Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble!

Donkey Kong Country 3

With the release of Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest, Rare had another hit on their hands. However, Director Tim Stamper and his team didn’t intend to stop there. As the Nintendo 64, the successor to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), loomed overhead, Mr. Stamper set out to make a sequel almost immediately after the release of Donkey Kong Country 2. Armed with the company’s trademark Silicon Graphics and Advanced Computer Modelling programs, they were able to finish the game one year later.

This sequel, entitled Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble!, saw its release in November of 1996. Although it fared well commercially, the game moved 3.5 million units, which was a step down from the 4.37 million copies Donkey Kong Country 2 sold. It is speculated that the release of the Nintendo 64 and its signature launch title, Super Mario 64, may have been responsible for the lower sales numbers. Even in light of these setbacks, Donkey Kong Country 3 was an undeniable success with critics and fans alike. Emerging at the tail end of the fourth console generation, did Donkey Kong Country 3 provide a fitting swansong for the venerable SNES?

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Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest

Donkey Kong Country was a tremendous success for the British developer Rare upon its 1994 release, capturing much media attention due to its advanced graphics and solid gameplay. While many developers would use the commercial success of a game for the grounds of making a sequel, Rare co-founder Tim Stamper sought to do so shortly after the release of their breakout hit. The employees behind the creation of Donkey Kong Country were satisfied with the final product, but had plenty of ideas remaining for another installment. Mr. Stamper found himself in the director’s chair once again with colleague Brendan Gunn returning as the lead designer. Though well-received, veteran gamers considered Donkey Kong Country too easy, so this sequel was to be significantly more challenging.

Utilizing the Silicon Graphics and Advanced Computer Modelling technology they used to take prerendered images, model them as three-dimensional objects, and transform them into two-dimensional sprites, they began their work. In a move that shocked fans, Diddy Kong, the original game’s deuteragonist, was to be the sequel’s protagonist. Artist and producer Steve Mayles stated that the team’s youth gave him the courage to disregard the risk they would have doubtlessly taken by pushing the title character out of the spotlight.

Development of this game, entitled Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest, proceeded smoothly, and saw its release roughly one year after the debut of the original. Like its predecessor, Donkey Kong Country 2 was highly acclaimed, with critics praising both the gameplay and the graphics. It cannot be denied that Rare supplanting the title character with one of their own creation was quite the daring gambit. To everyone’s surprise, it paid off, for Donkey Kong Country eventually became the sixth-best selling game on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). Was it truly able to deliver an experience worthy of being a follow-up to the acclaimed original?

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Donkey Kong Country

Donkey Kong Country

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?

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Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals

In 1993, the Japanese developer Neverland released Lufia & the Fortress of Doom for the Super Famicom – or the SNES (Super Nintendo Entertainment System) abroad. Although somewhat lost amid the slew of Eastern role-playing games that saw their own releases around the same time, Neverland’s effort received a warm critical reception with the American publication Electronic Games in particular calling it one of the best RPGs of the year.

The game also proved to be a modest hit – enough so that Director Masahide Miyata and his team began working on a sequel shortly thereafter. It was finished and released domestically in February of 1995 under the name Biography of Estpolis II. The game was released in North America in May of 1996 renamed Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals, which would see its European debut the following year. As its predecessor hadn’t been released in Europe, the game’s title was truncated to Lufia. Like the original game, Lufia II was a success, selling a little over 60,000 copies in Japan. This time, however, the critical reception was significantly more positive with aficionados of the SNES library considering it an underrated gem of a classic. Was Lufia II truly able to improve on the formulaic original?

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Final Fantasy Mystic Quest

By 1987, a game developer named Square was on the verge of bankruptcy. Knowing that their next project could potentially sink the company, they decided to take inspiration from Yuji Horii’s landmark Dragon Quest and create a turn-based role-playing game. In a bit of gallows humor, they named this game Final Fantasy. The name turned out to be highly ironic when it proved to be a resounding domestic success. This encouraged the company to try to have the game localized. To their surprise, the game sold even more copies in the West than it did in its native homeland. Because contemporary role-playing experiences were primarily found on personal computer platforms, Final Fantasy ended up being a gateway into the genre for those limited to home consoles. With at least two major RPG series proving to be successful, many other developers joined in, causing the genre to enter a golden age.

However, even with the success of Final Fantasy, console-based RPGs were still a niche market in North America by the early-1990s. It was ambiguous as to exactly why many of these games failed to find a large audience. North America already had a thriving role-playing scene by the time Dragon Quest was released there, making Mr. Horii’s effort, which greatly simplified the genre, seem redundant. It could also be chalked up to a difference in expectations regarding the medium. At the time, Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog were some of the most popular video game characters. Both originated from series that placed a greater emphasis on gameplay over story. Because of this, slow-paced, story-focused experiences didn’t fit what Western consumers expected out of console games. Square’s executives, on the other hand, came down to a different conclusion. They cited their games’ high difficulty as a reason why Westerners shied away from them. Among other things, this caused the difficulty of Final Fantasy IV to be lowered.

Nonetheless, the success of the original Final Fantasy proved that there did exist a fanbase for these kinds of games in the West. In an attempt to broaden their international market, Square greenlit a project specifically designed for Western gamers. The game was released under the name Final Fantasy Mystic Quest in Western regions – first in North America in 1992 and Europe in a year later. It would see a domestic release in September of 1993 with the slightly altered title Final Fantasy USA: Mystic Quest. Square would later reveal that the game sold 800,000 units, though roughly half of them were domestic sales. With neither side of the Pacific being especially enthusiastic about the game, it would appear to have been a resounding failure. Would it have been capable of selling newcomers on the genre?

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Pilotwings

With their Family Computer (Famicom), Nintendo proceeded to dominate the market throughout the entirety of the third console generation. The console proved to be such a success, it managed to revitalize the North American gaming industry after it crashed in 1983. Dubbed the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) aboard, the console was responsible for injecting gaming into the mainstream. However, during the life of the Famicom, Nintendo gained two new rivals. First, NEC Corporation launched the PC Engine – internationally known as the TurboGrafx-16 – in 1987. Shortly thereafter in 1988, Sega launched the Mega Drive – rebranded the Genesis in North America. Although its launch titles had difficulties standing out from the competition, it was clearly a piece of technology superior to the Famicom with a graphical presentation that emulated arcade games in the latter half of the 1980s.

Masayuki Uemura, the Famicom’s designer, realized he needed to come up with something to surpass his lauded invention to ensure his company remained relevant, and thus made it so. In 1990, the Famicom’s successor, the Super Famicom, was launched. Nintendo realized it wouldn’t be enough to just continue their big-name franchises on this new platform. If consumers were under the impression the Super Famicom offered only a superior graphical presentation, they likely wouldn’t have been interested in purchasing it. They needed something to prove that the console was to offer experiences simply not possible on the aging Famicom software.

To this end, Nintendo formed a team consisting of various members of the Research and Development divisions. The team was named Nintendo Entertainment Analysis and Development (Nintendo EAD). Under the leadership of producer Shigeru Miyamoto, the team created three games within fifteen months of the Super Famicom’s inception. One was Super Mario World – the official sequel to the universally praised Super Mario Bros. 3. The second was F-Zero, a fast-paced racing game. The last of these games, however, would be something the medium had seen only a few times by 1990: a flight simulator. Named Pilotwings, this game was released one month after the Super Famicom’s launch. The console then proceeded to debut in North America the following year where it was renamed the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (Super NES). Pilotwings was highly regarded upon release and is still considered one of the console’s premier titles in retrospectives. How was it able to grab the attention of consumers and critics alike back in 1990?

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Super Widget

Graphic Research’s attempt at adapting Peter Keefe’s environmentally conscious, animated show Widget for the Nintendo Entertainment system proved less-than-satisfactory. Not only did it sell very poorly, the few people who did purchase it immediately dismissed it as an inferior take on the run-and-gun gameplay pioneered by Mega Man. Even those willing to ignore the subpar controls were ultimately treated to an unstable mess of a game that threatened to crash at the slightest provocation. Nonetheless, a sequel to the game was greenlit. However, taking up the reins of the development process was the company that published the original game: Atlus.

The Setagaya-based developer had made a name for themselves in their native homeland due to their successful adaptation of Aya Nishitani’s Digital Devil Story. From this adaptation, their flagship series would soon be formed: Shin Megami Tensei. However, because none of these games saw an international release, Atlus was fairly obscure outside of Japan. As such, their adaptation of Mr. Keefe’s animated series, released under the name Super Widget in late 1993, was one of the very few games of theirs Western enthusiasts got to play during the fourth console generation. With its predecessor leaving much to be desired, does Super Widget manage to be an improvement?

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Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island

Though somewhat overshadowed by Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog, a game starring a character more in tune with the zeitgeist of the early nineties, Super Mario World was a success upon its 1990 release. While dismissed as just another Mario game, when enthusiasts began giving it the time of day, they realized it was so much more than that. It and its predecessor, Super Mario Bros. 3, are now considered some of the best games ever made. Owing to its strong launch titles, Super Mario World included, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) found itself being able to keep pace with the Sega Mega Drive – or the Genesis as it was known in North America.

While developing Super Mario World, series creator Shigeru Miyamoto introduced a character named Yoshi. He was a dinosaur whom Mario could ride like a horse. Fellow developer Takeshi Tezuka speculated that Mr. Miyamoto’s fondness for country and Western themes played a role in Yoshi’s creation. In fact, Mr. Miyamoto had envisioned Mario with a dinosaur companion as early as when he worked on Super Mario Bros. in the mid-eighties, but the technical limitations of the Famicom made this idea impossible. Almost immediately after his introduction, Yoshi become one of the series’ most popular characters. Over the next few years, Yoshi was prominently featured in various spinoff titles. One such title was Yoshi’s Cookie, a puzzle game that even featured a special mode designed by Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov. Another was Yoshi’s Safari, a rail shooter that utilized the Super Scope, the successor to the NES Zapper.

As it turned out, Yoshi’s striking popularity extended to his creator as well, for Mr. Miyamoto thought about making him the series’ protagonist. However, he did not particularly care for other games featuring Yoshi’s name, and strove to make something more authentic. He presented his idea to Nintendo’s marketing department. To his surprise, they rejected his proposal. In 1994, Nintendo had published and released Donkey Kong Country, which was developed by the England-based developer Rare. Its pre-rendered graphics allowed it to stand out from the traditional, comparatively simplistic art style associated with the Mario series. Frustrated at the marketing executives, Mr. Miyamoto felt they were more interested in superior hardware than art, although, contrary to popular belief, he did not go as far as condemning Donkey Kong Country.

As something of an act of rebellion, Mr. Miyamoto took the cartoonish art style for which the Mario franchise was known and escalated it. The result was a hand-drawn, crayon style reminiscent of children’s drawings. To achieve this effect, artists drew graphics by hand, scanned them, and approximated them down to the exact pixel. When he presented this revised art style to the marketing department, they accepted it. The game had actually been in development in various forms for four years, allowing the team to add what he described as “lots of magic tricks”.

This new game was released domestically in Japan in August of 1995 under the name Super Mario: Yoshi’s Island. It was released in the West the following October with the slight name change Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. Though it wasn’t as financially successful as Super Mario World, Yoshi’s Island gained a dedicated following of its own. It too became one of the most beloved titles on the Super NES. In fact, some people have even gone as far as claiming it to be the superior effort to Super Mario World, citing is unique gameplay, art, and sound design. How does Yoshi’s Island fare in the face of its impressive predecessor?

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Super Mario World

Nintendo’s Family Computer, or Famicom, proceeded to dominate the console market after its 1983 launch. Sega had entered the market, releasing their own 8-bit console, the Master System, to directly compete with Nintendo, but they failed to even slow them down. This began to change in 1987 when NEC Corporation launched the PC Engine – later dubbed the TurboGrafx-16 internationally. The following year, Sega launched the Mega Drive, the 16-bit successor to their Master System. Though Nintendo’s executives were not in a hurry to design a new console, they reconsidered when they observed their market dominance beginning to slip.

It was up to Masayuki Uemura, the designer of the Famicom, to come up with something even greater. Fortunately, his newest creation, the Super Famicom, was ready to go a mere three years after the launch of the PC Engine. It was an immediate success with Nintendo’s initial shipment of 300,000 units selling out in a matter of hours. In fact, it caused such a social disturbance around shopping centers that the Japanese government stepped in, asking developers to only launch consoles on weekends to avoid any future chaos. A few sources even state that this hot commodity managed to capture the attention of the yakuza, leading Nintendo to ship the consoles at night to avoid any potential interceptions.

Naturally, consoles are nothing without their games, and after the success of Super Mario Bros. 3, Takashi Tezuka and Shigeru Miyamoto were determined to have the console make a good first impression on launch day. Joined by graphics designer Shigefumi Hino, they began work on a new Mario installment. The team consisted of ten people, most of whom had experience working on Super Mario Bros. Though Mr. Tezuka was the director once again, the core team said that Mr. Miyamoto wielded the most authority during the development cycle.

The staff members understandably had their reservations about the new hardware, anticipating they would have difficulties working with it. Mr. Tezuka stated that the software tools had not been fully developed. In other words, much like with Super Mario Bros., they found themselves for want of a style guide. As an experiment, they ported Super Mario Bros. 3 to the Super Famicom. They decided it felt like the same game in spite of its improved colors and sprites. Mr. Miyamoto realized then that their new goal was to use this improved hardware to create something entirely new. The game saw the light of day alongside the Super Famicom itself in November of 1990 under the name Super Mario World: Super Mario Bros. 4.

The Super Famicom was slated for a North American release the following year. Keeping consistent with its predecessor’s name, it would become the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (Super NES or SNES) overseas. Super Mario World, dropping the Super Mario Bros. 4 subtitle, was to be one of the console’s launch titles abroad as well. Though both Super Mario World and the platform on which it was released proved to be a success, Nintendo found themselves facing a particularly fierce competitor. Sega brought the Mega Drive to North America where it was known as the Genesis. One of their games, Sonic the Hedgehog, ended up being their console’s biggest hit. The hip, cool title character was popular with children and teens, playing up to the era’s zeitgeist.

Not pictured: Maturity

Sega of America didn’t stop at extensively marketing Sonic the Hedgehog. They claimed theirs was the superior console due to it having what they referred to as “blast processing”, and even went as far as outright insulting Nintendo and, by extension, Super Mario World. Thus began one of the fiercest and most famous video game rivalries of its day. As a result of the popularity of Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario World was dismissed in many circles as just another Mario game. Meanwhile, with its fast-paced gameplay, Sonic the Hedgehog was the title to own in 1991.

However, as is the case in many stories like this, the all-seeing, all-knowing power of hindsight granted Super Mario World a new lease on life. Though Sonic the Hedgehog is still considered a classic, Super Mario World is the game people would be more likely to find on a given list detailing the greatest of all time. On top of that, Mr. Miyamoto himself considered Super Mario World his personal favorite Mario game. Having a chance to fully establish its legacy, did Super Mario World manage to ultimately triumph over its flashier competition?

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Final Fantasy VI

With its improved job system, Final Fantasy V arguably managed to overshadow its direct predecessor in the eyes of Japanese fans. It was certainly no mean feat considering how Final Fantasy IV itself proved to be a turning point for the medium, inspiring countless artists to pen stories for their games more advanced than the kind of material typically delegated to instruction manual filler. Almost immediately after the launch of Final Fantasy V, Squaresoft began work on a sequel.

Due to his promotion to Executive Vice President of the company in 1991, series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi wasn’t quite as involved with this game’s creation. Instead, he served as the game’s producer while Yoshinori Kitase and Hiroyuki Ito were the co-directors. Mr. Kitase was responsible for the fifth installment’s relatively lighthearted tone, and Mr. Ito, having taken inspiration from Formula One racing, conceived the Active Time Battle (ATB) system. Mr. Kitase was in charge of event production and wrote the scenario alongside Mr. Sakaguchi once again, while Mr. Ito handled the combat engine. Despite the minor personnel change, the game’s development cycle went smoothly, taking about one year to be completed.

The man who composed the game’s score, Nobuo Uematsu, recalled Mr. Sakaguchi’s words at the launch party they held in the liner notes of a soundtrack he composed in 2010.

“Thanks to every one of you — we have created the best game in the world! No! The universe! Thank you!”

At that exact moment, Mr. Uematsu cried as he realized just how much of himself he had invested in the project, seeing the tears he shed as undeniable proof. The game debuted in April of 1994, receiving its official North American localization in October of the same year. Any success the series enjoyed up until this point seemed modest compared to the reception Final Fantasy VI received. Critically, it was praised for its character-focused narrative. Commercially, it became a bestseller, moving millions of units in Japan while becoming the eighth bestselling SNES cartridge in North America where it was dubbed “Final Fantasy III”. The reason for this change in numbering was because only the first and fourth installments had been localized in that region by 1994, and the localization team consequently changed the latter to “Final Fantasy II”.

To an even greater extent than the original, Final Fantasy VI was responsible for getting console enthusiasts interested in role-playing games. Indeed, the SNES is commonly considered to boast the greatest selection of JRPGs of any console library, and Final Fantasy VI is cited as one of its hallmarks – notably lauded by people who don’t normally enjoy the genre. Does it truly stand to this day as one of the medium’s greatest achievements?

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