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Donkey Kong Country
|Donkey Kong Country|
North American box art
Donkey Kong Country[a] is a 1994 platform game developed by Rare and published by Nintendo for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). It is a reboot of Nintendo's Donkey Kong franchise and follows the gorilla Donkey Kong and his nephew Diddy Kong as they set out to recover their stolen banana hoard from King K. Rool and the Kremlings. In 40 side-scrolling levels, the player collects items, defeats enemies and bosses, and finds secrets on their journey to defeat K. Rool. In the multiplayer modes, two players can work together cooperatively or race each other.
After developing numerous Nintendo Entertainment System games in the 1980s, Rare, a British studio founded by Tim and Chris Stamper, purchased Silicon Graphics workstations to render 3D models. Nintendo, seeking a game to compete with Sega's Aladdin (1993), purchased a large minority stake in the company. Tasked with reviving the dormant Donkey Kong franchise, Rare assembled 12 developers to work on Donkey Kong Country over 18 months. Donkey Kong Country was inspired by the Super Mario series and was one of the first home console games to feature pre-rendered graphics, achieved through a compression technique that allowed Rare to convert 3D models into SNES sprites without losing much detail. It was also the first Donkey Kong game neither produced nor directed by creator Shigeru Miyamoto, though he contributed design ideas.
Following its announcement at the Consumer Electronics Show in June 1994, Donkey Kong Country was highly anticipated and backed by a major marketing campaign that cost US$16 million in America alone. It was released in November 1994 to acclaim and sold 9.3 million copies worldwide, making it the third-bestselling SNES game. Critics hailed its visuals as groundbreaking and praised its gameplay, replay value, and music. The game won numerous accolades, and although some retrospective critics have called it overrated, it is frequently cited as one of the greatest video games of all time. It has been ported to numerous platforms, including Game Boy handheld consoles and digital distribution services.
Donkey Kong Country was key in maintaining the SNES's popularity when players were moving to more advanced consoles, such as Sony's PlayStation. It also helped establish Rare as one of the video game industry's leading developers and re-established Donkey Kong as a key Nintendo franchise. Rare developed two sequels for the SNES, Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest (1995) and Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong's Double Trouble! (1996). After a hiatus, during which Rare was acquired by Nintendo competitor Microsoft, Retro Studios revived the series with Donkey Kong Country Returns (2010) for the Wii and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (2014) for the Wii U.
Donkey Kong Country is a side-scrolling platform game in which the player must complete 40 levels to recover the Kongs' banana hoard, which has been stolen by the crocodilian Kremlings. The game features both single-player and multiplayer game modes. In single-player, the player controls one of two characters: the gorilla Donkey Kong or his monkey nephew Diddy Kong, switching between the two as necessary. Both characters offer different attributes: Donkey is stronger and can defeat enemies more easily, whilst Diddy moves faster and is more agile. Both playable Kongs can walk, run, jump, roll, pick up and throw certain objects, while Donkey can pound the terrain to defeat enemies or find items. Multiplayer modes include the competitive "Contest" mode or the cooperative "Team" mode. In Contest, each player controls their own set of Kongs but with different colors to differentiate between players and take turns playing each level as quickly as possible; the objective is to complete the most levels in the fastest time. In Team mode, each player takes the role of one of the two Kongs and play as a tag team.
The player navigates through the game via two game screens: the overworld map and a side-scrolling playfield which comprises the majority of the game. The overworld map displays an overhead representation of Donkey Kong Island and provides access to levels. Each level on the map is marked with an icon: unfinished levels are marked by Kremlings, whilst completed areas are marked by Donkey or Diddy. The overworld also grants the player the opportunity to visit other members of the Kong family: Funky Kong operates flight services which allows the player to travel back and forth between different areas of the game, jumping in Candy Kong's "save barrels" gives the player the chance to save their progress, and encountering Cranky Kong in his cabins provide the player with tips and fourth wall-breaking humour.
The majority of the game takes place in linear levels, populated with various obstacles and enemies, which mostly involve the player traversing the stages by running, jumping, or defeating enemies by jumping on their heads or rolling into them. If the player is hit by an enemy, the leading Kong runs off-screen, automatically enabling the player to take control of the other. They will only be able to control that Kong unless they free the other Kong from a barrel. The player is given a number of lives, which are lost if both Donkey and Diddy come into contact with an enemy or fall into bottomless pits. The game ends when the player runs out of lives, although they may continue their game from the most recent save point. Some levels feature unique mechanics such as riding in mine carts, launching out of barrel cannons, or swinging from vine to vine. Each level features various items for the player to collect; these include bananas, golden letters that spell out K–O–N–G, extra life balloons, and golden animal tokens that lead to bonus stages. Collecting 100 bananas or all four K-O-N-G letters will give the player an extra life respectively. There are also secret paths that lead to bonus games where the player can earn additional lives or other items, as well as gain possible shortcuts through the level. Each section of the map has one boss at the end, which must be defeated to advance through different parts of the overworld.
In certain levels, the player can gain assistance from the Kong's five "animal buddies" found by breaking open unique crates. Animals provide boons such as extra speed or jump height. Each animal can be found in an appropriately themed level: for example, Enguarde, a swordfish that can defeat enemies with its bill, can only be found underwater, while Squawks, a parrot that carries a lantern, is found in one cave level. Other "animal buddies" include Rambi, a powerful rhinoceros that can charge into enemies and break open secret doors, Expresso, an ostrich which enables the Kongs to jump high and glide through the air, and Winky, a frog that can leap higher than any animal. The player can use each animal for the entirety of a level unless they are hit by an enemy.
Donkey Kong Country is a reboot of the Donkey Kong franchise, set long after the events of Donkey Kong (1981) and Donkey Kong Jr. (1982). The original Donkey Kong grows old, moves to Donkey Kong Island, and takes on the moniker Cranky Kong, passing the "Donkey Kong" mantle down to his grandson. One night, the Kremlings, led by King K. Rool, invade Donkey Kong Island and steal the Kongs' hoard of bananas. Donkey, alongside his nephew Diddy, sets out on a journey to reclaim the banana hoard and defeat the Kremlings.
The two Kongs travel throughout Donkey Kong Island, battling the Kremlings and their henchmen, before reaching K. Rool's pirate ship, the Gang-Plank Galleon. The two take on K. Rool and seemingly defeat him, initiating a mock credits roll claiming that the Kremlings developed the game, but K. Rool gets back up to continue the fight. However, the Kongs persevere, defeat K. Rool, and reclaim the banana hoard.
Prior to Donkey Kong Country, Nintendo's Donkey Kong franchise had been largely dormant since the unsuccessful release of Donkey Kong 3 in 1983. The 1987 Official Nintendo Player's Guide advertised a revival for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), The Return of Donkey Kong, that was never released. Aside from occasional cameo appearances in other games and a 1994 remake of the original Donkey Kong for Nintendo's handheld game console, the Game Boy, the Donkey Kong character had not been seen in video games for nearly a decade. Journalist Jeremy Parish, writing for USGamer, described this as "quite an ignominious twist" for what had been once been one of the most recognizable video game characters.
In 1985, brothers Tim and Chris Stamper, British developers who previously founded the British computer game studio Ultimate Play the Game, established Rare to focus on the burgeoning Japanese video game console market. Nintendo had rebuffed the brothers' efforts for a partnership in 1983, which led Chris Stamper to study the NES hardware for six months. Nintendo had claimed it was impossible to reverse engineer the NES, but Rare managed to do so, prepared several tech demos and showed them to Nintendo executive Minoru Arakawa in Kyoto. Impressed, Nintendo granted Rare an unlimited budget. Rare went on to develop over 60 NES games, which included the Battletoads series and ports of games such as 1982's Marble Madness. Rare's NES output generated enormous profits, but demonstrated little creativity.
When the NES's successor, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), was released in 1991, Rare decided to limit its output and, around 1992, invested its NES profit in Silicon Graphics (SGI) workstations to render 3D models. Rare took significant financial risks in purchasing the SGI workstations, as they cost £80,000 each. The move made Rare the most technologically advanced developer in the UK and situated it high in the international market. Rare tested the SGI technology with Battletoads Arcade (1994) and began developing a boxing video game, Brute Force, using PowerAnimator. At the time, Nintendo wanted a game to compete with Sega's Aladdin (1993), which featured graphics by Disney animators, so Rare informed Nintendo of its SGI experiments. Nintendo was stunned by Brute Force and bought a 25 per cent stake in the company that gradually increased to 49 per cent—making Rare a second-party developer and leading to the development of Donkey Kong Country. According to character designer Kevin Bayliss, after a meeting, Tim Stamper informed him that Nintendo wanted to revive Donkey Kong for a modern-day audience.
Some sources, including character designer Steve Mayles and head programmer Chris Sutherland, indicate that Donkey Kong Country's development began after Nintendo offered Rare its catalogue of characters to create a game using the SGI technology, and the Stampers chose Donkey Kong. Conversely, lead designer and Steve Mayles' brother Gregg Mayles recalled that it was Nintendo that requested a Donkey Kong game.
Donkey Kong Country was developed over the course of 18 months, with programming beginning around August 1993. Rare assembled a team of 12, and according to product manager Dan Owsen, 20 people worked on Donkey Kong Country throughout the development cycle. The first demo was playable by November 1993. The staff made Donkey Kong Country a side-scrolling platformer because they had grown up playing Nintendo's Super Mario games and wanted to deliver their own "modern" take. At the time, Donkey Kong Country had the most man hours ever invested in a video game, 22 years. In 2019, Gregg Mayles stated that the number of hours the team put into Donkey Kong Country would be impossible in the modern game industry. He noted that game development was more of a hobby at the time, as much of the Rare staff were young and "just felt like we'd been given an opportunity to make something pretty cool, and that's all we were trying to do".
Though Nintendo is usually protective of its intellectual properties, it was relatively uninvolved with Donkey Kong Country, leaving most of the work to Rare. Tim Stamper and Gregg Mayles were the only Rare employees who had significant ties to Nintendo during the project. Donkey Kong Country was the first Donkey Kong game that was neither directed nor produced by franchise creator Shigeru Miyamoto, who was working on Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island (1995) at the time. Miyamoto was still involved with the project and provided "certain key pieces of input".
The level design was heavily influenced by Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988). Gregg Mayles said he wanted to make a game that was "easy to pick up" but would flow seamlessly if a player practiced. As such, objects such as enemies, swinging ropes and barrel cannons were placed so players could continually move through a level as if walking up steps. Levels were designed using Post-it Notes that the team pieced together. Gregg Mayles noted that the Post-it Notes kept design "fluid" and made it easy to scrap mistakes. The team began designing levels by establishing a predominant feature (e.g. swinging ropes), before determining the uses of the feature. As Gregg Mayles said, "it was kind of done by getting the framework in place first, and then filling the gaps in later". Secret areas were added while designing levels on Post-it Notes, inspired by Super Mario and the Indiana Jones films.
The player character's attacks changed considerably during development. Gregg Mayles said that the team wanted moves that would be "iconic". Because he wanted the game to be fast, the attacks needed to suit fast gameplay. Choosing a satisfactory attack proved challenging; Gregg Mayles recalled that the team considered at least six different attacks, such as a slide and a "leapfrog" attack. One attack, in which Donkey Kong smashed his fist on an enemy's head to leap, was cut because it interrupted game flow. Cutting moves became so common that whenever one was cut Steve Mayles would play the Queen song "Another One Bites the Dust" on a CD. Rare finally settled on the roll, which Gregg Mayles noted worked similarly to a bowling ball. The ability to jump in midair while rolling was implemented because the developers found it was easy to accidentally fall off a ledge while rolling. Gregg Mayles found the change useful, so he incorporated it into the level design.
Simultaneous cooperative gameplay was planned but scrapped due to time and hardware constraints. According to Gregg Mayles, having two players on a single screen was challenging, while split-screen multiplayer was unfeasible. Simultaneous multiplayer also conflicted with his vision of fast gameplay. Mayles has said that if he were to remake Donkey Kong Country, he would want to implement the simultaneous gameplay. The team planned to have Donkey Kong wear a hard hat in mine levels, but this was replaced by Squawks the Parrot due to palette limitations and animation problems. Sutherland also had to cut many of K. Rool's animations for the final boss fight to maintain a good frame rate, to the chagrin of Steve Mayles. Programmer Brendan Gunn said most of the scrapped concepts were minor, and only regretted that Donkey Kong walks across "lazy" dotted lines instead of paths on the world map.
Reviewing the game for release, Nintendo directed Rare to significantly reduce the difficulty to appeal to a broad audience; Nintendo thought the numerous secrets would provide sufficient challenge for hardcore gamers. At this point, Miyamoto made some last-minute suggestions, such as Donkey Kong's "hand-slap" move, that were incorporated into the game. Gregg Mayles recalled Nintendo's input as supportive and helpful, as the Rare staff was inexperienced.
Bayliss was in charge of redesigning Donkey Kong, and wanted the design to be simplified and compact. The features were enlarged to make them clearer, while his eyes were taken from Bayliss' Battletoad designs. Steve Mayles contributed his mouth, which formed the basis for the other character designs. The red tie was suggested by Miyamoto in a faxed illustration, as he wanted the character to have a distinctive article of clothing like Mario's hat. Donkey Kong originally had only three fingers per hand, but a fourth was added when Nintendo informed Rare that individuals with three fingers are commonly associated with the yakuza in Japan. To develop Donkey Kong's movements, Rare staff spent hours at the nearby Twycross Zoo watching and videotaping gorillas, but found their movements were unsuitable for a fast game, and instead based the animations loosely on a horse's gallop.
The idea of Donkey Kong having a companion came from Rare's search for a game mechanic akin to the Super Mario series' power-up system; Gregg Mayles said "we thought a second character could perform this function, look visually impressive and give the player a feeling that they were not alone". Gregg Mayles initially intended for the partner to be Donkey Kong Jr. and created Diddy Kong as a redesign of the character. However, Nintendo considered the redesign too great a departure from the original, and asked that Rare either rework it or present it as a new character. Mayles felt the redesign suited the updated Donkey Kong universe, so chose to make it a new character. Naming the character was a challenge, and Mayles dropped his preferred "Dinky Kong" following copyright problems with Dinky Toys.
Steve Mayles created the other new Kong characters using the Donkey Kong model as a base. For instance, he created Funky Kong by taking Donkey Kong's model and adding teeth, sunglasses and a bandanna. Gregg Mayles said the team did not put too much thought into creating characters, simply wanting a diverse cast. The animal companions, such as Rambi the Rhino, were an extension of Diddy's function as a power-up. A number of animal companions were cut, such as an owl who provided tips, who was redesigned as Cranky Kong. Cranky, who Rare considered the Donkey Kong character from the arcade games, was intended to be a character who harkened "back to the old times". Cranky's dialogue was written by Gregg Mayles and Tim Stamper; his dry sarcasm came from Rare's British humour. Rare avoided mentioning that Cranky was the original Donkey Kong in the game and marketing materials, fearing that Nintendo would disapprove of the idea.
As the Donkey Kong franchise did not have much of an established universe, Nintendo gave Rare freedom to expand it. Rare initially considered using the Super Mario character Wario as the antagonist and developed a storyline in which he stole a time machine from Mario, but Nintendo instructed Rare to create original characters instead. King K. Rool and the Kremlings were originally created for Jonny Blastoff and the Kremling Armada, a cancelled adventure game Rare planned for Macintosh computers. When development of Donkey Kong Country began, Steve Mayles reworked the Kremlings for the Donkey Kong universe. The Kremlings were originally to use realistic weapons, such as guns, but this conflicted with the game's lighthearted tone. Gregg Mayles also wanted K. Rool and the Kremlings to seem incompetent, similar to the villainous cartoon characters Dick Dastardly and Muttley.
Donkey Kong Country was one of the first games for a mainstream home video game console to use pre-rendered 3D graphics, a technique used in the earlier 1993 Finnish game Stardust for the Amiga. Rare developed a compression technique that allowed the team to incorporate more detail and animation for each sprite for a given memory footprint, which better preserves the pre-rendered graphics. Nintendo and Rare called the technique for creating the game's graphics Advanced Computer Modelling (ACM). This pushed the SNES hardware to its limits and there was concern that it would be impossible to compress the SGI-rendered models, which used millions of colours, into 15-colour SNES sprites. A single SGI screen took up more memory than an entire 32 MB SNES cartridge; Gregg Mayles compared it to turning a million-piece jigsaw puzzle into a 1,000 or 100 piece one. He described transferring the backgrounds into the game as "the bane of the project" and spent "thousands of hours" trying to split the images into tiles to fit in an SNES cartridge. The team's mentality was to attempt to compress SGI visuals and implement them even if it seemed impossible.
The artists began by rendering the characters in NURBS using PowerAnimator and adding textures. They would then create the animations and render them frame by frame, before compressing them for use in the game. The ACM process was handled by a designated computer that had a proprietary utility similar to Deluxe Paint. Adapting to the cutting-edge SGI workstations was difficult; Steve Mayles said they had "a really steep learning curve". Three programmers used the machines using only a massive user guide that "wasn't written from an artist['s] point of view". The internet did not exist at the time, so Rare essentially had to work from scratch. A single model took hours to render, so the team would leave the computers running overnight. Sometimes, artists would shut down other artists' computers in the middle of the process so they could render their models. The SGI machines required a massive air conditioning unit to prevent overheating, while the team worked in the summer heat without relief. A rumour suggested that Rare was investigated by the Ministry of Defence for their amount of advanced workstations; although Gregg Mayles said this was false, Rare did receive complaints regarding the amount of power the SGI hardware used. The Rare farmhouse where the game was developed also frequently lost power, to the puzzlement of the electricity board. Sutherland was responsible for implementing the graphics in-game and found having to reduce characters' frames of animation challenging.
To showcase the graphical fidelity and immerse the player in the game, Rare chose not to include a heads-up display, with information such as the player's banana and life counts only appearing when relevant. The pre-rendered graphics allowed for a more realistic art style, so the team incorporated what would have simply been floating platforms in the Super Mario games into the surrounding environment. For instance, platforms took on the appearance of trees in jungles or walkways in mines. Rare also attempted to keep the look of the levels consistent so completely different landscapes would not be right next to each other. Tim Stamper, who spoke with Nintendo of America every night, encouraged the team "to go to the extremes in terms of visuals"; Steve Mayles recalled that Stamper told the team that he wanted the game to still look good two decades in the future. Gunn added that, in addition to Stamper's pushing, the team was also under significant pressure to finish the game in time for Thanksgiving due to Nintendo's competition with Sega.
A few weeks into development, Rare, at the point when the team had established how the game would look, presented a demo to Nintendo in Japan. Rare's audience included Miyamoto, Game Boy creator Gunpei Yokoi, and future Nintendo president Genyo Takeda. According to Gregg Mayles, Nintendo was impressed, though Yokoi said that he was concerned the game was "too 3D" to be playable. Mayles attributed this to the shock Yokoi felt by seeing such advanced graphics.
David Wise composed most of the soundtrack. Wise started composing as a freelance musician; he originally assumed his music would be replaced with compositions by Koji Kondo, the Super Mario composer, because he understood the importance of the Donkey Kong licence to Nintendo. Rare asked Wise to record three jungle demo tunes that were merged to become the "DK Island Swing", the first level's track. Wise said, "I guess someone thought the music was suitable, as they offered me a full time position at Rare". Rare allocated 32 kilobits to Wise. Prior to composing, Wise was shown the graphics and given an opportunity to play the level they would appear in, which gave him a sense of the music he would compose. Wise then chose samples and optimised the music to work on the SNES.
Donkey Kong Country features atmospheric music that mixes natural environmental sounds with prominent melodic and percussive accompaniments. Its 1940s swing music-style soundtrack attempts to evoke the environments and includes music from levels set in Africa-inspired jungles, caverns, oceanic reefs, frozen landscapes, and industrial factories. Wise cited Kondo's music for the Super Mario and Legend of Zelda games, Tim and Geoff Follin's music for Plok (1993), synthesizer film soundtracks released in the 1980s, 1990s rock and dance music, and his experience with brass instruments as influences. Wise wanted to imitate the sound of the Korg Wavestation synthesiser. He originally had "all these wild visions of being able to sample pretty much everything", but could not due to memory restrictions. Wise worked separately from the rest of the team in a former cattle shed, visited occasionally by Tim Stamper.
Since Donkey Kong Country featured advanced pre-rendered graphics, Wise wanted to push the limits in terms of audio to create "equally impressive" music and make the most of the small space he was working with. He wanted the audio to stand out from other SNES games, like the visuals. "Aquatic Ambience", the music that plays in the underwater levels, took five weeks to create and was the result of Wise's efforts to create a "waveform sequence" on the SNES using his Wavestation. Wise composed "Aquatic Ambience" after he realized he could use the Wavestation, and considers the track his favorite in the game and its biggest technological accomplishment in regards to the audio. The minimalist "Cave Dweller Concert", which features only a marimba, drums, and synths, was influenced by Stamper, who wanted the track to be abstract and reflect the feeling of uncertainty associated with exploring dark caves. Stamper was also the driving force behind incorporating sound effects in the music, as he wanted them to play in levels but was limited by the SNES hardware. The "DK Island Swing" was inspired by jungle and tropical-themed music Wise had been listening to, while K. Rool's theme was heavily influenced by the work of Iron Maiden. The title screen theme, added towards the end of development, is a remix of Nintendo's original Donkey Kong theme and was written to demonstrate how Donkey Kong had evolved since his debut.
Composing Donkey Kong Country helped Wise establish his musical style. Wise noted that when he composed video game music in the 1980s, he was limited by the NES's technological restrictions. When he heard Nintendo's composers create music around the NES's limitations, it encouraged him to go back and refine. Such restrictions helped him understand the importance of a console's sound channels and what would be important to do when composing video game music, so these lessons helped him when he worked on Donkey Kong Country. Wise faced numerous challenges due to the technological restraints of the SNES, such as being unable to directly use a keyboard. As such, Wise composed a "rough" track using the keyboard before transcribing the track in hexadecimal to input in MIDI. Wise had to keep music consistent across the SNES's eight sound channels, noting that if there "was two minutes of music on one of these channels, there had to be exactly two minutes on the other seven channels". Wise noted this was a challenging, time-consuming process. However, it was easier than composing for the NES due to the larger number of sound channels. Wise noted that it likely would have been impossible to create the soundtrack if Rare was developing on the Sega Mega Drive, which had an inferior FM sound chip.
Additionally, Eveline Fischer contributed seven tracks. Fischer was less experienced than Wise, who helped teach her as they worked together. She attempted "to give a feeling of the place you were in [and] a sense of the momentum you needed" through her compositions, which she felt were more atmospheric than Wise's. Funky Kong's theme had originally been written by Robin Beanland for an internal progress video about another Rare game, Killer Instinct (1994). Nintendo decided to use the track in a Donkey Kong Country promotional trailer; Tim Stamper liked the track and wanted to include it in the game itself, so Wise adopted it. Meanwhile, character voice clips were provided by various Rare employees. The chomping noises made by the Klaptrap enemy came from an artist who continually snapped his teeth as he worked, while Mark Betteridge provided the playable Kongs' voice clips and Sutherland voiced the Kremlings. During visits to the Twycross zoo, Wise attempted to record real animal noises for inclusion, but they proved too quiet to be captured by his microphone.
A promotional soundtrack CD, DK Jamz, was released via news media and retailers in November 1994, with a standalone release in 1995. It was one of the earliest video game soundtrack albums released in the United States.
Nintendo published Donkey Kong Country for the SNES in November 1994. The North American release came first on 21 November, followed by the European release on 24 November and the Japanese release on 26 November. In Japan, the game was released under the title Super Donkey Kong. According to Rare, the game released two weeks ahead of schedule. Donkey Kong Country was released around the same time as Sega's Sonic & Knuckles for the SNES's chief competitor, the Sega Mega Drive. The Los Angeles Times called the coinciding releases a "battle" as both advertised revolutionary technological advances (lock-on technology for Sonic & Knuckles and 3D-rendered graphics for Donkey Kong Country).
Nintendo of America chairman Howard Lincoln unveiled Donkey Kong Country at the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, which lasted from 23 to 25 June 1994. According to Bayliss, Rare spent about a month preparing for the reveal. The unveiling showcased various gameplay sequences and did not reveal that Donkey Kong Country was an SNES game until the end of the presentation, fooling the audience into believing that it was supposed to be for Nintendo's then-upcoming Nintendo 64. Steve Mayles considered the shock that the audience felt after learning it would release for the SNES the "proudest moment in my game-making career". Donkey Kong Country was backed by an exceptionally large marketing campaign. According to the Los Angeles Times, Nintendo spent US$16 million on Donkey Kong Country marketing in America alone; at the time, significant game releases typically had a much smaller average marketing budget of US$5 million. It was also one of the flagship titles of Nintendo's Play It Loud! marketing campaign.
Nintendo sent a promotional VHS tape, Donkey Kong Country: Exposed, to subscribers of Nintendo Power magazine. Exposed, hosted by comedian Josh Wolf, provides a "behind-the-scenes" glimpse of the Treehouse, the Nintendo of America division where games are tested. Nintendo World Report's Justin Berube wrote that Exposed was "probably the first time most people outside of Nintendo learned about the [Treehouse]" and "allowed players to see a game in action at home before it was released... the path to learning about upcoming games was no longer confined to magazines". Exposed also features gameplay tips and interviews. It concludes with a segment reminding viewers that the game is available only on the 16-bit SNES, not on rival 32-bit and CD-ROM-based consoles (such as Sega's Mega-CD and 32X) that boasted superior processing power.
In October 1994, Nintendo of America held an online promotional campaign through the internet service CompuServe. The campaign included downloadable video samples of the game, a trivia contest in which 800 people participated, and an hour-long online chat conference attended by 80 people, in which Lincoln, president Minoru Arakawa and vice president of marketing Peter Main answered questions. Nintendo's CompuServe promotion marked an early instance of a major video game company using the internet to promote its products. Nintendo of America also partnered with Kellogg's for a promotional campaign in which the packaging for Kellogg's breakfast cereals featured Donkey Kong Country character art and announced a prize giveaway. The campaign ran from the game's release in November 1994 until April 1995.
David DiRienzo, writing for Hardcore Gaming 101, described Nintendo's Donkey Kong Country promotion as "marketing blitzkrieg": "it was everywhere. You couldn’t escape it. It was on the cover of every magazine. It was on gigantic, imposing displays and marquees at Wal-Mart and Babbages... For kids of the era, November 20th seemed like the eve of a revolution." The emphasis on Donkey Kong Country's SGI-rendered visuals built anticipation for the release. The Exposed VHS tape also contributed significantly to the hype and Nintendo would repeat the strategy with future releases such as Star Fox 64 (1997). Nintendo anticipated to sell approximately two million Donkey Kong Country units in one month; Main acknowledged this was an unprecedented expectation but said "it's based on the off-the-chart reactions we've received from game players and retailers. It's something they haven't seen enough of, in terms of breakthrough components, that advances the state of game-play, visuals and audio".
An alternate, competition-oriented version of Donkey Kong Country was sold through Blockbuster Video. Its changes include a time limit for the playable levels and a scoring system, which had been used in the Nintendo PowerFest '94 and Blockbuster World Video Game Championships II competitions. It was later distributed in limited quantities through Nintendo Power. The competition version of Donkey Kong Country is the rarest licensed SNES game, with only 2,500 cartridges known to exist.
In 2000, Rare developed a port of Donkey Kong Country for Nintendo's Game Boy Color (GBC) handheld console. The port was developed alongside the GBC version of Perfect Dark and many assets, including graphics and audio, were re-used from Rare's Game Boy Donkey Kong games. Aside from graphical and sound-related downgrades due to the GBC's weaker 8-bit hardware, the port is mostly identical to the original release. One level was redesigned while another was added. It also adds bonus modes, including two minigames that supplement the main quest and support multiplayer via the Game Link Cable, as well as Game Boy Printer support. Gregg Mayles was not involved with the port but was impressed that it was possible to recreate the entire game on the GBC.
Although Rare was acquired by Nintendo competitor Microsoft in 2002, the studio continued to produce games for Nintendo's Game Boy Advance (GBA) since Microsoft did not have a competing handheld. As such, it developed a version of Donkey Kong Country for the GBA, released in the West in June 2003 and in Japan the following December as part of Nintendo's line of SNES rereleases for the GBA. According to Tim Stamper, the GBA Donkey Kong Country was developed from scratch—using SNES emulators to rip the artwork—because the original materials were stored on floppy disks with outdated file formats. The GBA version adds a new animated introductory cutscene, redesigned user interfaces and world maps, the ability to save progress anywhere, minigames, and a time trial mode. However, it features downgraded graphics and sound, the former due to the GBA's lack of a backlit screen.
The SNES version of Donkey Kong Country has been digitally rereleased for later Nintendo consoles via the Virtual Console service. It was released for the Wii Virtual Console in Japan and Europe in December 2006, and in North America in February 2007. In September 2012, the game was delisted from the Virtual Console catalogue; the exact reason is unknown, though Kotaku's Jason Schreier noted it may have been related to licensing issues with Rare. Donkey Kong Country returned to the Wii U's Virtual Console in February 2015 and was added to the New Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console in March 2016. It was also included in the Super NES Classic Edition, a dedicated console Nintendo released in September 2017, and released on the Nintendo Switch for Nintendo Switch Online subscribers in July 2020.
Donkey Kong Country was a critical and commercial success upon release in November 1994. Within a month of its launch in the United States, its sales reached nearly 500,000 copies. At review aggregator GameRankings, the SNES version received an 89% score, the Game Boy Color version 90%, and the Game Boy Advance version 79%.
The game's novel use of pre-rendered 3D models and visuals were lauded among critics, with many citing that its graphics were the first of its kind and helped set it far apart from its contemporaries. Lucas Thomas from IGN and Scott Marriott from AllGame both commended the game's advanced visual techniques and expressed surprise that Nintendo's 16-bit system could deliver such vitality, while GameSpot's Frank Provo felt that Donkey Kong Country's graphical prowess rivalled that of the forthcoming 32-bit consoles. Nadia Oxford from USGamer similarly acknowledged that the game's visual allure helped Nintendo save face in a period of uncertainty for cartridge-based games and gave praise to Rare's execution of 3D rendering. Michel Garnier from Jeuxvideo said the rendering offered a new depth of realism. In retrospect, Nintendo Life's Alex Olney said the pioneering graphics would survive the test of time, while Oxford was more sceptical, saying that despite the "unholy coupling" of Donkey Kong Country's pre-rendered graphics and the SNES processor, the game featured a variety of "paper thin" backgrounds. Writing for Entertainment Weekly, Bob Strauss said the backgrounds were "movie-like" and praised its "monster" textures and impressive 3D characters. Vera Brinkmann from Aktueller Software Markt considered the graphics the best she had seen on a home console, with particular praise for the fluid running animations. Jeff Pearson of Nintendojo also appreciated the immersive background mattes and said Donkey Kong Country was a "visual masterpiece" and the best-looking game on the SNES. Alexi Kopalny from Top Secret thought the game's visuals were superior to those of Doom and described them as "witchcraft". Shortly before the release of Donkey Kong Country 2, Chet McDonnell from Next Generation wrote that Donkey Kong Country featured the best graphics on a home console, bolstered by the "superior" colour palette of the SNES.
Although contemporary critics had praise for the game's fluid and fast-paced platforming, some retrospective reviewers have since taken a more critical stance and described its gameplay as overrated. Thomas felt that Donkey Kong Country's visuals sacrificed gameplay in favour of fast sales and a "short-run attention grab" which did not live up to the standards of some of Miyamoto's more "polished" gameplay designs. Marriott echoed this by criticising the game's lack of originality and Donkey and Diddy Kong's shallow range of attacking moves, while Provo, despite noting acknowledging its addictive appeal, felt it had "straightforward" gameplay. McDonnell felt that Donkey Kong Country's gameplay held it back from being a Nintendo blockbuster in its own right. Oxford was one of the retrospective critics who appreciated its fast-flowing gameplay, writing that its levels featured a "surprisingly oppressive" atmosphere which eschewed other platformers' idyllic backdrops. Strauss thought it was wise that Nintendo opted not to emulate the arcade-style gameplay of the original Donkey Kong, while Olney considered the game's new rope swinging and barrel blasting mechanics to be a welcome variation. The game's plethora of secrets invited praise among both contemporary and retrospective reviewers: Garnier considered the game's diversity in "animal buddies" and secret collectables to be one of its main strengths, saying that the goal of attaining a 101% completion rate through finding all of the secrets adds a "delightful" replay value. Marriott and Thomas concurred, opining that its hidden bonus levels add a new layer of playability through constantly arousing curiosity in the player. Karn Bianco from Cubed3 considered the task of finding the game's wealth of secrets "never too tedious", although he noted its spike in difficulty may instil frustration in some. Donkey Kong Country's boss fights also garnered complaints among critics: Oxford, Olney, Pearson and Bianco all found the bosses lacklustre, uninspiring and repetitive.
Wise's atmospheric soundtrack attracted universal acclaim. Oxford considered the game's soundtrack lends favourably to its "oppressive" vibe and commended Wise's debut to the series, while Marriott felt his rendition offered some of the richest sounds on the SNES. Garnier gave particular praise to the soundtrack's diversity, lauding the rhythmic oscillation between levels and distinctive sound effects, in which some add "perfectly" to the game's darker environments. Likewise, Strauss complimented the "CD-quality" music while Kopalny thought that Wise's "captivating" soundtrack asserted itself as a masterpiece in its own right. Pearson praised each level's unique musical theme and considered each of them an accurate reflection of their respective environments, while remarking that it pushes the SNES' audio chip to the limit, along with its graphical prowess.
The GBC and GBA iterations were met with general praise. Reviewers commended the fluid and fast-paced gameplay of both versions, although some considered the Game Boy Advance graphics disappointing. Reviewing the GBA version, Marriott felt that its visuals were "slightly above average" for the handheld console but was not as impressive as those showcased on the SNES, while Eurogamer's Tom Bramwell said that the game appeared slightly "muddier" on the small GBA screen, but nevertheless looked ostensibly the same as the original. Craig Harris of IGN criticised the game's graphical implementation, insisting that the developers could have produced better looking visuals for the system rather than merely "[bumping] up the contrast" of character sprites. Similarly, Ben Kosmina from Nintendo World Report remarked that the GBA's sprites did not live up to the standard of those featured on the SNES. Conversely, the visuals of the Game Boy Color version were more warmly received by critics, considering the console's meagre hardware capabilities. In a positive examination from Nintendo Power, the reviewer felt that the visuals were "still worth going ape over" despite lacking the detail of the original, while Harris lauded Rare's efforts to keep the "CG look" in light of the restrictive graphical limitations. Provo similarly praised Rare's "valiant" effort for trying to keep the design, visuals and sound as faithful as possible with the SNES original.
Donkey Kong Country won numerous game of the year accolades. It was awarded GamePro's best graphic achievement award at the 1994 Consumer Electronics Show, and won several awards from Electronic Gaming Monthly, including Best SNES Game, Best Animation, Best Game Duo, and Game of the Year, in their 1994 video game awards. It also received a Nintendo Power award for Best Overall Game of 1994 and two Kids' Choice awards in 1994 and 1995 for Favorite Video Game. It is the only video game listed in Time's top ten "Best Products" of 1994.
Donkey Kong Country was a major factor in keeping sales of the SNES high at a time when the next generation of consoles, including the Sony PlayStation and the Sega Saturn, were being released. The game sold six million units in its first holiday season. After selling 9.3 million units, Donkey Kong Country became the third-bestselling SNES game and set the record for the fastest-selling video game at the time. In the United States alone, the GBA rerelease sold 960,000 copies and earned $26 million by August 2006. Between January 2000 and August 2006, it was the 19th highest-selling game launched for a Nintendo handheld console in the US.
Both contemporary and retrospective critics cohesively asserted that Donkey Kong Country's visual appeal helped increase the lifespan of Nintendo's then-fledgling SNES; Matthew Castle from the Official Nintendo Magazine noted that the game brought next-generation graphics to the console just 12 days before the rival PlayStation's Japanese launch, proving to consumers that an immediate upgrade was unnecessary. Lucas Thomas from IGN wrote that the game had "saved the SNES" and helped revitalise sales by bringing back many lapsed fans. Conversely, Eurogamer's Tom Bramwell felt that many fans gave undue attention to Donkey Kong Country's lifespan and remarked that it became "fashionable" to dislike its graphics. Parish described Donkey Kong Country as Nintendo's "bluff" to make the SNES seem as if it could compare to the superior hardware that the PlayStation and Saturn offered. Its visual fidelity obscured what Parish felt was the fact that it was inferior gameplay-wise to SNES launch titles like Super Mario World (1990). It has been included in lists compiling the most overrated games of all time; Electronic Gaming Monthly's staff summarised it and its sequels as games that "got more respect than [they] truly deserved". However, the game has also appeared on many lists ranking the greatest video games of all time.
In the years following the game's release, rumours spread that Miyamoto disliked Donkey Kong Country and found it amateurish, provoking him to create the hand-drawn art style of Yoshi's Island. He was allegedly quoted as telling Electronic Games magazine in 1995 that "Donkey Kong Country proves that players will put up with mediocre gameplay as long as the art is good". However, in 2010, Miyamoto denied these rumours, saying: "I was very involved in [the game]. And even emailing almost daily with Tim Stamper right up until the end." In 2019, video game historian Frank Cifaldi checked the Electronic Games issue with the Miyamoto interview and found it contained no such quote.
Rare's redesign of the Donkey Kong character has been used in all future Nintendo games featuring him, including his appearances in the Super Smash Bros. series and various Mario spinoff titles. Donkey Kong Country spawned two sequels for the SNES: Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest was released in 1995 to critical acclaim and Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong's Double Trouble! debuted in 1996 as the SNES's lifespan came to a close. In addition to starring in Donkey Kong Country 2, Diddy Kong featured in his own spin-off, Diddy Kong Racing (1997) for the Nintendo 64. Diddy Kong Racing received critical acclaim and became one of the console's bestselling games. Diddy also joined Donkey Kong as a Super Smash Bros. character in Super Smash Bros. Brawl (2008), while King K. Rool debuted as a Smash character in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (2018).
Donkey Kong Country's success helped solidify Rare as one of the video game industry's leading developers. Rare's relationship with Nintendo continued into the following generation and resulted in numerous critically and commercially successful games for the Nintendo 64, such as GoldenEye 007 (1997) and Banjo-Kazooie (1998). Rare also continued to support the Donkey Kong franchise with games such as the Donkey Kong Land trilogy—which condensed Donkey Kong Country's platforming for the handheld Game Boy—and Donkey Kong 64 (1999). After Microsoft acquired Rare in 2002, the rights to the franchise reverted to Nintendo. Retro Studios revived the Donkey Kong Country series in 2010 with Donkey Kong Country Returns for the Wii, followed by Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (2014) for the Wii U and Nintendo Switch; both games were critical and commercial successes.
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