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Month Of Kong: Whatever Happened To Donkey Kong Racing?

Posted by Martin Watts

Former Rare man Lee Musgrave talks about a lost GameCube smash hit

E3 2001 was a joyous occasion for Nintendo fans. The GameCube was nearing its release in Japan and North America and Nintendo had a lot to say and show about it. Super Smash Bros. Melee, Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader and Luigi’s Mansion were just some of the games causing a rather large stir. British development studio Rare — then still a member of the Nintendo family — also had new gameplay footage for Star Fox Adventures, which was looking pretty fantastic considering that it had started off life as Dinosaur Planet on the N64.

"The idea behind the game — which was Tim Stamper’s — was that the player wouldn't be constricted to just a single animal when racing"

It was during this same event that we received our first glimpse at another one of Rare’s early projects for the GameCube: Donkey Kong Racing. Given the second-party development studio’s huge success with the DK franchise — not to mention the superb kart-racing spin-off Diddy Kong Racing — there was good reason to be excited about this new entry. The E3 video showed DK and pals racing across various landscapes on a whole host of different creatures, and featured a superb tongue-in-cheek parody of the speeder bike chase from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.

However, what made Donkey Kong Racing seem even more interesting than other racers that had come before it was that it had a rather novel gameplay idea, one which — incredibly — still hasn't been done to date. “The idea behind the game — which was Tim Stamper’s — was that the player wouldn't be constricted to just a single animal when racing," explains former Rare staffer and lead designer on Donkey Kong Racing, Lee Musgrave. “You would move between different-sized animals; bigger animals could smash through obstacles, while smaller ones were much more manoeuvrable.” This gameplay model took the existing racing game concept of having multiple drivers with different attributes and tried to apply it in a fresh and dynamic way; players could effectively alter the racing properties of their character mid-race.

With a solid and innovative gameplay idea — as well as an impressive tech demo — it looked as if the development of Donkey Kong Racing was off to a good start, but sadly this was as far as the game ever got in its original form. Behind the scenes there were other forces at work which ultimately derailed the project from its originally envisaged destiny. Around this time Rare was looking for a buyer after Nintendo had turned down the opportunity to purchase the remaining 51 percent stake in the company from its founders the Stamper brothers.

"It was a sweet spot of Microsoft having this new black box, a huge controller, lots of shooter games and more money than everyone else"

Rare’s search for a new suitor coincided with Microsoft’s entry into the console business. “It was a sweet spot of Microsoft having this new black box, a huge controller, lots of shooter games and more money than everyone else,” Musgrave tells us. To Microsoft, Rare seemed like the perfect choice when it came to widening the demographic of its upcoming Xbox console — not to mention that its gain came at rival Nintendo’s loss. It was a PR success, but a costly one — Microsoft had to shell out $375 million to acquire the studio.

As a result of this changing of hands, Donkey Kong Racing understandably couldn't continue in its original form. “We tried to figure out what to do with it," says Musgrave, “We made a prototype version for Xbox, but because nothing else had been made up until this point, we essentially built it from scratch.” The prototype finally delivered the original concept in a playable form and, according to Musgrave, had some nice little features. “For example, if you got knocked off your animal, you had to do a Track and Field-esque button-bashing activity to get back on it.” There was a even a multiplayer mode, although Musgrave does admit that it was still all very limited at this point.

Despite this progress, the game was subject to further changes. “We decided to try and make it a bit more like Diddy Kong Racing in terms of it being an adventure game,” Musgrave reveals, “Over the course of the next 18 months or so, it went from being a track-based animal racer to a more open-world game with Tamagotchi-style features, in which nurturing your animal became a key mechanic.” The open-world influence came from Grand Theft Auto III, which as Musgrave aptly puts it, “everyone was gawping at around that time”. In this revised version, the player would essentially nurture their animal and then race it. However, this mechanic gradually took centre-stage to the point where the project evolved into what Musgrave calls "a cute version of Grand Theft Auto set in Africa". By this point in time, what was once Donkey Kong Racing had now been reworked into Sabreman Stampede, an IP which originates from the Stamper brothers’ first development studio, Ultimate Play the Game. As time went by, development switched from the original Xbox to Xbox 360.

"Over the course of the next 18 months or so, it went from being a track-based animal racer to a more open-world game with Tamagotchi-style features"

Sadly, Sabreman Stampede suffered the same fate as Donkey Kong Racing. “It was such a wide game in terms of content, and the development went off into the woods a little bit,” Musgrave admits, “It took a long time to do, and at the same time we were trying to build engines for consoles we weren't familiar with.” Development fizzled out over time, and although there wasn't any real decree that the game shouldn't or couldn't be released, Musgrave feels that after all the changes and time it had taken the end product wouldn't have been worth the effort.

It’s important to note that Donkey Kong Racing and Sabreman Stampede’s fates weren't sealed by a lack of talent on Rare’s part, but rather they were unfortunate casualties of the Microsoft acquisition. It's perhaps not immediately apparent to those looking in on the company from an outsider’s perspective just how much of an impact this had on Rare’s ability to get on with what it was really good at: making great games. Musgrave's insight provides a clear picture of the challenging situation Rare was facing at the time. “Things like changing consoles and entering a new generation of hardware made it very hard," he explains. "We often had to wait for new versions of console firmware and lots of other obstacles would get in the way of straightforward development”.

The former Rare man draws a rather stark comparison, noting the very short time that existed between his team’s previous games on N64. The increase in team sizes also didn't help; as had been the case when working on Diddy Kong Racing and other N64 projects, most teams at Rare consisted of 12 to 15 people. This suddenly transitioned to 30, which understandably took some time to get used to. The industry as a whole was growing and the days of small, compact teams creating Triple A blockbusters was coming to an end.

Under Microsoft’s ownership, Rare began to change, but not to the extent that has perhaps been exaggerated in the past. “For the first two years, Microsoft was very aware of how Nintendo had worked with us, and it didn't want to break that magic,” Musgrave confirms. The development studio was largely left to its own devices, with only a couple of non-creative staff from Microsoft coming in so that they could gain a better insight. “There wasn't any creative control [by Microsoft] or orders from above; we simply just went ahead and got on with it.”

"Don't diss the monkey; he’s bought a lot more houses than you might imagine"

Given Nintendo’s current challenges in the home console market, we couldn't resist asking Musgrave if he feels that some of the Japanese games company’s issues are exacerbated by the fact that it no longer has a second-party developer like Rare. While he doesn't deny that Nintendo could do with having another Rare at its side, he believes that there are other factors at play. “I think it’s a sign of the times more than anything else; games nowadays take much longer to develop, and they have to be a certain quality before you can release them.”

If there’s one thing that stood out for us from time talking to Musgrave, it’s that he still holds a great deal of affection for the Donkey Kong franchise all these years later. “DK was very good to Rare, and the franchise was our baby for many years,” he says. Despite the franchise now being in the good hands of Retro Studios, the impact that Rare had on Donkey Kong can still be seen today, be it the characters they created, the superb David Wise soundtrack or those evil mine cart levels that continue to torment us. When asked about the significance of Nintendo’s famous gorilla, Musgrave aptly sums it up in just one sentence: “Don't diss the monkey; he’s bought a lot more houses than you might imagine.”

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User Comments (55)

NintyMan

#1

NintyMan said:

After seeing screenshots for Donkey Kong Racing popping up on NL a few weeks ago, I saw this feature coming. The game certainly looked interesting and it's honestly the one cancelled Nintendo game I wish had managed to be released. It appeared like pretty much all of the animal buddies would return as rides. The Donkey Kong Country and Diddy Kong Racing worlds would be much more connected, such as Donkey Kong and Taj meeting and perhaps King K. Rool and Wizpig could have allied to cause double trouble in the story mode. It was also going to be the return of Kiddy Kong, a character not even Rare used much. Overall, it had a ton of potential and could have matched or even exceeded the brilliant Diddy Kong Racing, but we'll never know now.

Another cancelled Rare game that I'm intrigued with was Diddy Kong Pilot, which had Mario and Donkey Kong characters racing together before Nintendo canned it and Rare had to convert it to Banjo Pilot instead. That would've been an interesting story to discuss.

rjejr

#3

rjejr said:

@IxnayontheCK - Thats what I was thinking, but I honestly dont know enough about any of this to know how accurate it is.

That first paragraph including those 4 games makes me sad for the Wii U line-up, and it explains a lot about its lack of sales and excitement. but whats really upsetting is that despite those games and overall enthusiasm for the Gamecube it didn't sell very well, so what hope is there really for the Wii U ever selling well?

unrandomsam

#5

unrandomsam said:

“I think it’s a sign of the times more than anything else; games nowadays take much longer to develop, and they have to be a certain quality before you can release them.” - I think today the quality is worse than ever even Nintendo is not immune because although the stuff doesn't crash and it works well the level design isn't as good as it used to be. (Pretty much everybody else releases stuff that is completely broken).

IxnayontheCK

#6

IxnayontheCK said:

@rjejr Yeah there's just no "hype" surrounding anything to do with the Wii U. It's a console#2 system and will stay that way with it missing virtually every big player...(minecraft, Rockstar games, etc etc...)

luke88

#9

luke88 said:

I'd love some more articles on here about Rare, their relationship with Nintendo, the Microsoft acquisition and it's past and current implications for Nintendo.

Shiryu

#10

Shiryu said:

I was so looking forward to this when it was announced, huge fan of Rambi!

bizcuthammer

#11

bizcuthammer said:

@IxnayontheCK No they aren't. Rare, unlike Retro, was allowed to create its own IPs alongside using some of Nintendo's. Yes, Rare made great Nintendo games like Donkey Kong Country, Star Fox Adventures and Diddy Kong Racing, but it also had fantastic stuff that it came up with on its own like Banjo-Kazooie, Perfect Dark, Conker's Bad Fur Day and Killer Instinct. Retro has nothing like that, as Nintendo for some reason only lets them use existing IPs. Don't get me wrong, Retro's games are great and I love them, but they are not Rare.

Also, Rare came out with one or two games every year. Retro takes 3 years to make one game. I know game development is different now that it was back in 1996, but still. One game every three years is nothing compared to Rare's production.

IxnayontheCK

#12

IxnayontheCK said:

@bizcuthammer i completely agree. I just meant in terms of being their big 2nd party developer. And the lack of fresh IP's like from Rare days is a total bummer and something Nintendo really really need...as do we the consumer !

ShadJV

#13

ShadJV said:

It's a completely different industry these days. With the increases power and graphics of modern game systems, it takes a lot more time to build a functional game, and making one that with little to no bugs or glitches is next to impossible with the complexity games have reached. Rare excelled because of their dedication to polished quality; though they released quality games as late as the N64 days, they definitely started to falter as their level of quality became harder to reach. Rare was a top dinosaur in a golden age, but the changing environment has wiped out most of those dinosaurs; those that remain have had to evolve and adapt, some adapting better than other... Could we hit another golden age of gaming? One can hope, though it's hard to know who will be at the top of the food chain then. At least Rare still exists, who knows what the future holds.

TheRealThanos

#14

TheRealThanos said:

I still have the VHS video tape with all the GameCube tech demos on them, this being only one of the many cool games that never saw a release. A damn shame, I would sure have liked to see some of them being realized back in the day...
Here's more info, screens and video clips of some of them for those of you that are interested:
Raven Blade - http://www.unseen64.net/2008/04/08/raven-blade-gc-cancelled/
Dead Phoenix - http://www.unseen64.net/2008/04/08/dead-phoenix-gc-unreleased/
Kirby Adventure - http://www.unseen64.net/2008/04/09/kirby-adventure-gamecube-unreleased/

Kirk

#15

Kirk said:

Some of the ideas for this game do indeed sound cool and boy would I love to see some kind of spiritual successor to Diddy Kong Racing.

DRLAdmin

#16

DRL said:

Great job with this, @MegaWatts. I wanted this game so badly when it was announced, so it's nice to get more detail on its development history.

donkeykong64

#17

donkeykong64 said:

I remember seeing this on the Gamecube box and being so excited to play it.

and then...my childhood dreams were shattered

FritzFrapp

#18

FritzFrapp said:

Safari Hustle, the excellent minigame in Wii Party U, shows just how well the different animal approach can work. It's great fun.

NathanVS

#20

NathanVS said:

In a way, I am kinda glad Donkey Kong Racing wasn't released. I feel that the Racing genre was Diddy's thing not DKs. I hope Nintendo releases a new Diddy Kong Racing in the future.

Dark-Link73

#22

Dark-Link73 said:

@IxnayontheCK I totally agree with you and I think Nintendo feels the same way. Otherwise they (Nintendo) wouldn't have secured enough shares practically to own Retro thus making it a first party developer.

Thanks to the Metroid Prime Trilogy and the DKR games, Retro had proven itself to be a great developer. What Nintendo needs to do now is to unleash Retro and let their creative team create the next Metroid game and other franchises like Starfox, and maybe even F-Zero.

mamp

#23

mamp said:

Don't tell me this is the last one it felt like a sad ending to this great month starts crying

rjejr

#24

rjejr said:

@IxnayontheCK - "It's a console#2 system and will stay that way"

I think currently putting Wii U at #2 is very kind of you, I'm looking at 4 or 5 behind the PS4, 3DS, Vita, and the "app" game market on tablets and smartphones. If/when Amazon comes out w/ a Kindle TV box that will sell better as well. And it makes me feel bad as I spent $350 on a console that all I have to look forward to is eShop games for the next 3 months. Competing w/ the Ouya is not setting goals very high. It will get better in the fall again after MK8, SSB, Bayonetta 2, X and whatever is announced at E3 along with Zelda but for the immediate future I wouldn't tell anybody to buy 1.

What happened to Jeff Goldblum, did he start worshiping Cthulhu?

SunnyShores

#26

SunnyShores said:

@rjejr Agreed. I bought a Wii U day one and ever since then it seems all I do is look forward to upcoming games. My Wi U sits and gathers dust as I wait for something good to actually release and I have a feeling all i'm going to do for a good long time is wait for something meaningful to come from my Wii U. I had such high hopes. it stings when this kind of thing happens and you put so much hope into it.

retro_player_22

#27

retro_player_22 said:

Another DK racing game similar to this though not the same game, is Donkey Kong: Barrel Blast for Wii. It too was suppose to be release for the GameCube and were to utilize the GCN bongo pack but was cancelled and released for the Wii instead which became a flopped. Fortunately I'm glad Nintendo stick with Diddy Kong Racing and Mario Kart instead of putting the DK crew into more Mario Kart clones.

Whopper744

#29

Whopper744 said:

When Rare was bought by Microsoft, that has probably been the saddest gaming news I have heard. I grew up on the SNES and 64 and Rare had a part in many of my all time favorites.

supremii

#30

supremii said:

Great article, keep up the good work. Never heard of this game before, looks fun though.

DarkCoolEdge

#31

DarkCoolEdge said:

Nintendo should let Retro make a new IP. I love the games they've made so far but they aren't what Nintendo needs now.

JuanitoShet

#33

JuanitoShet said:

Rare was great; I got to play a handful of their games as a kid.

I'm gonna chase me down some Rare games for my N64. I've never played Donkey Kong 64 or Perfect Dark, for example - And I NEED to. I've already bought an Expansion Pack so I can play DK. :D

Darknyht

#34

Darknyht said:

Retro is about half the size of Rare currently (according to wikipedia), so expecting the same output is not realistic, and it appears they put out releases at about half the rate Rare does.

The problem of the Wii U is more due to the fact Nintendo needs 4-6 more Retro Studios in order to keep a steady supply of retail release quality games in production. Their current rate of a retail release every quarter is not enough to satisfy demand (just look at the grumbling here on releases).

Just to give some perspective: N64 (released Sept. 29, 1996) ~1 yr 3 months into it's US release 83 games (not all available in all regions) Gamecube (released November 18, 2001) 1 yr 3 months into it's US release: 137 retail games. Wii U Released (November 18, 2012) 1 yr 3 months into it's US release: 112 retail games, 136 eShop/Virtual Console games. I would include the Wii but the amount of shovelware on it skews the numbers.

Bluezealand

#35

Bluezealand said:

@SunnyShores Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, Super Mario 3D World, Pikmin 3, The Wonderful 101, Lego City Undercover, New Super Mario Bros. U, Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, ZombiU, Nintendo Land and TLoZ: WW HD are all great games, which are available exclusively on Wii U. Personally I think those games should be more than enough for now (at least for most people) and even if you don't like all of those games, there are still great eShop- and non-exclusive games released for Wii U (like Rayman Legends for example).
The upcoming exclusives (Mario Kart 8, X, Super Smash Bros., Bayonetta 2, Yarn Yoshi, SMT x FE) are also very promising.

gatorboi352

#36

gatorboi352 said:

@rjejr "That first paragraph including those 4 games makes me sad for the Wii U line-up, and it explains a lot about its lack of sales and excitement. but whats really upsetting is that despite those games and overall enthusiasm for the Gamecube it didn't sell very well, so what hope is there really for the Wii U ever selling well?"

Man I came in here after reading that to type almost this very thing. Well said.

The thing is, outside the freakish, casual driven success of the Wii, Nintendo home console sales as a whole have been in a sharp decline since the N64 came out. It's a sad reality. It really is surprising that it took this long for Iwata to have the "come to jesus" moment he did at the Dec investors meeting. Something that should have been done during the Wii era, not the end of 2013.

gatorboi352

#37

gatorboi352 said:

@IxnayontheCK Uh, hardly. They do have the Prime series and a couple of DKCs under their belt, but to imply their impact to Nintendo is/was anywhere near Rare's impact in the SNES and N64 days is just silly.

Dr_Corndog

#39

Dr_Corndog said:

@IxnayontheCK For my money, Retro today is better than Rare in the Nintendo days. And I'm normally the curmudgeonly type that believes gaming in the SNES days was better than gaming today.

Nintendo_Ninja

#42

Nintendo_Ninja said:

Huh. I never had heard of this until today. Definitely interesting. Maybe now they could release it on Wii U!

JaxonH

#44

JaxonH said:

@rjejr

Don't be sad for the Wii U lineup! We've already got quite a few games that would make even the almighty Gamecube jealous, such as DKC Tropical Freeze (Gamecube never did have a good DK game). We also have 2D Mario games now, which were MIA back in the Gamecube era. Pikmin is a franchise best enjoyed with motion controls, which was also not present during the 6th gen. Super Mario 3D World is leagues better than Sunshine, and we have a superior, HD version of Windwaker with 2nd screen integration. Mario Kart 8 looks sick compared to Double Dash, and Super Smash Bros 4, well, let's just say Melee didn't have Mega Man.

Gamecube did have the Prime games, yes. But I believe with all my heart that the Metroid game we get for Wii U will outclass them every step of the way. There are certain Gamecube gems that will always shine, such as F-Zero GX, Paper Mario Thousand Year Door and Luigi's Mansion, but, Wii U has its' own, like Wonderful 101, Monolith Soft's X and Bayonetta 2. It's great to remember the Cube for the excellent system it was, but let us not ignore what is right in front of us either. Seems like the worse a Nintendo console sells, the better its games are. So we're in good standing.

JaxonH

#45

JaxonH said:

@DarkCoolEdge
But it's not about what Nintendo needs- it's about what we the consumers want and need. Nintendo IPs are what most consumers want vs a new game. There is a vocal minority always clamoring for new Nintendo IPs, but they're a small group and clamor regardless of how many new games Nintendo makes.

New IPs sound good, in theory and on paper, but they don't sell as well as established IPs (proof that new IPs are actually not what Nintendo needs, just look at Wonderful 101 as proof), and they're a gamble for consumers as well. The few Ninty gamers who ARE willing to shell out for a franchise they've never played may or may not like the game, depending on their taste (just like some love DKC but hate Mario, some love Mario but hate DKC).

It's fun to think about what might be IF Retro invented something new, but, we don't know if that's one of their strong points. They make excellent games, when given a tried and true, proven gameplay concept to begin with (Metroid- isolation and exploration, gaining powers to access new areas / DKC- technical platforming with increasing difficulty, mine cart stages, collect KONG letters). Inventing the hook is the hardest part, and there's no guarantee they would come up with a good one. Many great artists can draw sketches based off an idea given to them, but can't for the life of them creatively draw. For all we know, this could be the case for Retro. Not saying it is, just throwing that out there as food for thought...

Nintenjoe64

#46

Nintenjoe64 said:

Every article about Rare's glory days makes me sad.

@unrandomsam definitely agree about Retro/Rare. Rare had an almost perfect run of about 20 games in a few different genres including brand new gameplay ideas. Retro have made a couple of great series in the same time.

rjejr

#47

rjejr said:

@JaxonH - "Gamecube never did have a good DK game"

DK:JB is my families favorite DK game and I don't see that ever changing. Before there was the Wii and motion controls, there was real motion w/ those bongos. And I'm not even joking. Keep in mind Starfox Adventures is the ONLY Starfox game we like, my family is very odd.

Its late, I'm tired, Titan is coming, so your right about the Wii U and it's games, and I'm looking forward to later this year myself, but I still feel the general enthusiastic vibe isn't here now that was there then. W101 is highly underated. I really dont see how anybody could not like that game, its so fun and colorful. The story is'nt the most engaging, but it is there and mildly entertaining. Oh well. w/ time flying by so fast I wont have to wait long I guess.

JaxonH

#48

JaxonH said:

@rjejr

I can't fault you over Starfox Adventures. I thought it was good too. I had no idea you liked Jungle Beat so much. I tip my hat to you though. You're not afraid to like what you like. That's a good thing. But I tell you what, I'm gonna order that game tomorrow for GC and the New Play Control on Wii, and I'm gonna give it another go just because you said that. I dismissed it without much play early on back during its release, and haven't really given it a 2nd thought since. But if you like it so much, maybe there's something there I didn't see before...

Bryon15

#49

Bryon15 said:

I remember this game. I wanted donkey kong racing so bad. And I still think that nintendo was stupid for not fully buying rare when they had the chance. And no, retro studios is NOT nintendo's new rare. At least not in my eyes they aren't.

StarDust4Ever

#50

StarDust4Ever said:

Sad. Now I wanna play that lost Donkey Kong Racing GC game. Instead we got useless DK bongos and a funky bongo racing game on Wii.

Linkuini

#51

Linkuini said:

I always wondered what the deal was with Donkey Kong Racing. Now I finally have closure.

Taj riding on a Zinger... might be pushing it.

rjejr

#52

rjejr said:

@JaxonH - DK:JB was one of the first games my kids ever played when they were like 2 and 4 year old boys - my 2 yr old didnt even start talking until he was about 4 - so it was really fun w/ everybody taking turns and getting into it. They didnt get very far but I finished all the worlds. Gave my nephew our Gamecube when we bought a Wii and bought him the game and bongos to go along w/ it. So I recommend holding off on the purchase until you have kids to play with. The only other game they played at that age was Godzilla: Save the Earth (or whatever it was called on the PS2) so in comparison DKJB was the greatest thing ever made. Godzilla: Unleashed on the Wii is barely a step above shovelware. We're still waiting though for a good Godzilla game that lets you play as Spiga and fight Gimantis. My kids really want a Godzilla vs. Gamera game but thats never going to happen. Maybe they'll build one inside Minecraft.

I'ld really like Starfox Adventure VC that would run on Wii U w/o turning into a slide show during the battles. And Crystal needs her own sequel so she can get into SSB. It's Nintendo's best chance to have something to compete w/ the likes of Tomb Raider, which I'm very happy to be getting this month the w/ PS+. Not that I want it that dark, just 3D open world. I know you know what I mean, you seemed very excited over the rumoured new Batman. Wonder if Wii U will get Batman or the new Assassins Creed. Too bad no more Darksiders.

SMW

#53

SMW said:

Switching rides in the middle of a race? Rare invented SEGA Racing Transformed! lol

AshFoxX

#55

AshFoxX said:

Retro Studios should do Diddy Kong Racing 2, at least until Nintendo buys the rights to Banjo Kazooie and Conker from Microsoft/Rare, and gives those IP to retro as well. After all, Microsoft isn't using them, they are too busy forcing Rare into their Kinect bin. Retro also said they enjoyed working on Mario Kart 7, so they do know how to build a fun kart racer.

EDIT: Platinum Games is another studio that might be able to resurrect the Rare spirit, if not create a new IP for Nintendo on the same level as Banjo and Conker.

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