Donkey Kong County
The environmental sentimentality of Rare Ltd.
Donkey Kong’s titular country, a tropical island flatteringly shaped like his own lunkish monkey head, is a utopia. Its door-crashing jungles have glistening green palms, outstretched strelitziaceae and a sun paused on twilight. Its endless blue reefs are soothed by an eerie lullaby. Its towering forests have trees so dense and so long you cannot see roots nor canopy. Its clean crystal caves have huge icy stalactites, the kind tourists would wait half a day in line to gawk over.
These are the landscapes inside the second-best selling Super Nintendo cartridge, and on the first console with pre-rendered 3D animation. Kids got to spend hours in this blossoming overbrush.
And then grimy something happens.
The fifth world in Donkey Kong Country is Kremkroc Industries, Inc. In contrast to buoyantly named levels like ‘Forest Frenzy’ and ‘Bouncy Bonanza,’ Kremkroc boasts ‘Oil Drum Alley’ and ‘Poison Pond.’ Its overworld map has no trees. Just sludge-tinted cliffs, a pool of stagnant water and two facilities pumping smog into the empty, sallow sky.
The Kremkroc levels are dark and frantic. The first stage is on a factory floor with dangling chains in the foreground, dull industrial lamp lighting and snaking pipes in the back. It’s the first time the game gives no evidence of a natural world.
It makes perfect sense then that Rare, a company founded in the bell-making, steel-smelting home of Leicestershire, would present a juxtaposition between their natural and manufactured worlds. Their country is a constant reminder of that parallel and Rare’s creations are influenced by jig-sawed surroundings. A mirror of the endless greens against aging rust seen on the drive to work.
“We look to capture the basic elements and emotions that different types of environment naturally provide and then amplify and exaggerate them,” says Gregg Mayles, long time Rare employee and creative director and designer on Donkey Kong Country and Banjo-Kazooie. “We want players to feel free and joyful when in open, brightly lit outdoor environments — but then more confined and apprehensive when in underground or industrialized areas.”
That breadth of feeling and style betrays the American expectation of dreary, rain-drenched pastures or smoke-clogged cityscapes. Think Slough from the UK version of The Office. “The UK has quite diverse areas in very close proximity,” says Mayles. “You could be driving through a manufactured or built up area and then suddenly be in the middle of the countryside.”
Rare founders Tim and Chris Stamper were not luddites, but they were fond of their endless countryside. They built their original studio in the former 19th century resort town Ashby-de-la-Zouch and then into Twycross, only notable for possessing the oldest stained glass window in England. Banjo-Kazooie composer Grant Kirkhope described that studio as being “in the middle of nowhere,” only to be pushed a mile further down the road into a custom complex, surrounded only by fields.
Clear skies and rolling hills make for fantastical vantages that most nations see only on postcards. But there is a smoggy side. England is also the birthplace of industrialization, the aggressive, effective manufacturing revolution that has defined the modern age, all the while taking its unending and irreversible toll on the environment.
The foggy, metropolitan hubs of the UK, London and Manchester, serve to many as sprawling, crowded, gloomy reminders of what human occupation looks like. London, as Dickens described in Oliver Twist, is full of “foul and frowsy dens, where vice is closely packed and lacks the room to turn… Where are the attractions of these things?”
It’s a contrast that has defined many British works since the Industrial Revolution: The grandeur of the country in Edward Elgar’s compositions to the rolling moors for Emily Brontë. Dickens’ dingy, urban dwellers or even Terry Pratchett’s clanking metropoli. And, in a strange, virtual instance, the worlds designed by Rare Ltd.
“Much of this industrial legacy is now gone, but you can still see some interesting abandoned factories that are slowly being reclaimed by nature,” says Mayles. “I think they have a certain charm… I am fascinated by the enormous variety of different environments that exist in the world and enjoy translating these into the games I make.”
Donkey Kong is not the only wild animal in the Rare family. Banjo-Kazooie was a world full of jagged parallels. Spiral Mountain and Click Clock Wood are environments of forested beauty and strange natural wonders. The snowy Freezeezy Peak is nauseatingly nostalgic for evening yuletide. Meanwhile, Rusty Bucket Bay and Clanker’s Cavern are flooded with soiled liquids, chemical stains and flat brass musical numbers.
The same sentiment lingers in Conker’s Bad Fur Day and Viva Piñata, where grass is green and metals come pre-rusted. 2005’s Kameo: Elements of Power is literal of this, centering on a clash between heroic, nature worshiping elves and machine obsessed trolls.
“The highly varied British climate creates a very green land, celebrated in our classical music and poetry,” says Mayles. “I think we secretly appreciate the diversity of our climate and the effect this has on nature, even if we moan that it’s too cold and too wet for much of the year.”
(Republished from Kill Screen)