This Friday marks the release of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, so what better time to look back on the game that started the series, 1994’s Donkey Kong Country?
It’s impossible to overstate what a big deal Donkey Kong Country was when it was first released. If you owned an SNES, you owned Donkey Kong Country, and if you were a Genesis kid, you jealously coveted the game (even if you’d never admit such heresy). Really, the game pretty much single-handedly reversed Nintendo’s fortunes during the 16-bit era, allowing them squeak by with a narrow victory over hard charging Sega.
So, here’s a few facts you might not know about one of the most important video games of all time…
1) DK’s name was one of America’s first exposures to Engrish. So, what’s up with Donkey Kong’s name? Well, it does make some sort of twisted sense. Nintendo wanted to give the original Donkey Kong arcade game an English title, but DK creator Shigeru Miyamoto didn’t know much English at the time. In Japan the King Kong movies were so popular that “King Kong” was often used as a generic term for a gorilla, so with that in place Miyamoto hit up Japanese-English dictionaries looking for a word that means “dumb and stubborn”, which were DK’s main attributes at the time. Somehow he landed on the word “donkey” and thus “Donkey Kong” was born. Nintendo’s American branch thought this name was terrible, because, well, it was pretty terrible, but somehow it stuck.
Thankfully it was the 80s, so people were well-versed in accepting nonsense.
2) Universal Pictures tried to sue Nintendo over Donkey Kong’s similarities to King Kong. Unfortunately for Universal, they lost the suit (and had to pay all of Nintendo’s legal fees) when it was discovered they didn’t actually own the rights to King Kong — it had become public domain years ago. Whoops. If Universal had won, Nintendo probably wouldn’t exist today.
You lucked out Nintendo.
3) Donkey Kong Country began as a boxing game. Rare, the British company that originated the Donkey Kong Country series initially impressed Nintendo with a very simple boxing demo. The “game” was nothing more than a few frames of animation, but it utilized a new style of graphics whereby a 3D computer model was made, then scanned and turned into a 2D sprite. This allowed for cartoony, Nintendo-like characters that were as detailed as the photo-scanned visuals in games like Mortal Kombat. Nintendo’s American branch would champion Rare to Miyamoto and Genyo Takeda (the creator of Punch-Out!!) and eventually the go-ahead was given to make a game using their new visual technique.
4) Donkey Kong would later revisit his boxing roots. Interestingly, 15 years later, Donkey Kong would appear as an unlockable opponent in the Wii version of Punch-Out!!
5) Donkey Kong Country was developed in actual jungle-like conditions. Rare was a relatively small company before they landed the Donkey Kong gig, so when Nintendo sent them millions of dollars of new hardware in order to develop Donkey Kong Country, they had nowhere to put it all. The new equipment generated so much heat that Rare’s small offices were a programmer sweat-drenched, nearly 100 degree sauna for most of development.
6) Donkey Kong Country was originally intended for the N64. By the time Donkey Kong Country development kicked off, Nintendo was already working on its successor to the SNES, initially dubbed the Ultra 64, and DK Country was intended for that system. Ultimately though, Rare figured out how to get their 3D modeled visuals working on the SNES, and the N64 went in a different direction, focusing on polygonal visuals.
I remember being bitterly disappointed when they changed the name. Ultra 64 was a far more radical to the max name!
7) Rare studied real gorillas at the zoo when making the game. Unfortunately it turns out real gorillas mostly sit around eating bananas as opposed to cartwheeling, platforming and riding rhinoceroses, so the research wasn’t terribly helpful.