had. The difference was really significant.
Anyway, I was a very happy 14 year old, and I played this game to 101% completion many times over.

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