The Making Of: Donkey Kong Country 2
ALTHOUGH THE MASSIVE SUCCESS OF DONKEY KONG COUNTRY MADE A SEQUEL AN INEVITABILITY, GREGG MAYLES REVEALS HOW A BIGGER, BETTER FOLLOW-UP HAD ALWAYS BEEN PART OF THE PLAN
Given that Rare’s Donkey Kong Country was the fastest-selling game of 1994, it might be reasonable to assume that pressure would have been applied on the developer by its publisher Nintendo to rapidly produce a sequel.
But as Rare’s Gregg Mayles explains, the push to develop Donkey Kong Country 2 was entirely internal. “I think the pressure was on ourselves,” Gregg reflects. “We had started on DKC 2 before we realised just how successful the first one was – everything happened so fast. We always knew there were things we didn’t have time to do in the first one that we would like to do in a second one, so we started thinking about it, and then as soon as the first one became successful it became a formality.”
The thoughts for Rare’s sequel began with consideration of the environments that the game could take place in, which required Gregg’s team to think outside the box and create something different. “Similar to the first game, we just sat down and thought about themes for worlds,” Gregg recalls, “and I guess we had exhausted all the obvious ones in the first game: the jungle, the caves, the mines and the forest. So the backgrounds and the worlds in the second one were a little bit more out there. That’s where the ‘hive’ level and the ‘bramble’ level and all the edgier stuff came from – and the pirate stuff.”
As well as providing inspiration for level themes, pirates also defined the overall narrative that the DKC 2 team created for their follow-up. “I’ve had an almost life-long interest in pirates,” Gregg enthuses. “I think they’re a fascinating bunch of characters. I guess pirates have always been painted as
freespirited people that did their own thing, which masks the truth that they were probably a bunch of scumbags! Donkey Kong Country was very ‘jungle-y’ themed – when you think of gorillas and monkeys you think of jungles, so it was the obvious thing to go to. For the second one we wanted to do something a bit different, and I guess just because we liked pirates it became an easy choice.”
having dreamt up locations for their pirate platformer, Gregg and his team next took a decidedly analogue approach to populating those locations. “We would have a board with all these Post-it notes with ideas for levels, where there was, like, tyres that you bounced on or a thing that was chasing you,” Gregg notes. “So the levels all started off life as ideas, and then when we had chosen the ideas we decided which world they fitted in. We almost certainly had some ideas that we carried over from Donkey Kong Country, but certainly not levels; they were all brand new.”
Another fresh aspect of Donkey Kong Country 2 was a new player character called Dixie Kong, whose inclusion required Donkey Kong to sit out his own sequel. “The team was very young – I was probably 23 at the time,” Gregg points out, “and I think when you’re that young you’re prepared to take risks. We wanted to do something that would surprise people. The gameplay was set, but we wanted to introduce a new character, so we were either going to have to take Diddy out or take the braver, bolder step of taking Donkey Kong out. It worked out okay. I think otherwise we would have got a bit of a roasting from the marketing people!”
An unintended side-benefit of Dixie’s introduction was that her ponytail could double as a whip or a helicopter blade, but the character’s gender wasn’t influenced by the pros of long hair or a push for female representation. “I think we decided it was going to be a female character before the hair; the hair didn’t lead the decision,” Gregg clarifies. “And it was certainly nothing to do with female gamers – to me, if you enjoy the games you enjoy the games. I’m sure Dixie came from some of the early concept sketches. Someone drew her with a big, long ponytail; I think it was because they wanted to make it flow behind her as she ran. I saw that and
“The Team was very young – i was probably 23 at The Time” Gregg Mayles
thought: ‘Oh. We can do something with that.’ You would think it was part of the design, but really it was just one of those happy coincidences.”
Dixie wasn’t the only new player character in DKC 2, however, as unlike the original game, the second Donkey Kong Country would have stages where the Kongs could change into their animal friends. “You got so used to riding them that transforming into them was the next logical step,” Gregg reasons. “I also didn’t want the size of the monkeys to get in the way of what they could do. The vision for the parrot was that it was a small character that was very agile, and adding the monkeys to it made it not a small character that wasn’t very agile. So it was a case of the physical size that they took up on the screen if the monkeys were there as well.”
Of course, as well as new protagonists, Gregg’s team were also coming up with fresh antagonists for their sequel, of which the bosses got particular attention. “In the first game, a proportion of the time was spent developing the tech and working out how to build the backgrounds,” Gregg recalls, “but we had none of that in the second one so that gave us the freedom to have different backgrounds for the bosses. A lot of the bosses in the first game were fairly similar, where as the ones in the second one – like the giant sword with the hooks – allowed us to go a bit more out there and think about the things in the levels and try to build them into the boss battles.”
The design philosophy for Donkey Kong Country’s follow-up also underwent a radical overhaul, with the emphasis shifting from speed-run-friendly to exploration.
“If we had made it speed runs again then there wouldn’t have been much scope for us to go anywhere different with it,” Greg argues. “We wanted to maintain the same ‘go first’ gameplay where all the barrels and baddies were set up so if you went first time – or got the timing right – then the levels were very fluid, but I also wanted to add something new to it. So the first one was very linear, and the second one introduced exploration.”
In particular, Donkey Kong Country 2 would feature many more optional bonus stages that could only be located if you followed the clues to their whereabouts. “The first game had its bonus routes, but you either found them or you didn’t,” Gregg concedes. “Certainly those giant DK coins in the second one, we really went to town with trying to conceal those. There was a pattern to the first game where you started to look at all the walls knowing that there might be a secret entrance
there, where as in the second one we wanted to hide those coins in all sorts of hopefully clever places that people could try to figure out.”
But as well as bonus levels, the DKC 2 team also created a ‘lost world’ that could only be accessed after collecting enough coins from certain bonus rounds. “We wanted to have a bit more intrigue and try to extend the playing time;” Gregg explains, “having those extra levels that you had to earn was just one of the ideas that we came up with. Rather than having bonus levels that you found on a level, they were effectively bonus levels that you had to work towards through the entire game. So every level had its own immediate hidden rewards, but the game also had a hidden reward at the end.”
Rather than limiting DKC 2’s collectibles to the game’s bonus stages, however, Greg and his team additionally crammed the follow-up’s core levels with surreal pick-ups such as banana coins and extra life balloons, which Gregg puts down to responding to popular demand. “In the first game you collected stuff, but it was quite lightweight. We then just tried to experiment with pushing that a little bit further. It was just the feeling that people liked collecting and finding stuff in the first one, and going: ‘Okay, well we’ll give them more of that then. What else can we give them to collect or how can we rack that up another level to make the collecting more involved?’”
Less involved, though, was the game’s publisher Nintendo, which trusted Rare explicitly to deliver a great Donkey Kong Country sequel. “Nintendo had less involvement with DKC 2;” Gregg confirms, “I just can’t remember much communication with it at all. I think the success of the first one gave us some sort of trust – even though we had a huge amount of trust in the first game – but on the second game it was almost at the point where Nintendo didn’t feel it needed to get involved at all.”
with Nintendo’s approval seemingly a foregone conclusion, Donkey Kong Country 2 Diddy’s Kong Quest was released to rapturous reviews and brisk sales, although Gregg recollects taking the game’s success in his stride. “At the time, I was still very young, and I guess to a certain extent I didn’t appreciate what we had done. We just wanted to make a better version of the first one. So it came out and it didn’t sell as many as the first one, obviously, because the first one was very different, but it was certainly more critically acclaimed.”
In reviewing his game with hindsight, Gregg doesn’t offer any tweaks, and when asked to choose between DKC 2 and its predecessor he applies a degree of diplomacy. “I don’t think I’d make any changes; I try not to look backwards too often. The first one was the groundbreaker; but the second one was a better version. I think the first one was better in terms of ‘wow factor’, but Donkey Kong Country 2 was a better game in terms of the gameplay. So I guess we’ll call it
an honourable draw.”
“we wanted To have a bit More intrigue and Try To extend The playing Time” Gregg Mayles
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» [SNES] The final showdown with K Rool ends with his blunderbuss getting plugged with a cannon.
» [SNES] Diddy deftly lobs an explosive barrel to make short work of a foe. » [SNES] Krow’s weakness is eggs; as long as you’ve got one he’ll take damage when he attacks.
» Gregg is still at Rare today, currently he’s sailing the high seas, working on Sea Of Thieves.
» [SNES] As well as traditional platforming, Donkey Kong Country 2 has several underwater sections to navigate.