Donkey Kong 40th: Donkey Kong Country

There is something about a genuine comeback story that can really grab people’s attention in a great way.

And it doesn’t take much thinking either when you consider where that person/company/entity had been before they fell and how they were able to use a mixture of hard work/tenacity to get out of that pit, and how that along with some other outside circumstances create the right opportunity to seize the moment and rise from the ashes. And nowhere was this apparent than with Nintendo and their release of Donkey Kong Country for the Super NES.

I know I posted this on another article, but I couldn’t resist.

So what is this game about? Well, the premise is quite simple. There’s no princess to save or kidnap, but rather Donkey Kong’s beloved trove of bananas (the game calls them hoard, but I feel trove is better) have all been taken by a group called the Kremlings, and DK’s pal Diddy Kong was also kidnapped and placed in a barrel so the Kremlings could escape with said bananas. Needless to say DK leaps into action, frees Diddy and the Kong duo set off to get the bananas back.

Taking the beloved gorilla from the original Arcade and giving him a whole new contemporary look, the game is a platformer with all the classic gameplay components Arcaders would expect, but the style and look of the game was something that really hadn’t been done before. And not only do we get DK back and in a really hip way, but a cast of characters are introduced, many of whom would go on to become mainstay characters to this very day.

The level design was nothing short of great, and the music was more than catchy enough to warrant going back and playing through some stages just to hear the tunes again. Plus the sound design also gave each character their own voice in many ways so it felt more lively than what had been heard before.

Cranky Kong is my personal favorite.
Heed his advice, Arcaders!

Along with the gameplay, the sense of humor that the developers put in also added to the fun factor tremendously.

Speaking of which, I don’t think enough credit can be given to the folks at Rare for making this game, but I’ve found – especially recently thanks to a certain book I’ve read – that it was a combination of both Rare and the folks at Nintendo of America that helped make it work. In reading the book “Console Wars” by Blake J. Harris, it turns out that Tony Harman was one of the main driving forces that would help lead to the game’s creation.

As the Director of Development and Acquisitions for Nintendo of America from 1989 to 1996, Tony Harman had the job of helping NOA’s marketing folks in talking about the various parts of a game’s release and how it should be marketed-i.e. which titles should have commercials, and how to use their own magazine Nintendo Power to promote them as well. When he saw the Aladdin video game (Genesis version) at a CES show, he realized that this title was a game-changer, and this in turn fueled his desire to one day be able to create a game that would not only be a hit but also feature a classic video game character. Of course, Nintendo being protective of its properties was not willing to entrust their own characters to an outside party at the time, but Harman still believed it was possible, and when he wrote a manifesto to NCL President Hiroshi Yamauchi discussing his own ideas, NOA President Minoru Arakawa came to him and told him he was flying to Japan to meet with Yamauchi himself, with Mino and his wife Yoko along for the ride. After a long conversation, Harman then asked Yamauchi how much he spent on commercials, and the answer was around $3 Million. Sensing his opportunity – and seeing that was the exact amount of money for the development budget he needed for his would-be game Harman then asked if he could be given that amount and one year to be able to come up with a game. If it failed then it would simply be “…one less bad commercial.” Yamauchi surprisingly enough smiled and gave his consent, and that’s what started the ball rolling.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic The Stamper brothers had gotten to work on a special project using a Silicon Graphics workstation. The NES years had made Rare a great deal of money so that made it easier for them to bow out and do their own thing for a while. Then one day they invited Nintendo engineer Genyo Takeda to their offices and he was quite impressed which lead to him going back to Yamauchi to explain what he had found. When Yamauchi asked the Stampers what game they wanted to make the duo asked for Donkey Kong, and both Yamauchi and Miyamoto gave their consent.

Some time later, Harman began his own work with transforming a section of Nintendo of America into what we all know now as “The Treehouse”, a place where all of Nintendo’s games would be localized, and one day while President Minoru Arakawa went to see what Harman was up to, the latter showed him a demo of a game codenamed, “Country”, which didn’t sound like anything that would grab people’s attention, but then when Mino saw a certain character from the demo appear, he felt like he had seen a ghost, and he wasn’t far off for this character was none other than Donkey Kong himself, and much like how that lovable ape came along and helped propel Nintendo from a small arcade company into something more, here he was again to help propel Nintendo out of the pit it had found itself in and turn the tide in the battle with Sega.

In many ways the timing could not have been better because while Nintendo didn’t really push back as much it maybe should have when Sega first started to take a chunk out of Nintendo’s market share, now was a whole different story. NOA’s marketing team would be able to go all out this time around, and as such this would show that Nintendo was finally ready to strike back hard.

When the game was released it would go on to sell 9.3 million copies worldwide and that, along with the office politics going on between Sega of Japan and Sega of America, coupled with Sega overextending themselves with one hardware/peripheral too many paved the way for Nintendo to win the latter years of the 16-bit era. Of course, this victory would ultimately clear the way for Sony to arrive with the Playstation not too long after, but at least for the moment Nintendo was able to take back what it lost, and it showed that even in an industry like video games, anyone can come back from the brink provided you are able to reevaluate how to do things, when to pick your battles, and when you strike back, give it everything you have, but always make sure to fight smart – something that Nintendo would have to re-learn during the Gamecube and WiiU eras, but fortunately because of those setbacks, Nintendo would be able to make incredible comebacks with systems like the Wii and Switch.

But in all, this SNES classic is one that deserves all of the praise because it wasn’t just an excellent game, but a fun one, and contrary to what Sega had tried to push at the time, the game didn’t have to be edgy to be fun, and fun didn’t always mean that it had be watered down for children.

So if you haven’t had the chance to play this game, you are missing out. It’s a true classic, and one that reintroduced DK to Arcaders again, and this time in a way that was new, yet still with that element of wonder and fun that made him special, and one that helped bring Nintendo back.

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