One Giant Leap, 1994: Donkey Kong Country

In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: we get a taste of that alluring 3D flavor in Donkey Kong Country

With the benefit of hindsight, we tend to view the 16-bit era as something of a minor golden age. There was over a decade of institutional knowledge built up about how to make 2D games, the consoles were powerful enough to produce sprites that look good even today, and games were still simple enough overall that you didn’t need a very large team or all that much development time, even at the highest levels. However, by my calculations it was by far the shortest generation; the SNES was released in North America in 1991, the same year that Sonic the Hedgehog turned the Genesis from also-ran to contender, and by 1994 both the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation were on the market. While you can quibble with my math on either end1 there was an undeniable impatience with the status quo. We had the CD-i and Sega CD coming out in ’91/’922 to attempt a mid-generation push for CDs over cartridges, and we had now-forgotten also-ran consoles (the Atari Jaguar and the 3DO) attempting to kick the 5th generation off a year early in 1993.

So why were the developers of the time so eager to move on from this golden age? In a word: 3D. The idea of 3D video games had excited developers and players alike since the early days of the medium. And while there were 3D games as early as 1980’s Battlezone, they tended to be very limited, both in terms of how they could play (you’ll notice that a lot of early 3D games don’t allow much, if any, movement along the third axis) and how they could look (lots of outlines and geometric shapes). But by the early 90s it was very clear that the era of fully 3D home gaming was nigh. We were even seeing some popular examples outside the console space, with games like Doom (for the PC) and Virtua Fighter (for arcades), both released in 1993.

Nintendo had tried their hand at the mid-generation upgrade game, but famously balked twice,3 and their own proper 3D console was in development hell and wouldn’t launch until 1996. The SNES was technically capable of producing full 3D graphics on its own, but, well….

Now featuring several colors!

However, this is all focusing on what could be rendered in real time. The capabilities of 3D grow significantly if you can wait for longer than 1/30th of a second for it. Which is where Donkey Kong Country comes in. On a purely technical level, DKC isn’t a 3D game. It’s a 2D game, made with the same sprite technology as Super Mario World. However, these sprites weren’t simply hand-drawn. Instead, the game’s environments and characters were all modeled and rendered as full 3D models, featuring far more triangles than even the upcoming 5th generations could possibly handle. Then, they were “traced” over as 2D sprites (animated characters were traced from many different poses, to simulate sprite animation). The result is a game that gets a very 3D look packed into a 2D shell, one that lets the aging SNES hang in there with its upstart competition.

It’s not 3D, but it plays it on TV

But Donkey Kong Country is more than just a visual gimmick. It’s also an early pioneer in the “collect-a-thon” subgenre. You see, you can just play DKC straight-up, get to the end of every level, beat King K. Rool, and see the credits. But if you do that, your save file will say you’re only at around 50% completion. That’s because each level has hidden bonus rooms, hidden letter tiles that spell “K-O-N-G”, hidden animal statuettes, etc., and in order to get credit for a full 101%4 you have to collect them all, too. DKC doesn’t actually gate any content behind these collectables (besides the percentage on your save file the only other thing they give is extra lives) but it’s still a bit more involved than something like Super Mario Bros., with coins that give extra lives but have no other purpose.

Donkey Kong Country also does a good job of utilizing level gimmicks. The word “gimmick” has something of a negative connotation, but they’re honestly a crucial element of game design, especially for non-narrative games. Your core mechanics, on their own, are only interesting for so long; unless you’re building a tight 2-hour experience you will at some point have to mix things up, and DKC does a great job of this. They’ll build entire levels around one-off elements like the fuel barrels in “Tanked Up Trouble” or the red and blue ropes in “Slipside Ride”. We’ve seen attempts at this sort of thing previously in Super Mario Bros. 3, but the longer level lengths present in DKC mean each new gimmick really gets its day in the sun.

Unfortunately, despite these forward-looking design choices, Donkey Kong Country is still very of its time in one crucial aspect. It’s yet another SNES-era game that has saving, but doesn’t use it properly. You can only save your game at “Candy’s Save Point”. There’s one in each of the game’s 6 worlds, and each one is several levels deep. You can’t save at all until you unlock it, and once you move on to the next world you can’t go back5 so you’ll be stuck again. There is a lot of punishing old-school design I can at least understand, but this skepticism towards the concept of saving is not one of them. There’s no reason a game like DKC shouldn’t save after every completed level.

And this stinginess is compounded by the fact that Donkey Kong Country is an often very difficult game, in a way that can frequently feel cheap. Some of this is just the standards of the time, but there’s an element that’s specific to DKC here; those impressive psuedo-3D sprites are big as hell. Like, look at how big Donkey Kong is in this game compared to Mario in Super Mario World:

If The Spriter’s Resource can be trusted6 Mario’s bounding box is 16 x 24, compared to Donkey Kong’s 37 x 40.7 Donkey Kong is nearly 4 times bigger! As a consequence, there’s less real estate to play with on the screen, resulting in less lead time between an obstacle appearing and it hitting the player. This is exacerbated by Donkey Kong Country having far less verticality in terms of platform arrangement compared to Mario. DKC is the last game in this series that I’ll have to play on an emulator rather than original hardware8 so I suppose it’s only fitting that we get one last save scum special.

Yet in a way, even this weakness is forward-thinking. Not to spoil future articles, but as the genre transitions to proper 3D there will be a lot of new problems introduced by that third axis, games struggling with issues they wouldn’t have if they had just stuck to 2D instead. From a mechanical perspective, Donkey Kong Country would have almost certainly been a better game with smaller, more traditional sprites. But then, if they had done that why bother making the game at all? 2D games had been close to perfected by now; developers could have stuck to polishing what they already knew, or they could strike out boldly into new territory, even if their first several steps would be unsure. And DKC is a very small part of that branch of history. It’s not perfect (in some ways it’s not even good) but it still lays a foundation and opens a path up for later games to build upon. And there’s plenty of value in that.

Stray Observations:

  • A fun bit of timeline junk that I assume everyone’s familiar with but I’m gonna repeat anyway; the Donkey Kong in this game is not the same ape who clashed with Mario back in ’81. That Kong is now Cranky Kong. The current Donkey is his grandson, with the arcade’s Donkey Kong Jr being his dad/Cranky’s son. Which I guess explains why Mario never shows up in the DKC games, despite technically being part of the same universe.
  • For all the gimmicks that were well-explored, I’m a bit surprised at how underutilized the animal sidekicks were. Really just felt tacked on to me.
  • Having Diddy tag a long as an AI partner/second hit point has shades of Tails in Sonic 2. One more example and it’s a bona fide trend!

Other 1994 platformers of note:

Donkey Kong Country wasn’t the only Donkey Kong game to come out that year. The Game Boy saw the release of Donkey Kong (1994), a game which at first purports to be a port of the arcade game. However, savvy players might note that Mario is much more spry this time around, and that’s because after completing the first four levels (analogs to the arcade’s 4 boards) the game opens up into an entirely original puzzle platformer. It’s a neat little game, with one unexpectedly huge impact on the Mario series as a whole, as this was the very first game to feature his now-(in)famous side somersault move, ie the ability to high jump by jumping immediately after a reversal of direction. But we’ll get more into that in a couple months.

1994 also saw the release of Super Metroid, which is maybe the game I’m saddest about not being able to feature. It builds spectacularly on Metroid; while that game is mostly just frustrating to a modern audience, Super Metroid holds up incredibly well. With changes like mini-maps, 8-directional aiming, and the x-ray scope this is a game that solves all of the problems of its predecessor, and as a result is an absolute joy to play.

Finally, the classic era of Sonic the Hedgehog comes to a close with Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Originally developed as one game, S3&K was split in half late in development due to memory concerns,9 releasing the first half as Sonic the Hedgehog 3 in February, and then the second as Sonic & Knuckles that October. However, the game gets the combined name because of an ingenious feature on the S&K cartridge, which allows the player to plug their copy of Sonic 3 in on top to experience the entire game as one contiguous whole. (You can also plug in Sonic 2 to play as Knuckles in that game, in a neat bit of backwards compatibility). This game was also massive enough to force the series to implement saving, so hurray for that.

Behold, the majesty of the stack!

Next Time: No more trickery, it’s time for real 3D! We check out Jumping Flash