It’s been 25 years since beloved (though, reviled in some corners) Rare/Nintendo platformer Donkey Kong Country first graced us with its sublime, hairy beauty. I’m not talking about it’s revolutionary-for-the-time rendered graphics. The game — and its two sequels — are spectacularly well directed and art-directed, with detailed world design, gorgeous music and swingy, momentum-based gameplay that all works to evoke a real sense of adventure.
It holds up well today, which is wild considering it came out on a console with a couple of the best platformers of all time, and still compares favorably.
It helps that I played the series in my formative years, and I’d come to seek so much of what they did well in my gaming tastes: a sort of general out-there vibe, with impossible, gorgeous, totally batshit worlds to explore. The sheer joy of a good obstacle course, well-designed. The idea that it didn’t need to be Mario — at all, really — to be great.
So it’s been very fun to dig into some of the old production material that longtime Rare employee (and DKC’s lead Designer) Gregg Mayles has been sharing to commemorate the anniversary.
One of the most fun bits and pieces is the list of possible names for King K. Rool, the big bad who storms the island with his pirate ship and steals Donkey Kong’s banana horde. Fleabag is on that list. Fleabag! Look, it has nothing to do with Phoebe Waller-Bridge ‘s astounding series but if there was ever a way she could portray the character, I think that’d be cool.
King K. Rool May have also been named Queen Krapp, if Rare wanted to make the main baddy a lady. There are a lot of just… unpleasant words listed, in a fashion familiar to anyone on earth who has ever tried to name a website or a company (or anything, really), for public consumption. Sludge, Slime, Bilge, Muck, the list goes on. And any of those were fit to pair with Baron or King or Chief.
There are pages and pages of story documents, pictures of level layouts (hand-crafted on post-it notes, just as the legends go!), storyboards for character movement, and a wildly overcomplicated concept for minecart levels that involved nine speeds. Some of the most fun stuff looks like it was repurposed for later games, like the elephant buddy (who would become Ellie in Donkey Kong Country 3), and some of the themed lands that appear in the story/world documents.
There’s also a gorgeous documentary put out by Shesez (BoundaryBreak), interviewing Mayles and four other key creatives on the project, David Wise, Chris Sunderland, Steve Mayles, and Kevin Bayliss. Every other minute of the piece has a little banger of a fun fact. A few samples from the first section, on naming and concepting: Donkey Kong has four fingers and a thumb so he doesn’t look like a Yakuza member, DK has the same eyes as a BattleToad, Diddy was almost Dinky, Dixie was almost DiddyAnne, and the list goes on.
There’s a reason why these games are so beloved, even a quarter of a century later. There’s an active speedrunning community for the series, the first game appeared in the SNES classic collection, and nearly everyone who loves good video game music has an appreciation of the incredible soundtracks. And though not everyone accepts the truth, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (recently re-released on the Switch), is one of the best-designed 2D platformers of the decade. The best, if you ask me.
Hearing about some of the wild little details that went into making the series is a huge trip. Here’s to twenty five more years of DKC appreciation.