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.”