I coulda been a game dev contender


Donkey Kong Country (1994)

Game design. The one thing that we’ve always wanted to do. Well, not all of us. Most young lads growing up wanted to be footballers or astronauts of course, but I was aware of my limitations early. As a result, even in my most wildly unrealistic fantasies, I was still essentially a no-name code monkey. Isn’t that sad?

But what’s sadder still is that, all these years later, I’m still none the wiser as to how games are made. Sure, like a zillion other nerds, I’ve downloaded Game Maker or RPG Maker or even a code compiler to make the task extra daunting, and we all tried to make our own game. Obviously, we were all quickly overwhelmed. No plan in place, no other staff, no knowledge of how to create good, fitting music or how to draw sprites or even how to write any kind of convincing dialogue that isn’t milquetoast, rubbish, self-referential Alt-Ctrl-Del humour. We all just took a look at Chrono Trigger, or Zelda, or even a simple vertical shooter, and said “I’m gonna make that, I am. How hard can it be?”

Could it be true? Do you need to work 25 hour days, as the Japanese do, to even get close to creating, testing and releasing a game? The game might not even be that good anyway, after all that. It might be bad – or worse, average. There are Japanese businessmen turning up dead on the street because they were working too hard. Whereas here’s me, having once caused myself injury by staying in bed too long. And I think I once changed gear too hard and hurt my shoulder. Unfortunately they wouldn’t give me a week off work for it.

The indie developers seem to get on fine. So too do the mobile game creators. You remember the Flappy Bird craze? The owner was making rude bank, allegedly fifty grand a day, but then became wracked with guilt over its addictive nature and immediately took the game down. Or was it guilt? Perhaps Nintendo had him by the short and curlys over the design of the pipes, and the dev would have found himself in a position where, for every million quid he’d made, he’d have to lose a finger as recompense. The Japanese have finger collections of their victims at home, did you know that?

It’s a tough racket, creating a game, and one I don’t appear ever likely to join. Much easier to lean back on my barstool and be a critic of something I could never hope to create. Brendan Behan observed that critics are like eunuchs – they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they can’t do it themselves. I’m a proud eunuch.

Faced with my failure to make the next Pokémon, I did have a racist comforting thought – only the Japanese get a look in to this type of stuff. Us Westerners can forget it. Maybe a few Americans can cope, but there’s not even any scraps left for us Europeans. I think some nutters in Hungary made Ecco the Dolphin, but that was it.

Of course, I was completely forgetting, or perhaps choosing to forget, the legions of British-based game designers and programmers. It was as if I had never heard of an Amstrad, or a Sinclair Spectrum, or an Amiga. Come to think of it, I’m still not entirely sure what those things are, but there’s clearly a far larger game industry than 90% of Japanese prefectures, plus Ubisoft in France and Electronic Arts in some Blofeld-style lair in Silicon Valley.

Step forward Rareware, a name that would be set to be pretty widely regarded during the N64 era, before sadly being killed, urinated upon, resurrected and killed again. Super Mario World had been and gone, a zillion cookie-cutter sidescrolling platformers attempted to emulate its magic, and Nintendo were getting fed up with it. Mario having already been done, it was time to turn to another one of their most vintage characters to wow the gaming world and hopefully knock one of those decisive nails into Sega’s coffin. Donkey Kong Country was the result of a fine collaboration between the UK and the US, and it was immediately apparent from its ACM computer graphics that this was one of the most essential games of the 90s to own.

What I particularly love the most about DKC’s development is the Nintendo Power tape that was distributed as part of its promotion. Seems like something from centuries ago, doesn’t it, a promotional VHS tape of behind-the-scenes footage and trailers? They might just as well have recorded some PR bod orating a press release for the game and distributed it via cassette tape (not to be played on Sony Walkmans).

The pre-release VHS tape, which can be found on YouTube, gave me my first ever look into the world of game development. I’ll never forget its novelty. With its wild neon filters and the fashion displayed by the nerds on camera, the whole affair is 90s beyond belief. Twinned with that, it’s hosted and narrated by someone who I’m sure Otto from The Simpsons was modelled after – he would have been too radical and unbelievable to be taken seriously in Wayne’s World, put it that way.

The promo tape showed us glorious snippets of what the game had to offer. At the time, I’m sure people were hesitant to believe what Donkey Kong Country was promising to do. Graphics that good, with what we thought were photorealistic backgrounds? Fully stereo, CD quality music? Dozens of levels and wildly different locales? 2-player mode? Tons of bonuses? And all on a vanilla SNES? It didn’t look real, it couldn’t have been done. Yes, the video built up plenty of hype, but in a rare case, the game delivered on it in every way.

A few US ads followed at the end for the Game Boy (starring Brian the Brain) and Nintendo’s other games for 1994, including Stunt Race FX and a certain other game that I wouldn’t have a clue about for years, Super Metroid. And then it ended, and I was left with a sense of wonderment at what I’d just seen. Nerds, like me! I implore you to watch the video, and then consider this – I thought every single person in the video was somebody to aspire to.

Well, 25 years down the line, maybe some cracks are beginning to show in Donkey Kong Country. Even at the time, a few bald fools derided the game as being just eye-candy, graphics and not much substance. Even Miyamoto was misquoted as saying such. And then they doubled down on the Super Mario World 96 levels/exits furore by trying to claim that even the tiny bonus levels were to be counted as separate levels. And the backgrounds are certainly not photorealistic, nor are the graphics any more impressive than something like Prince of Persia. But as an atmospheric platformer, with heaps of great tunes and plenty of tough platforming action, Donkey Kong Country holds up. It just so happens that its sequel is even better.

6 August 2019

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