All The Ghosts You Felt So Certain Of (Donkey Kong Country)


To start, a dyad. The game is based on a double, after all. There is no traditional attract mode. Indeed, almost all of the arcade trappings that defined the platformer’s shift to home consoles are gone, the lone holdout having been the score, kept vestigially in Super Mario World and gone here. And yet the start of the game is all about attraction - a wire-framed Rare logo, followed by an ostentatiously 3-D Nintendo logo.

The content is akin to that of Banzai Bill or the polygonal space ships of Star Fox - a straightforward demonstration of technological prowess. In this case, a clever hack for 3D graphics in which the output of high-powered digital rendering on ultra-expensive Silicon Graphics machines was converted into sixteen-bit sprites in the same way that Mortal Kombat used video and ClayFighter had used claymation figures. The result were the smoothest 3D models in console history.

Unfortunately, it holds up terribly. To a modern eye it looks pixelated and muddy - a bad imitation of the future. It doesn’t help that the computing strength used to render the models here is a sneeze compared to a modern console, or that the design for Donkey Kong here became the new standard, reused all the way to the present day, so that this appears to be a primitive copy instead of a preview of the future.

Next, nostalgia. The old familiar girders, rendered in vivid 3D. An old and wizened monkey sits atop it, turning the crank of a gramophone. The classic music chimes forth, nearly allowed to resolve, when on the last note a boombox drops from the sky, followed by a younger ape long on attitude, who kicks the old man off. The girders transform to trees, and there is rocking out, a shredding guitar remix of the music as the new generation of Kong boogies.

Once again, the message is unmistakable. Not so much a passing of the torch as the law of the jungle, young eating old. This ain’t your father’s goofy monkey. But the choice of history to dethrone is careful. Nintendo didn’t offer just any property out to a British studio that had (by this point twice) impressed with their technical prowess - they offered one that hadn’t had a game in a decade, whose importance to the company was already as the discarded past to their main franchise.

This confluence of technological history and brand history has been present before - consider the way in which the Mega Man series haunted Mega Man X, or the sepia-toned recaps of the previous Metroid games. But it has never been so explicit - the sixteen-bit era literally kicking the decrepit eight-bit era off its chair. Of course, Cranky Kong then blasts his replacement as Donkey Kong with a barrel of TNT, so it’s not quite that simple.

Comparison, then. The best aspect to focus on is the console wars, 1994 having been a strange ceasefire in which Nintendo unexpectedly won the generation because the challengers all vacated the field. By this point the Turbo-Grafx 16 was gone, its mascot game Bonk’s Adventure ported to the NES in January of 1994. Nemesis, meanwhile, after leading Nintendo in sales throughout the early years of the sixteen-bit era, was about to slit its own throat. After winning the Christmas sales race for the fourth year in a row and finally rattling Nintendo enough that they dropped their famous content restrictions and allowed blood in Mortal Kombat II they simply departed the market, slashing Genesis stocks and pivoting to the 32-bit Saturn

The Saturn, however faltered. Meanwhile the fruit of Nintendo’s great error, their abandonment of the CD-ROM add-on for the Super Nintendo, continued to fly under its radar, targeting itself at college students who had grown up playing video games instead of as a family-owned device in the mould of Nintendo’s “sell it as a toy” marketing. Beyond that, it simply failed to leave much of a mark at first - it dropped in time for the 1995 holiday season, but its first clear-cut classic was Resident Evil, in March of 1996, and the really big ticket stuff like Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid didn’t come until 1997 and 98 respectively, after the Super Nintendo itself had left the field.

And so the Super Nintendo earned its decadent phase - a period of cultural supremacy taking place after its end has already been scripted. A strange twilight, in which the cultural landscape of video games was dominated by an approach that was already past its time, a dream in the process of being woken up from. And Donkey Kong Country was its exemplar - a case for the console’s ability to hold up to the rising standards of technology that became the pack-in game for the latter portion of the console’s life.

And so, awakening. The only thing I remember about 1994, really. A cultural crash, my conceptual framework shut down entirely. The red light flashes on and off, and no amount of blowing on the connectors will revive it.

In many ways the entire Super Nintendo Project was already written in that post - the incident the story is self-evidently about. Microcosms abound in magical work, of course, and we ought not be surprised. There are always thematic echoes - neat coincidences littering the landscape, preventing a tidy resolution. The events of that summer do not belong to the Super Nintendo any more than they do the NES. I wasn’t playing at this time. Donkey Kong Country was my last point of contact with the system - played a few times when a younger cousin brought it over.

It might as well belong to Nemesis. Perhaps it does. To be honest, these childhood memories feel like they belong to somebody else - a house I visited for a sleepover or two, at which I played a few games that were not mine or watched a movie or two I didn’t own. The same archeology - an adjacent cultural mythology, familiar enough to understand but not enough to ever feel fluent in. Eventually they bleed together. In the Super Nintendo Project, it’s Theatre of War and Playboy; by the time of the Playstation Project (which I will never write) it’s Lost Highway and your first blowjob. Good luck finding a clear border between them.

Again, doubles. Ghostly or otherwise, they are the meat and matter of video games, after all. All play mechanics, in the end, hinge on that fatal divide between will and outcome. In Donkey Kong Country this is particularly sloppy. The difficulty curve has numerous brutal spikes - single levels that are disproportionately hard compared to what’s around them, and that will aggressively grind down your lives counter. 1-Ups are handed out with reasonable generosity, but it’s a tough game to beat with no continues, with some obvious potential choke points. I’ll wager a pretty large portion of playthroughs break upon the rocks of Snow Barrel Blast, in partiular.

Which is particularly obnoxious, because there’s an entire boss fight to take out between it and the last save point, and even worse, there’s four fucking levels between it and the next save. This is not the only such bit of crassly unthinking structure either; the save points generally seem scattered randomly across the game. And this is hardly the only bit of shitty design. Controls are generally loose, while numerous sections demand split-second timing. The contrast is flatly unpleasant, a major drawback. The game wasn’t bad by any measure, although it’s not the best of its series, beaten handily by a much superior sequel the next year. But it was a deeply flawed gem.

It’s no surprise, then, to discover that Nintendo ordered Rare to pull back on the difficulty, trying to refocus on secret areas. This is an awkward hybrid - another thing done markedly better in Donkey Kong Country 2 - as the secret areas are generally fairly useless and rarely interestingly hidden. It’s much more “guess which of five surfaces to throw this barrel against based on no visual cues” than actual observation and navigation puzzles. The result, especially with the muddier graphics, often felt more like the Donkey Kong to Super Mario World’s Super Mario Bros than a game released three years later should.

Prior form, of course. It’s basically Rare’s thing. They’re an odd sort of studio in this regard. It’s not that they’ve never made a properly good game - as mentioned, Donkey Kong Country 2 is a solid title. And of course they’re responsible for one of the most beloved games of the Nintendo 64. All the same, the crux of their accomplishments are largely technical. Their start came when Nintendo handed them an unlimited budget on the back of a bevy of tech demos they put together after successfully reverse engineering the Famicom. Their ascent to second-party publisher with Donkey Kong Country came on the back of their graphics demo.

In many way, Battletoads is the most telling, though. Like Donkey Kong Country, and for that matter like Donkey Kong, its selling point was its well-realized characters. The Battletoads felt like they’d stepped out of an already-existing cartoon. That this was because they were flagrantly the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with the serial numbers filed off was irrelevant. It was clearly one of the biggest games of 1991 just because it looked so good. And yet the franchise was over by 1994 because there wasn’t actually an enjoyable game under there.

It’s a particular vision of video games - one that is driven primarily by the technological curve. It is not even the demoing of technology that was the explicit content of early Super Nintendo games - the ostentatious use of Mode 7, for instance. That was often gimmicky, but more often than not was at least used to do things previous games couldn’t do. Donkey Kong Country, on the other hand, is by any measure a simpler and more primitive game than Super Mario World or even Super Mario Bros. 3. It just had more technologically advanced graphics.

Finally, snakes. A transition made valid in a number of ways - the reptilian bent of the enemies in Donkey Kong Country, the fact that Cobra Triangle was a Rare game, or simply the fact that Alan Moore’s first contact with Glycon is yet another one of the stories quietly hidden within 1994.

Glycon is presented as a teleological progress - a serpent winding forward. Here is Moore in Snakes and Ladders: “This snake-god, nucleotide, twice-twisted, sealed in adenine and cytosine, in thyamine and in guanine, is a one-man show, will be the actors, props and setting, be the apple and the garden both. The player bides his time, awaits his entrance to a drum-roll of igniting binaries. This is the only dance in town, this anaconda tango, this slow spiral up through time from witless dirt to paramecium, from blind mechanic organism to awareness.” Progression as drive. From Donkey Kong to Mario, from NES to Super NES, from 2D to 3D, from Cranky to DK, and yes, eventually from this to the inevitable and dismal future. It is sex and death and alchemy.

And thus proof that a solution exists, and exists here. That somewhere within Donkey Kong Country are the means to achieve our aims. Not the redemption of history itself, but the destruction of the villain we have marked off. A metaphor that can get us out of here. An obvious thing to point to that we haven’t yet. The clear next step. Can you find it?


Froborr 4 years, 8 months ago

I don't know, but I'm guessing it has something to do with the way Earthbound bridges past and future via its connections to both the original Dragon Quest and Undertale.

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Shane 4 years, 8 months ago

I have a question about the seminal sleepover story you told in the "Bubble Bobble" post - can you put yourself in the headspace you were in when it happened?

There are events from my childhood where I can't fathom why I acted like I did, like when I sat on the outside steps while my friends Jimmy and Hayden watched "Beetlejuice" inside. I wouldn't even go in for Burger Rings. (Rationally, I know I was worried the movie would be too scary for me, but it's still hard to put myself in the shoes of Young Shane, even though the memory is clear.)

I suppose I'm asking whether it's easy for you to remember exactly what you thought/felt when it happened - whether you can wholeheartedly identify with Young Phil - or if it feels more like a story that happened to another version of you.

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Shannon 4 years, 8 months ago

Donkey Kong was one of the few games I ever played for SNES, as I never had a console. But the boy I had a huge crush on (and who liked me back) in sixth and seventh grade had it and I'd play it at his house. I hadn't thought about that game or his house for probably years and just seeing it flooded back that memory. Besides the crush, I remember being introduced to sex in part from reading the sex scenes in Jaws over his shoulder on the school bus. Seems appropriate for this entry.

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Daniel Tessier 4 years, 8 months ago

My brother and I played DKC2 and Mario Kart 64 last night, simultaneously adoring the graphics and noting how terrible they look on an unnecessarily large flatscreen TV. And god, we were better players in the 90s.

Much of my memories of the era's games are tied up with reading the UK's Nintendo Magazine System, complete with "sexy" pics of B. Orchid from Killer Instinct. A Rare treat indeed.

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Spoilers Below 4 years, 8 months ago

When I was small, I was on Nintendo's mailing list because I had registered my SNES. They were quite good to me, in a show of good will that still seems surprising 20+ years later. Shortly after registering, I received a copy of Mario Kart, gratis, and then some months after that, a copy of Super Mario All-Stars. They just arrived in the mail, with no prompting or promotional mail ins on my behalf. Being unable to afford new games myself, these were a blessing, like strange manna from heaven.

And then, a VHS tape.

It warned that the following would show scenes of graphic and animal nature, and that people sensitive to such things would be advised to discontinue watching. I was then treated to a long promotional demonstration and tech show off from one of the lead programmers of Rare, who was terribly enthusiastic about all the brand new 3D technology that was going to transform video games forever. They showed off the zoo where they had studied apes to get their wireframe models correct (presumably the reason for the opening disclaimer?), they showed off the loose, party-like atmosphere of their studio, and they made the game look incredibly fun, much more fun than it actually turned out to be a year and a half later when I borrowed it from an acquaintance and banged my head into terribly difficult level after terribly difficult level.

But before that, I was showing it to a friend (because that's what you do when you get a strange tape from a video game company in the mail, the closest you will ever get to having an uncle who works at the company and lets you play all the upcoming games when you visit him), and my father came in to tell us something. He ended up talking all the way through the end, as he was wont to do. A hidden sequence, after the tape looks like it has run out. The mischievous host opening a door he oughtn't, the one marked "Top Secret". Some of the programmers from the earlier sequence playing some sort of 3D rendered fighting game which looked much, much cooler than Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat or Primal Rage or Clayfighters or World Heroes... A velociraptor fighting a Native American with a mohawk? Awesome! They shout and wave at the cameras, hands trying to cover up the screen, but we've already read the title: Killer Instinct. It lasts all of 10 seconds.

All staged, of course, but I was a kid. What do I know? Clearly, this would be the best game ever, even better than the one we'd just watched a ten minute commercial for.

(A few seconds on google yields the video in question, Donkey Kong Country Exposed, produced by Nintendo Power: )

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Frezno 4 years, 8 months ago

Christmas of 1995 is when I finally was able to get a SNES, and Donkey Kong Country was the pack-in game with it. It blew me away, just how good it looked compared to my meager NES collection.

2 was better.

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