(For Pt. I of this column, click here)
Donkey Kong 64 almost never happened.
It was originally rumored to be a title for the extremely ill-fated 64DD extension for the Nintendo 64. The 64DD was plagued by a long development cycle and, as a result of that, neglect from Nintendo. Only released in Japan near the end of the N64 lifecycle, just ten 64DD games were ever released. Many more games were, at some point in time, in development for the 64DD. Some games, like Paper Mario, the two N64 Zelda games, and Kirby 64 were eventually released for the N64. Others, like Cubivore, were eventually released for the GameCube. Mother 3 saw life as a GBA title released only in Japan, but it was initially “EarthBound 64.” Games like Fire Emblem 64 never saw life.
Thankfully, DK64 never officially went into development for the 64DD. As the first 3D Donkey Kong game (for the record, Super Smash Bros. was released earlier in 1999), there were a lot of things Rare could do with it. Because of this, they got … ambitious … in the early stages of development.
Yeah, they gave Donkey Kong a real gun.
Whether or not this was just a placeholder for the cartoonish guns the Kongs would actually use or if Rare actually thought Nintendo would let them make a game where DK toted around a shotgun is unclear. We do have screenshots of Diddy wielding dual pistols, so maybe Rare did think they could make GoldenKong 007. We also still have Funky Kong who, knowing what we know about the beta, might have been a beta element they forgot to remove.
Pause for a moment and consider how absurd Funky Kong is again. He is, again, the source of ammunition and weapons for the Kongs. He is, again, obsessed with guns and explosions and weapons in general. This makes sense within the context of the beta. But remember: the cartoonish ammunition used by the Kongs are coconuts, peanuts, pineapples, grapes, and feathers. Seeing as Funky Kong refills all of your ammunition whenever you visit him, it follows that he is sitting on a sizable stockpile of…food and feathers. Funky, show me your bomb shelter. Tell me about how the moon landing was fake. Oh, you say Tupac ain’t dead?
I digress. So with the 64DD and the beta behind us, we are finally on our way to late 1999, when Donkey Kong 64 was released to a hungry public. Wait, what? Oh yeah, that game-breaking bug I mentioned earlier. Yet another hiccup in what was probably a far-too-tumultuous development cycle, the bug that has yet to be fixed could only be patched by the Expansion Pak, which Rare was forced to bundle with the game for free. (A brief tangent to emphasize just how far games have come: the Expansion Pak only added 4 MB of RAM to the Nintendo 64’s…4 MB.) So, as stated earlier, we’re probably not seeing DK64 on Virtual Console unless someone fixes that bug. Get to work.
The massive loss Rare took due to having to bundle the Expansion Pak contributed to something else in DK64’s weird history: the eventual split between Rare and Nintendo.
By now we all know the story but it is all worth going over again. Rare, a software development company based in England, made several NES and SNES games in the late 80s and early 90s. In 1994, Nintendo bought 49% of Rare and pretty much said, “Hey. Here is our library of characters. Pick one and make a game.” Donkey Kong Country sold 9 million copies, most of any SNES title not named Super Mario World. It spawned a series of its own and Rare, in essence, could do whatever they wanted with the Donkey Kong universe.
They had a lot of other stuff going on too. Rare developed some pretty good games for the Nintendo 64, including but not limited to GoldenEye 007, Perfect Dark, Banjo-Kazooie, and the timeless Donkey Kong 64. But things were getting weird. The Expansion Pak debacle soured the relationship between Rare and Nintendo and their relationship status on Facebook changed to “It’s Complicated.” Conker’s Bad Fur Day, one of the only M-rated titles to hit the N64 and by far the most notable, released to rave reviews but lukewarm sales—Nintendo didn’t advertise it as much as they could or should have due to its content and it coming near the end of the N64’s lifespan.
In 2002, Microsoft bought Rare for $375 million, just around the time the Rare-developed Star Fox Adventures (NOT THAT BAD OF A GAME!!!!! IT WAS ACTUALLY PRETTY GOOD!!!!!!!! THE LAST TIME I PLAYED IT WAS WHEN I WAS FOURTEEN THOUGH) dropped for GameCube—the only Rare title on the GCN. The purchase of Rare (and Nintendo’s lack of effort in keeping them) put Donkey Kong in a weird limbo.
The “modern age” of Donkey Kong titles (Donkey Kong Country to DK64) had been developed entirely by Rare and all of those games had been successful. What was the next step? A few different things. We had Donkey Konga, we had Donkey Kong Barrel Blast, we even had a Diddy Kong Racing remake for the DS developed by Rare (seeing as Microsoft had no stake in the handheld business). Eventually, Nintendo realized something.
People really fucking loved Donkey Kong Country. Listen to that crowd. They love it. It means something that Nintendo trusted Retro Studios with the DKC reboot—Retro was to Metroid what Rare was to DK. Metroid Prime was Retro’s Donkey Kong Country, revitalizing a franchise with a beautiful game. So obviously Retro was the best option to take DKC in a new direction. It worked: Donkey Kong Country Returns was flawed but very good, the 3DS port fixed the flaws and was incredible, and Tropical Freeze is one of the best games on Wii U.
Hard to imagine DK64 was the crux of all this. But it was. Why do you think the three Kongs Rare created for DK64 (Tiny, Chunky, Lanky) have appeared only sparingly since that game? Hell, Tiny got a ridiculous redesign, Lanky has only been in Barrel Blast, and Chunky has fallen off the radar completely. To be fair, though, one of his special abilities was invisibility.
Of course, Nintendo has experience with characters existing in the purgatory between companies. Square Enix still holds the rights to Geno and Mallow, characters from the beloved SNES title Super Mario RPG, which means that unfortunately we probably won’t be seeing either of them in a Super Smash Bros. title any time soon. Perhaps that’s why Tiny Kong got redesigned and why Chunky Kong stayed invisible. Lanky just does his own thing.
There’s some hope, however. When DKC and its sequels got pulled from Virtual Console without warning in 2012, some took it as a sign that we were pretty soon going to have to pretend that the Rare era of Donkey Kong games just never happened. But this month, Game Boy games Donkey Kong Land 1 and Donkey Kong Land 2: Diddy Kong’s Quest were released on 3DS Virtual Console in Japan. So maybe there’s still some hope. Maybe one of these days someone will fix that bug. Or maybe Retro Studios will remake Donkey Kong 64 from the ground up for the Wii U. Donkey Kong U would move consoles, if Nintendo pushed the nostalgia factor.
Who knows? Till then, I’m content to just enjoy Donkey Kong’s vacant stare into…the future.