Remembering Donkey Kong Country

Donkey Kong was ancient history in the spring of 1994. He became ancient history again a few years later, and that has made all the difference.


In 1994, video games were evolving more dramatically than ever before or since, with so-called 3-D (“so-called” because a lot of games deemed as such didn’t allow truly free exploration of their worlds) gaming just around the corner. Even at the time, people could sense the massive generational leap that would occur between the Super Nintendo Entertainment System/Super Famicom (SNES/SFC, respectively; released 1990) and the upcoming Nintendo 64 (N64; 1996). Super Mario 64 was a difference in kind, rather than in degree, compared to Super Mario World.

Polygon rendering was superseding pixel art, at least until he latter came roaring back into style in the late 2000s. The original PlayStation and the Sega Saturn would land that December in Japan. What it fundamentally meant to play a game—once a matter of loading a ROM cartridge and booting it in seconds, soon to become waiting around for an optical disc to spin fast enough, or a download to finish—was changing.

Online gaming wasn’t mainstream (yet)—but Nintendo was already on the verge of releasing the Satellaview, a networked peripheral that could connect to a spatial online community (this was when the internet was more of a space than a medium). The World Wide Web was new and growing rapidly, displacing the likes of Usenet and the Gopher protocol.

In this context, Donkey Kong as a franchise was the emblem of an era that, despite being only a decade back, felt incredibly outmoded. He had been the star of a string of 8-bit arcade titles and their usually shoddy home system ports—and as the villain, no less! And now 16-bit was at its zenith and 32-bit and beyond were rising.

Super Donkey Kong

Donkey Kong Country (DKC) was unveiled that summer. People watching the demo assumed that its pre-rendered graphics—made on high-end Silicon Graphics workstations and then recorded and compressed to display on a more modestly powered system—surely meant it was destined for the N64. Imagine their shock when instead the game, known as Super Donkey Kong in Japan, was slated for the aging SNES/SFC.

That same month, Nintendo also published Donkey Kong for the Game Boy. This title remade and expanded the arcade classic, and added Super Game Boy support (becoming in fact the flagship title for that peripheral) including:

-a custom border that looked like an arcade cabinet
-an expanded color palette (the Game Boy was monochromatic green at the time)
-music made using the SNES/SFC’s much more powerful sound chip

Donkey Kong was ancient history no more. His 1 pre-rendered face was emblematic of a new era in gaming. The SNES/SFC had new life, both as the home of the graphically groundbreaking DKC and the place to play ambitious Game Boy games in color, at least until the N64 shipped and became common.


But looking back from the early 2000s in particular, a lot of people came to deem DKC overrated, saying its once stunning graphics had “aged badly.” I don’t know what this means; do we say that old paintings or block prints “age badly” too? DKC’s graphics are wonderful constructions with rich details—bubbles moving through water, lights flickering in dark chambers—that go past the simpler fare that dotted many 16-bit titles.

Its gameplay was forward-looking, too. The collectible “KONG” letters and hidden bonus levels were the dawn of the collectathons that even today underpin sprawling open world games where you can pick up anything not nailed down and place it in your endless inventory, with a secret reward perhaps awaiting for doing so.

DKC showed that even late in its lifecycle, the SNES/SFC was still a vast canvas to paint on, one that could accommodate pre-rendered graphics, complex gameplay, epic stories such as Chrono Trigger, and the novel concepts such as putting Mario in a role-playing game (Super Mario RPG). It’s as good an artifact of the 1990s—a delicious piece of ancient history—as Seinfeld, eurodance/trance music, or the jazz cup design.

Still, one part of DKC redefined what’s possible in games to an even greater degree than its art or its gameplay—namely, its music.

Aquatic Ambience

The SNES/SFC could certainly make prettier, more detailed graphics than its predecessor. But its sound chip, designed by eventual “father of the PlayStation” Ken Kutaragi, was in a whole different class than the one inside the NES/Famicom.

It’s easy to caricature vintage game music, which for years had a tinny sound made by programmable sound generators that, combined with the repetitive melodies they were generating, could quickly become annoying. There’s an entire genre, “chiptune,” dedicated to this mode of music. Chiptune is most associated with 8-bit systems but plenty of SNES games are aurally related to the genre.

Not DKC. Composer David Wise drew inspiration from the Korg Wavestation synthesizer to create music unlike anything else on the system. His achievement with songs like “Aquatic Ambience” can’t be overstated:

-The SNES had only 64 KB of audio RAM available for sound and music. That’s a fraction of the size of even a small single MP3 file.
-He spent weeks hand-coding samples as numbers into a music tracker to make the game’s songs.
-All of this audio ran seamlessly alongside the advanced visuals on a system with a CPU whose basic design dated back to 1982—ancient history even then.

Just listen to Aquatic Ambience. I get goosebumps.

The music of DKC makes the game a nice place to visit, something I can’t say for most other games. After beating them, I move on. But I keep coming back to DKC and its sequels, the way I come back to other ancient history like the plays of Aristophanes in the original Greek—something wonderful to experience again and again.

  1. confusingly, the main star of DKC, named DK, is not the original Donkey Kong character, who is instead represented by the resentful Cranky Kong. In the Game Boy (and in my opinion, even better) companion game Donkey Kong Land (DKL), the plot centers on Cranky telling DK and Diddy that they need to prove themselves in an 8-bit game (the Game Boy was 8-bit, unlike the 16-bit SNES/SFC). DKL is much harder than DKC, epitomizing how 8-bit titles, which were often arcade ports and as such had in their DNA the goal of eating up quarters from the players, were tougher than 16-bit ones. DKL also has phenomenal sound, an even bigger achievement than DKC considering how meager the Game Boy hardware is. 

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