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DF Retro takes on Donkey Kong Country and Killer Instinct

The story of Rare's SGI revolution - as told by the developers.

23 years on from its initial release, Donkey Kong Country remains one of the most influential games of all-time. Combining a unique approach to visual design and a pivotal reimagining of a classic Nintendo character, DKC was a landmark release. It was Rare's unique response to the move from 2D to 3D visuals in gaming, and - perhaps surprisingly - the platform holder's answer to the arrival of Aladdin on Mega Drive the previous year.

While David Perry and his team would pioneer a technique called Digicel - moving hand-drawn animation into the digital space - Rare pursued something very different. Characters and environments were rendered on Silicon Graphics workstations, before being down-sampled and converted to the more constrained pixel-counts and palettes offered by the Super NES. The initial results were highly impressive, prompting a substantial investment from Nintendo, and a closer relationship that gave the firm an opportunity to work with an iconic character of their choice.

In this episode of DF Retro, we dig deep into the origins of Rare's CG techniques and how they were deployed across both Donkey Kong Country and its fighting game sibling, Killer Instinct. And what makes this episode special is that key members of the Rare development team - now working on Yooka-Laylee at Playtonic - share their stories and experiences of working on these games. Everything about the SGI method is covered here, from the earliest demos through to how the technique was rolled out in full production.

The story of Rare's stunning CG games for Super NES, as told by the people who made it happen. And as usual, there's full DF analysis of each game and their ports.

Beyond the revolutionary SGI workflow, we examine how each of these games pushed boundaries in other ways, producing games that held up remarkably well, just as the industry started to transition to the 3D era heralded by the original PlayStation and the Sega Saturn. With its own next-gen hardware still deep in development, Donkey Kong Country kept Nintendo in the game on the home front, while Killer Instinct's arcade presence hinted (perhaps a little optimistically) at the 3D future to come.

Rare's efforts were pivotal releases for 1994 (a SNES port of Killer Instinct would arrive a year later) but it's the firm's revolutionary approach to 16-bit visuals that is best remembered today - but to be fair to the developers, it wasn't just the SGI method that made these games look so special, and our story also includes analysis of the other techniques Rare used to make their software so visually distinctive.

And it's the software - the smart programming - that really was the key here. Throughout the lifecycle of the SNES, it was commonplace for cartridges to be fitted with custom hardware to boost the capabilities of the system, but Rare's results were achieved entirely with just the base system hardware, with no further custom processors. It's a solid technical foundation that served both Rare and Nintendo well, and it means that both titles could scale across Nintendo's range of consoles, with impressive results on various iterations of Game Boy hardware. And did you know that initial plans were made for Donkey Kong Country to arrive on Virtual Boy too? We've got that story too.

We're really proud of this episode of Digital Foundry Retro. It's the last offering we have for 2017 and it was a real labour of love putting it together - we hope you enjoy it.

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About the Author
John Linneman avatar

John Linneman

Senior Staff Writer, Digital Foundry

An American living in Germany, John has been gaming and collecting games since the late 80s. His keen eye for and obsession with high frame-rates have earned him the nickname "The Human FRAPS" in some circles. He’s also responsible for the creation of DF Retro.

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