In the last few days we've had a spate of video game anniversaries with Pokémon Gold and Silver, Super Smash Bros., Donkey Kong Country and the Nintendo DS all celebrating significant birthdays (by which we mean one that ends in a five or a zero). Well, there's another Donkey Kong game that launched this month 20 years ago - almost five years to the day after Rare's first crack at a game featuring Mario's erstwhile enemy debuted on Super NES.
Donkey Kong 64 is a game with a reputation; a 3D platformer which arguably marked the end of the 'collectathon' craze of the mid-to-late '90s; the ultimate expression of that genre, with everything turned up to eleven. After taking the general platforming principles established by Super Mario 64 and embellishing them with beautiful visuals and a healthy dose of British humour, Rare had proved with Banjo-Kazooie that it knew what it was doing in the 3D platformer space. Banjo was arguably the closest any developer got to beating Nintendo at its own game.
With Banjo in the bag, you'd be forgiven for thinking that its technical DNA might be found in DK64, but the culture at Rare in those days meant that tech was rarely shared between the infamous 'barns' where the different development teams worked in their Twycross complex. "To the best of my knowledge DK64 wasn’t built upon the Banjo engine," says Mark Stevenson, lead artist on Donkey Kong 64 and now Technical Art Director at Playtonic Games. "Engines back then tended to differ from team to team. Although we did share certain techniques and ideas, the basic engines were often bespoke to each team and a lot of the stuff we used was created during development of the game."
Chris Sutherland, head programmer on Banjo and now Project Director at Playtonic, concurs: "Yep, the teams were split into separate buildings and there was little sharing that went on in those earlier days." Looking back at Rare's track record at the time, it's hard to argue that this competitive atmosphere fostered by the studio leads - the Stamper brothers Tim and Chris - didn't produce impressive results.
It was a monumental task, a massive game, a massive amount of work.
The basic look of the ape would be based on the model used to create the sprites in the Donkey Kong Country games, although having those preexisting models didn't help much. "They mostly only served as a reference points from which to create the in-game versions," remembers Stevenson. "The tech we used to build the DKC models on the Silicon Graphics machines was quite different from what we needed for the game models. All the models for the DKC games were built using NURBs surfaces and for the realtime versions you needed to use polygons. The software we used at the time, PowerAnimator, was exclusively a nurbs modelling tool so we had to use a different tool, Gamegen, to build the polygon models. So [we] essentially had to start from scratch."
That's not to say the original models were entirely useless, though. "We would render out parts to use as textures on the polygon models so that they had baked in lighting, for instance the inside of the Kongs' mouths were created by rendering from the original models."
The difficulties of transposing the DKC series' 2D gameplay into the third dimension were manifold, as Stevenson recalls. "The biggest challenges translating to 3D space for me were visual fidelity. Realtime 3D graphics like this were still pretty early, so texture quality and polygon counts were never going to be able to compete with the pre-rendered visuals of the DKC games. Also animation initially provided some interesting challenges as the DKC stuff was always rendered from fixed side on viewpoints, but taking those animations and using them in 3D where you could see them from any angle showed how limited they were and they all needed to be reworked to look better in 3D."
about 18 months into development it was rebooted, the team was changed up with the leads on design and software getting replaced
While it obviously created new and different problems for the team, the extra dimension did offer at least one technical benefit over the side-on gameplay of its predecessors. "Animation, I think, became one of the big advantages of 3D over 2D. In the DKC game every animation frame is a separate graphic like traditional cell animations, so memory could get eaten up pretty quickly. With 3D, the animations are just data used to drive the joints in the models so are much less memory-heavy. So this opened up the scope to do considerably more animation for character than was previously possible, even to the point where this was the first project I worked on where we employed people purely to animate."
The console generation that followed was a turning point where teams would balloon in size, but at that time a development team might have only a dozen-or-so core members. The size of DK64 certainly stretched the team, though. Critics might argue that DK64 pushes the 3D platformer to breaking point, adding more than ever before: more characters, more collectibles, more of everything. Indeed, it even included the original arcade Donkey Kong as a playable cabinet in Frantic Factory, and for years it was noteworthy as the only official appearance of the original until the Arcade Archives rerelease on Switch. It was assumed by many that Nintendo was either unwilling or unable to release it again due to legal issues with the original developers Ikegami Tsushinki, although its appearance here suggested otherwise. "I’m not sure," comments Stevenson on the topic of how it came to be added, "but I certainly don’t remember any issues or complications around us including it, so it probably was as simple as just asking." Its presence - along with Rare's own Jetpac (a ZX Spectrum classic from when the developer went by the name Ultimate Play The Game) - was a fantastic bonus in a game that added everything and the kitchen sink.
The workload created by this 'more-more-more' approach is one of Stevenson's abiding memories. "It was a monumental task, a massive game, a massive amount of work. Also it was in development for around 3 years, the team that created DKC3 moved onto it after shipping that game, but about 18 months into development it was rebooted, the team was changed up with the leads on design and software getting replaced and the game changed from being a more 2.5D platform to what it turned out to be more in line with the Mario and Banjo structure of open 3D level that got a lot of reuse. The original plans of trying to recreate the DKC format of tonnes of A-B levels just wasn’t going to be feasible from a production point of view."
The volume of work created meant staff from outside teams were drafted in to help get the game finished in time for its November release date. Gregg Mayles, Rare veteran still with the company as Creative Director and director/designer on Banjo, was called upon for support towards the end. "I helped out the team by ‘guest designing’ the final boss encounter, as they were so busy with their deadline approaching," Mayles tells us. He is, of course, referencing the iconic boxing match between the DK crew and King 'Krusha' K.Rool, chief Kong nemesis and recent Smash Bros. inductee.
"There were two objectives I set myself - I wanted K.Rool to have yet another new identity (it was his trademark) and I wanted to ensure it felt like all the Kongs were teaming up to beat their nemesis. The boxing idea came from wanting a way for each Kong to have their own dedicated fight with K.Rool, and the round-based nature of boxing was ideal to achieve this. It was also a theme I thought we could have a lot of fun with, parodying the over the top, glitzy world heavyweight boxing that used to regularly come from Las Vegas in the '90s. I think Tiny Kong fighting K.Rool’s toes inside his boot is one of the oddest gameplay experiences I have ever come up with!"
DK64 features several memorable sequences (the most famous of which we'll discuss in due course), but this fitting bookend to the game wasn't originally in the design doc. "The boxing theme certainly wasn’t planned until the very end. In fact, K.Rool is wearing a crown in the opening story and acts more like Blofeld from the James Bond movies. I didn’t think fighting K.Rool as Blofeld would be much fun, hence him changing his persona to a champion boxer at the end." While the game might suffer from a little bloat in parts, it's certainly a strong finisher.
When DK64 crops up in conversation these days it's often in relation to how its excesses may have caused the popularity of 3D platformers to wane, but it has its fans and also its fair share of rumours and hearsay - the mark of any Rareware title of that era, from Banjo's abandoned Stop 'n' Swop feature to the mysteries of Connery Bond in GoldenEye 007.
One such story involves the N64's Expansion Pak, a little device used to double the console's RAM from 4MB to 8MB. The tale goes that a game-breaking, memory-related bug occurred in the 4MB version and forced Nintendo to ship the game bundled with the Expansion Pak. That's a costly bug, and we certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be the one to deliver the news to notoriously fiery then-President of Nintendo, Hiroshi Yamauchi back at Nintendo HQ.
That story has become more-or-less accepted fact, although Stevenson believes the truth is more complicated. "This one’s a myth. The decision to use the Expansion Pak happened a long time before the game shipped, in fact we were called in by management and told that we were going to use the Expansion Pak and that we needed to do find ways to do stuff in the game that justified its use and made it a selling point. I think the bug story somehow got amalgamated into the Expansion Pak use and became urban myth."
"There was a game-breaking bug right at the end of development that we were struggling with," he clarifies, "but the Expansion Pak wasn’t introduced to deal with this and wasn’t the solution to the problem. My memory is that, like all consoles, the hardware is constantly revised over its lifetime to take advantage of ongoing improvements in technology and manufacture methods to essentially make the manufacture more cost effective and eventually profitable. I think there we’re something like 3 different revisions of the internal hardware by this point and the bug was unique to only one of these versions. We did eventually find it and fix it, but very late in the day."
The things I think most stand the test of time are the characters and the humour
However, the most legendary part of the game is arguably its introduction. Say the words 'Donkey Kong 64' to almost any gamer these days and invariably the first thing to spring to mind is Grant Kirkhope's unforgettable DK Rap. These days the game's lighthearted opener rolls '90s nostalgia, irony and sheer lyrical genius into something that players the world over love to hate to love.
"I think the resurgence in popularity is because a lot of people were introduced to that song when they were kids, so there is more of an affection for it than there was during the game’s release," says Sutherland, who performed vocals on the song. At the time, there was backlash from a contingent of players who saw the intro movie as a serious attempt at spitting rhymes rather than an intentionally goofy introduction to a clan of apes, the leader of which wears nothing but a red tie sporting his initials. "I don’t think we anticipated any backlash specifically, we just thought we were creating something fun and different, to make the game stand out... I do remember that recording took a while as Grant would have to repeatedly stop the recording to try to get us to understand our rapping was drifting way out of time to the beat! I lost count of the number of times he told us to stop and try again. I’m sure he must have employed a lot of digital trickery to make it all work in the end!"
From its huge number of collectable doohickeys to its timeless rhymes, Donkey Kong 64 stands as a monument to a different age of gaming. The way games are made and played has changed a great deal in the last two decades, and it's only in the last few years that nostalgia has vined its way over and around the game. Its reputation in some circles as the ‘nadir’ of collectathon 3D platforming may be merited, but given the sheer quantity of game on offer, there's still much to like about DK64 and its mention evokes many happy memories. The success of Playtonic's own Yooka-Laylee series is proof that an appetite for the genre remains. Donkey Kong's Super NES debut might get the ape's share of the anniversary attention, but we'd argue that DK64 is well worth revisiting, too.
"I honestly haven’t played it since around the time it was released," says Stevenson, "but I would like to play it again to see what it’s like after all these years. Game design has moved on and evolved so much since then, so I think the game could definitely be streamlined a lot more [if it were remade today], certainly around all the collecting and backtracking."
Despite its reputation for those things, there are many elements which hold up today. "The things I think most stand the test of time are the characters and the humour with all the wacky animations and crazy moves, I think you'd have a lot of fun developing a modern day sequel."
The idea of a sequel might strike fear into the hearts of some gamers, but surely Donkey Kong deserves another 3D platforming outing to accompany the 2D triumphs of Retro Studios' Donkey Kong Country Returns and Tropical Freeze? The iconic lineup of Donkey, Chunky, Lanky, Tiny and Diddy - as canonised in the DK Rap - are a force to be reckoned with; a quirky yet entertaining bunch. Which one would you like to be stuck on a desert island with?
"Lanky," says Stevenson. "Because he’d be the most fun. Plus in the game he has a boat that he uses in a boss battle, so hopefully he’d have that with him and we could escape."
Many thanks to Mark, Chris and Gregg for their time. Feel free to share your Desert Island Kong below. C'mon Cranky, take it to the fridge.