With the last installment seeing its release in 1996, Rare’s Donkey Kong Country trilogy served as both the pinnacle of 2D platforming and its swansong. During that time, Super Mario 64 was released as a launch title for the Nintendo 64. As the first successful fully three-dimensional platformer, it changed the direction of AAA gaming forever. While it is speculated that Nintendo’s landmark title may have resulted in Donkey Kong Country 3 enjoying less critical favor than its two predecessors, it was a success in its own right. Even so, Super Mario 64 made it clear that 3D was in, and it only made sense to adapt Donkey Kong Country to the new rubric. Gregg Mayles, who had served as the lead designer for Donkey Kong Country and its first sequel, led the effort to turn this possibility into a reality.
Development of this game began in 1997. It was originally slated to be released on Nintendo’s proposed 64DD (DD being short for “Disk Drive” or “Dynamic Drive”). The 64DD was intended to be a peripheral for the Nintendo 64 capable of reading magnetic disks and acting as an enabling technology platform for the development of new applications. It even boasted dialup connectivity in an age when the idea of connecting home consoles to the internet was in its infancy. However, development moved to the base console when the 64DD was delayed numerous times before being cancelled outright for international markets.
In the meantime, Mr. Mayles had acted as the lead designer and co-director of Banjo-Kazooie, which would become Rare’s first 3D platformer. Following the trail Super Mario 64 blazed, that game demonstrated Rare’s aptitude in platforming after dabbling in other genres with Blast Corps, Goldeneye 007, and Diddy Kong Racing – not a mean feat given the sheer number of developers who failed to adapt to these uncharted waters. Demonstrating they were every bit Nintendo’s equals in terms of 3D platforming, fans eagerly awaited a new Donkey Kong game more than ever – and that is exactly what Mr. Mayles and his team intended to give them.
With many developers transitioning from the Banjo-Kazooie team, they were determined to bring Donkey Kong into the third dimension. In fact, the game was so ambitious that the team allegedly ran into memory problems while programming it.
According to programmer Chris Marlow, a bug which caused the game to freeze after playing it for a significant length of time arose during development. It couldn’t be resolved without using the Nintendo 64’s Expansion Pak – an upgrade that provided an extra four megabytes of RAM (random-access memory). However, his story was disputed by artist Mark Stevenson. While such a bug did exist, according to Mr. Stevenson, the Expansion Pak wasn’t the solution to that problem. Regardless, Rare, at a great expense, made the decision to bundle each copy of the game with the memory upgrade.
Despite this setback, development of the game proceeded smoothly, and the project was completed in 1999. Keeping in line with the Nintendo 64 branding, the game was named Donkey Kong 64. Like Banjo-Kazooie, the game was met with a warm critical reception, being considered the single most ambitious title on the Nintendo 64 at the time. Review outlet IGN took note of the sheer amount of content and dubbed Donkey Kong 64 Rare’s War and Peace. With these sentiments having been expressed just one year after the release of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, can Donkey Kong 64 truly be considered one of the platform’s all-time greats?