After receiving an unlimited budget from Nintendo, the company that revitalized console gaming in North America with the Famicom (the Nintendo Entertainment System/NES abroad), the Twycross, Leicestershire-based developer Rare created several games for them. The company’s first game for Nintendo, Slalom, which was originally released in arcades under the Vs. System, proved a modest hit. From there, they developed various games utilizing famous film licenses such as Beetlejuice and A Nightmare on Elm Street, but it was their original property Battletoads that would cement themselves as a force to be reckoned with.
Then, in 1990, the successor to Nintendo’s Famicom console, the Super Famicom, was released. It would see its international debut the following year as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). Rare had been quite prolific throughout the third generation of console gaming, but after the SNES saw its release, they decided to limit their output. To this end, they invested the money they made from their various NES games in Silicon Graphics (SGI) workstations. These devices were notable for their ability to render 3D models in an era when such a thing was unheard of. It proved to be quite the financial risk, as each workstation cost £80,000 apiece. In doing so, Rare became the most technologically advanced developer in the United Kingdom. Rare tested the technology by creating an arcade installment of Battletoads before beginning work on a boxing game they named Brute Force.
Meanwhile, Nintendo was in a heated console war against the Sega Mega Drive (Sega Genesis in North America). Sonic the Hedgehog, Sega’s answer to Nintendo’s Mario series, had become a smash hit, and won the Genesis many fans in the process. Some of those fans included Disney animators, who lent their talents to Virgin Games to create an adaptation of Aladdin. It was notably the very first game to ever feature hand-drawn animation. Realizing they needed to think of something quickly to remain relevant, Nintendo, impressed with Rare’s work on Brute Force, bought a 25% stake in the company, which eventually increased to 49%.
Now part of a second-party developer for Nintendo, Rare founders Tim and Chris Stamper were contacted by Nintendo with an interesting proposal. Released in arcades in 1981, Donkey Kong was Nintendo’s breakthrough hit, turning them into one of the industry’s most respected developers. Despite this, it was the then-unnamed Mario, not the title character, who ended up becoming synonymous with the company. This may have been justifiable as Mario was the player character while the game itself had been named after its antagonist. Even so and with the exception of scattered cameo appearances and a Game Boy remake of the arcade original, the title character hadn’t been used at all since Donkey Kong 3, which itself fell into relative obscurity following the infamous North American video game crash of 1983. As journalist Jeremy Parish writing for USGamer pointed out, it was “quite an ignominious twist” for one of the medium’s most recognizable characters.
On the back of this, Nintendo wished to revive Donkey Kong for a modern audience, and the Stamper brothers were to do just that. Development began in August of 1993 with an estimated development budget of $1,000,000 and a team of twelve. The creator of Donkey Kong, Shigeru Miyamoto, did not work on the game directly, but he ended up contributing ideas throughout the development process. This game was to be a side-scrolling platformer, as much of the staff had grown up playing Super Mario Bros. and its sequels. Finally in November of 1994, Rare completed their work. It was called Donkey Kong Country (Super Donkey Kong in Japan), and it set a record upon its release for the most man hours ever invested in a video game’s development at 22 years. The game was highly acclaimed and a commercial success, selling seven-million copies worldwide in four months. As the third-best selling game in the SNES’s library, how does Donkey Kong Country hold up?