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When that game was new, I couldn't believe my eyes. My eyes were the size of saucers. I thought it was literally a joke/scam/fake. I thought it was screenshots from the upcoming monster console "Ultra 64".

However, later, I realized that they had "simply" pre-generated normal, static sprites with powerful computers from 3D objects, which made them appear much more impressive than they really were.

Still, there are some lighting effects and stuff in the game which does impress me, which doesn't seem possible to fake like that. Also, SNES games in that era were beginning to use custom "FX" chips and possibly other custom hardware put into the cartridges themselves, to aid the already aging SNES.

My question is: Did Donkey Kong Country (the original game -- I don't care about the sequels whatsoever) use any kind of special hardware in the cartridges? Or was it literally just a standard ROM, clever coding/design and nothing else to it?

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The cartridges do not contain any special hardware for this. The specifics of the game is that it uses pre-rendered graphics to render each sprite using "footprints", so that it only needs to load each "sprite" once.

Donkey Kong Country is one of the first games for a mainstream home video game console to use pre-rendered 3D graphics, a technique used in the earlier 1993 Finnish game Stardust for the Amiga, and later in Rare's Killer Instinct, released the same year. [...] Rare developed a new compression technique that allowed them to incorporate more detail and animation for each sprite for a given memory footprint than had been previously achieved on the SNES, which better preserves the pre-rendered graphics. Both Nintendo and Rare call the technique for creating the game's graphics Advanced Computer Modelling (ACM).

Source.

The impressive part of this was not the huge jump from 16-bit 2D graphics to 3D environments, but actually the ability to reprogram the technology to run on a pre-existing system. This is what gave Rare its fame, becoming a second-party developer for Nintendo.

Following talks, Nintendo acquired 49% of Rare, which culminated in the production of a new title using Alias and SGI technology, and Rare became a second-party developer. The Stampers expressed interest in making a game based on Donkey Kong, for which Nintendo gave permission.

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  • If you are interested in the making of DKC, there is this old documentary about it. youtu.be/Rv_YCSbWP78
    – Fana
    Dec 6 '19 at 14:22
  • 1
    "memory footprint" just means how much memory something uses. the quote is saying that they compressed the sprites to take up less space.
    – Hiccup
    Dec 6 '19 at 15:21

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