In 1994, Nintendo rocked the gaming world with Donkey Kong Country for the Super Nintendo Original Gaming System Console. It was advertised as being the biggest game ever made, sporting "32-MEGS" of power. It featured "EYEBALL TWISTING 3D GRAPHICS." They actually boasted that the audio "even sounds 3-D!" And somehow, they managed to squeeze all of this onto a single SNES cartridge. So, how did they do it? Well, the short answer is: they didn't. It was a bluff.
Nintendo's Biggest Bluff!
Vintage Magazine Ad for Donkey Kong Country
Now before I give you the long answer, let's get a few things clear. Regardless of what I'm about to say, Donkey Kong Country is a masterpiece. It's a milestone in the history of game development. And most importantly, it's insanely fun to play. But, with all that said, Donkey Kong Country is not actually a 3D game. And considering that so much of the ad campaign around this game directly claimed otherwise, that seems like a pretty big oversight. So, what was Nintendo trying to pull?
Sega had a Technical Advantage!
The Sega Genesis, fully decked out.
Well as hard as it is to believe today, back in '94, Nintendo was actually taking a ton of flack from the gaming industry for not living up to the technical specs of Sega. The Sega Genesis System had just received some major upgrades to its base hardware. The Sega CD System, allowed the used of CD quality audio as well as fully rendered cinematic sequences. And, the Sega 32X add-on gave the Genesis a whopping 32-bit processing unit as well as a 3D processor. These peripherals gave the Genesis substantially better hardware than a vanilla SNES, and Nintendo's flagship console was starting to look obsolete. (For a better look at the original specs of the SNES and Genesis, visit our Mortal Kombat Komparison.)
Nintendo Needed a Comeback!
In order to save face, Nintendo needed a game that could convince critics that the SNES was capable of rendering a game on par with anything Sega was turning out. But, in order to do this without creating ab entirely new gaming system, they'd have to cut corners. And how they did that was insanely clever.
A New and Improved Donkey Kong!
A UK ad announcing Donkey Kong Country
Using SGI supercomputers, which were then famous for rendering the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, Nintendo created fully poseable 3D models of every character, item, enemy, and background in Donkey Kong Country. Unfortunately, the SNES did not quite have the same processing abilities of a state-of-the-art $180,000 PC. An SNES cartridge couldn't handle the data for one of those models, much less all of them. So, none were used in the finished game.
Nintendo Figured Out how to Fake 3D Graphics!
Article from 1994 explaining the pros and cons of CD gaming at the time.
I know that sounds insane. You're probably thinking to yourself: "What do you mean they weren't in the game? I played it! I saw all of that stuff!" tell, you're not wrong. Technically, you did see the models. But more specifically you saw pictures of them. When a game features an actual 3D model, you can look at from multiple angles in the game world, like pretty much everything in in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time N64 Original Game. You can't do that in Donkey Kong Country. Despite how it appears, it's a very flat game. In that regard it actually has a lot more in common with Mortal Kombat the Classic SNES Fighting Game, which used photographs of real people for its characters, to achieve a similar illusion of realism.
If I'm losing you, think of it this way: Imagine you own one of those life-size cardboard standees of Darth Vader. Even if it's flat, it will look fine from the front, and take up a lot less space than propping up a replica of the complete costume. The same concept is why Donkey Kong Country looks so much better than Super Mario World which was also made for the Super Nintendo, even though they're very similar games.
Everyone Fell for the Trick!
The Finished Product!
The graphics upgrade was a gamble, but it paid off big time. Donkey Kong Country's expensive budget could have destroyed Nintendo, if critics didn't like the finished product. Fortunately, the game looked so good that it tricked many professional reviewers into believing the SNES was far more powerful than it actually was. In one deft swoop, Nintendo got the haters their back, took the wind out of Sega's sales, and made everyone think that the SNES had plenty more life left in it. As far as bluffs go, it might be the single greatest in gaming history.
Do you remember the hype around Donkey Kong Country? How many of you were blown away by its "3D" graphics? How well do you think it's aged? Does it still hold up today? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.