The most important quality for a video game to have is for it to be fun.  But can it also be beautiful?

Maybe it’s just an effect of being from a generation raised with video games, but I think a good video game can be a work of art.  One of the video games that really impressed me the first time I played it (15 years ago!) was Donkey Kong Country for the Super Nintendo.

The game was made by a British company called Rare, and while it’s probably their most famous game, it’s far from the only game of theirs to make it onto my favorite games list thanks to its creativity.

In DKC, you play as Nintendo’s famous gorilla, Donkey Kong, and his chimp friend, Diddy, as they try to get Kong’s banana collection back from King K. Rool and his band of crocodile pirates.

Hey!  I didn’t say the story was a work of art!

The big innovation in this game came in its graphics.  All of the characters, enemies, and objects in Donkey Kong Country were initially rendered in 3-D on a computer before being converted to 2-D animations (called “sprites”) for the game.

The result was that the graphics looked much more detailed than would have been possible with the Super Nintendo alone.  (If I keep doing this list long enough, I’ll eventually get to some examples of what 3-D graphics generated by the Super Nintendo look like.  Donkey Kong Country went far beyond these limitations by creating the illusion of 3-D graphics.)

So the graphics were innovative for their time, but what I really enjoy about the game is the way that the graphics and the sound work together to create atmosphere. The levels in DKC take place in a wide variety of settings, including jungles, caves, ancient temples, evergreen forests, and factories.  Every setting has its own musical theme that gives it a certain mood.

My favorite is used in a mountain level where it gradually begins to snow more and more the further you go, until you’re in the middle of a blizzard:

The whole level makes for a neat artistic effect.   The music from that level is one of the tunes I think of when I watch the snow fall.

The game does some other subtle things to make the settings seem more immersive.  The various indicators so common to video games (like the banana counter) only appear on the screen for a moment and then disappear, leaving the screen without any clutter at all most of the time.  And many of the sound effects seem to be designed to blend with the music rather than clashing with it.

For example, the sound effect made by the clam enemies in the underwater levels almost sounds like it’s a percussion instrument playing along with the music:

Isn’t the underwater music relaxing?  The first time my brother played this level, he was distracted by the rich background and didn’t realize that the first fish in the level was an enemy, so he ended up swimming right into it!

But anyway, that’s why Donkey Kong Country is my 21st-favorite game!

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By the way, chances are good that if you are much younger than me, then you are thinking “What is he talking about?  The graphics and music in that game are terrible!”  I can only say that they were very impressive for their time.

There’s a character in Donkey Kong Country that pokes fun at video game nostalgia like mine.  Donkey Kong’s grandfather, Cranky, shows up in the game to give you hints about where to find secrets.  But not without ranting about how easy you have it these days with your fancy graphics and 3-D animation.  Cranky remembers the good old days of arcade gaming when games were actually hard, and you had to get by with 4 frames of animation!  So it was inevitable that one day even Donkey Kong Country would look dated, and I’d end up ranting just like Cranky.  🙂

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