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.
8) Cranky Kong is actually the original Donkey Kong. There’s more of a backstory to the Donkey Kong Country games than you might expect. The acrid, withered Cranky Kong is actually the original Donkey Kong who appeared in the 80s arcade games. The Donkey Kong of the DK Country games is Cranky’s grandson, which would make him Donkey Kong Jr’s son. Speaking of which…
Cranky could tell you a story or two about his old human lady kidnapping days.
9) Donkey Kong Jr. was initially in the game. Diddy Kong was originally supposed to be Donkey Kong Jr. but Rare gave him too much cool 90s baseball cap-wearin’ ‘tude, so Nintendo insisted they change his name. Rare proposed various awful names such as Diet DK, DK Lite, Titchy Kong and the one that almost stuck, Dinky Kong. Yes, Dinky Kong. Dodged a bullet on that one.
Actually, Dinky Kong kind of works for this dork.
10) Cranky wasn’t always such a jerk. Initially Cranky Kong was a traditional kindly grandfather figure. Also, I assume this nice version probably wasn’t called Cranky Kong. Perhaps Nintendo was afraid the whole multigenerational Kong family tree thing they had going was too complex for kids, so they shied away from publicizing the whole “Cranky is actually DK Classic” thing and gave him a new personality/nickname.
11) Shigeru Miyamoto designed DK’s new look himself. For years some crusty old-school Nintendo fans turned their noses up at the new, hip version of Donkey Kong seen in the DK Country games. This was mostly based on the false assumption that the new version of DK was solely the creation of Rare — that these British interlopers had somehow bastardized Miyamoto’s original vision. These trolls got their comeuppance over a decade later when Miyamoto revealed the burly, spit-curled Country version of DK was actually based on a sketch of his.
12) Rare did add their own touch to DK’s new look though. Namely, his red tie.
13) Miyamoto wasn’t a big fan Donkey Kong Country. Despite being involved in the game’s creation, it seems as though Miyamoto had some mixed feelings about the title, famously stating that “Donkey Kong Country proves that players will put up with mediocre game play as long as the art is good.” Ouch. Miyamoto’s stance has since softened, but he definitely wasn’t happy with the game around the time of its release.
14) Donkey Kong Country’s success led directly to the creation of Yoshi’s Island. Part of Miyamoto’s frustration with DK Country probably stemmed from the fact that following DK’s big success, Nintendo higher ups wanted all major Nintendo games to use Rare-style visuals. Miyamoto chaffed at being told what to do by the suits, so in an epic passive-aggressive move, he produced Yoshi’s Island, a game featuring graphics that look like they were drawn with crayons. Interestingly the opening to Yoshi’s Island does feature a 3D rendered Yoshi, perhaps a relic on an earlier Rare-style version of the game.
15) The Kremlings were originally going to be the stars of their own game. DK’s reptilian adversaries the Kremlings, were originally part of a completely separate game, but Rare cancelled that game and reused the Kremlings for DK Country when they realized the characters fit nicely with the DK universe.
16) “Aquatic Ambience” was a pain in the ass to create. Aquatic Ambience, the tune that plays during DK Country’s underwater sections has become one of the title’s most beloved and recognizable tracks. It almost didn’t make the game though, as it pushed the SNES’ audio capabilities to the limit and gobbled up a large portion of the system’s RAM. It ended up taking DK Country composer David Wise over five weeks to get the song working.
17) Donkey Kong Country is the best selling (non bundled) 16-bit game of all time. Donkey Kong Country sold around nine million copies, which gives you a good idea of how much the video game industry has grown over the past two decades. These days triple-A games have to sell nearly nine million just to break even.
18) There’s a special Donkey Kong Country cartridge worth a ton of money. Since Donkey Kong Country was such a popular game, it isn’t worth much on the trading market today, that is, unless you own the Donkey Kong Country: Competition Cartridge. This was a special version of DK Country intended for use in gaming competitions — it included a score counter, but only allowed you to play for five minutes before rebooting. Only 2500 copies were printed and they now go for upwards of $1000.
Start combing the flea markets now.
19) There was a terrible, rarely seen in America, Donkey Kong Country cartoon. During the mid-90s, there was a pretty awful CGI Donkey Kong Country cartoon in which DK had a sassy black guy voice and everyone was constantly breaking into song. It only aired very briefly in America, but it aired for years up in Canada due to it being produced up here. It was also a big hit in Japan.
20) There is currently no legal way to buy the original Donkey Kong Country trilogy. For some mysterious reason, in late 2012 Nintendo yanked all the DK Country games from the Wii Virtual Console and they haven’t returned since. Some have speculated that this is because Rare filled the old Donkey Kong Country games with references to their other IP (which they took with them when they were sold to Microsoft) such as Killer Instinct. Whatever the reason, your only options for playing classic Donkey Kong Country right now is old cartridges or ROMs.
So, there you have it — a few facts about Nintendo’s big gorilla’s biggest game. Big props to Joel Stice for coming up with the Fascinating Facts format! Check out all his fun movie and TV related Fascinating Facts articles right here.