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Donkey Kong Country team reflects on the game’s 25th anniversary
SNES classic celebrates milestone birthday this week
Donkey Kong Country’s original team have shared their development memories on the week of the game’s 25th anniversary.
Game designer Gregg Mayles, programmer Chris Sutherland, character artist Steve Mayles and composer David Wise feature in a series of videos published by GameXplain.
The creators, who are now spread across multiple studios including Rare and Playtonic Games, shared anecdotes of how the 1994 SNES title was made and how they feel it stands up today.
“It makes me feel really old,” designer Gregg Mayles said of the game’s 25th anniversary. “I guess I’m used to it because people who are joining Rare now, some of them weren’t even born when we made that game. That is such an eye opener when people come in and go, ‘I’ve heard of these games but I’ve never played them’.
“Some of it feels like it was only yesterday and some of it feels like a lifetime away. It’s quite a sobering thought to think that it’s 25 years ago.”
Lead programmer Chris Sutherland said: “It does feel like only yesterday that we were sitting in a barn making this game and we didn’t quite know what the outcome of it was going to be.
“It seems like only yesterday that we’d be there in the evening and we had a system where we’d make tea for each other… or I’d be sat there in the evening with a phone next to me and it would ring and it would be Steve [Mayles] playing Depeche Mode down the phone to me.”
The DKC trio continue to create games to this day. Gregg Mayles is the creative director of Sea of Thieves, while his brother Steve along with Sutherland recently released Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair.
Reflecting on the advancements in game development over the past two decades, character artist Steve said it was initially very difficult to master DKC’s then cutting-edge 3D graphics.
“The learning curve to get into 3D was very, very difficult for me,” he said. “But once you had it, it was great because you could render these characters in as many frames [as you wanted]… you could do it with a click of a button, whereas if you were doing that with normal sprites it was literally impossible.”
Programmer Sutherland said he feels the biggest differences compared to game development today are the simple logistics of collaborating as a team.
“There were a few things that were different [compared to now],” he told GameXplain. “One of them was – and this sounds trivial – that nowadays people email you their content or put it on a server… but back in those days it was delivered on a disc.
“I remember thinking, ‘how are we going to create a game with more than one programmer?”
“The other thing was, without going into too much detail in terms of software, that now we have some kind of system where we can share code between different programmers and a source control system where you all change stuff, commit it and resolve those changes between each other. Back then we didn’t have that.
He added: “All the games that had been worked on before at Rare had only one programmer on them, so [DKC] was the first project with multiple programmers. I remember thinking, ‘how are we going to create a game with more than one programmer? How is that going to work?’
“The source control system was actually me: people would come along, say they’ve got some code for me, then we’d paste it into my machine and then that would be the official version of the game. It was a bit ad-hoc, but it kind of worked! Amazingly we managed to do it in a year.”
Donkey Kong Country reportedly went on to sell nearly 10 million copies, making it one of the top three best-selling games on Super Nintendo.
Designer Gregg Mayles conceded that the title’s initial appeal was likely its striking visuals, but said he hopes its “fast and flowing” mechanics have stood the test of time.
“I think a big part of [the game’s appeal] was what it looked like… it looked like nothing else at all on SNES and any competing rival platforms,” he said. “Graphically it stood apart, but I’d like to think the game itself has stood the test of time.
“I personally as a designer wanted to create a fast and flowing game that’s easy to pick up but had a subtlety that if you played it over and over again you kind of got to learn how the level was designed, which allowed you to flow through the game.
“It’s really interesting for me that the concept of speed runners exists today… they quite often choose Donkey Kong Country or Donkey Kong Country 2 as a speed running game. Back when we designed DKC, that kind of activity didn’t exist but the way the game was designed definitely supports it.”