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CREATED AUG.30.2003
UPDATED SEP.12.2003
CREDITS
TEXT WRITTEN BY
MARTIN NIELSEN
AND GREG HEDGER
CONGO: THE SECRET OF ZINJ
UNRELEASED, FORGOTTEN AND REDISCOVERED...
A couple of days ago I was doing some research on an unreleased NES game called Congo's Caper, for who knows what reason, well okay, I do. Anyway, when doing my searching I stumbled upon the page of a programmer who said he had been working on a Congo game for the Super Nintendo. Without much thinking I wrote him an email asking him if he had been involved in the making of Congo's Caper for the SNES, and maybe knew something about the NES title.

Well it turned out that it wasn't Congo's Caper he had been working on, but instead a game which went unreleased and was based on the movie called Congo. Now something unreleased is always interesting to hear about, so eventhough I'm mostly interested in NES games, I'm also running "The Archives" as a part of NES WORLD, where you're reading this, which covers everything but NES info. It would be a scoop for this section and hopefully the first of a few new articles to beat some info into this part of the site.

When looking through the forum at Digital Press ( check ) I stumbled upon a reply, to a list of unreleased SNES games, from someone who used to work at Viacom, back when they were reviewing the work of the Congo video game;

That list brought back some horrible memories. I almost forgot that a snes version of congo even existed. I worked over at viacom and actually got to play it some. The game sucked so bad that we cancelled it. So, I know for a fact that it was never released.

People still seemed interested in the game and started asking questions. Another reply went like this;

No protos, screen shots, or info on the game that I know of. All I can tell you about the game is that is was a pretty bad rip off of Donkey Kong Country. It was a side scroller where you controlled a poorly animated gorilla picking up diamonds instead of banana's.

So I now had the opportunity to uncover the game, and get the real story instead of just a "the game sucked". I replied to the programmers and showed my interest. We talked a little and while he didn't have the binary files anymore, he still had what probably is be the only existing Congo cartridge, or PCB rather.

A few mails later he agreed to let me borrow the cartridge and even offered to write an article about the development of Congo and his thoughts of why it wasn't released. So, get ready for a great story from behind the scenes of Congo the Movie - The Video Game.


THE STORY BEHIND CONGO

The following account is one programmer’s attempt to provide a brief narrative of the project that culminated in the completion and subsequent cancellation of Congo for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and the Sega Genesis, a.KO.a. MegaDrive. It took a small team of dedicated and determined folks to produce this game, which was completed in August, 1995, but never released. It is our hope that, after playing it, you will agree that it should have been.

The Congo you see here was written in approximately five months time.

EARLY BRAINSTORMING

In June 1994, Viacom NewMedia approached _____________ with a proposal to write a game themed after their upcoming blockbuster hit Congo: The Movie. After working out the details, _______ signed the contract and we immediately began the creative process whose final product would become the focal point of our lives for the next fourteen months.

Visual Concepts assigned ___________, who had been with the company for a year and had his last project cancelled due to the client’s bankruptcy, as the SNES programmer and hired _______, a 68000 programmer with some experience to take the lead programming role on the Sega Genesis platform. Three artists were assigned and _______ took up the role of project manager.

Out of the early brainstorming process came inspiration from the game Jurassic Park and Zombies Ate My Neighbors, with their isometric view and enemies coming from many directions.

Essentially, the early game play involved Monroe moving freely on the playfield while avoiding hostile wildlife. Technologically, we wanted to strive for as much physical accuracy as our respective platforms would allow. To that end, we incorporated polar movement deltas, based on angle and distance - dx = sin(q); dy = cos(q) - rather than its XY Cartesian counterparts; this ensured that the player moved at the same speed on the diagonals as on an axis. Also, turning the character 180 degrees resulted in his sprite actually turning around quickly, never simply “popping”. The SNES programmer even pushed for a variegated playfield height plane, with hills and valleys, though the final consensus was to follow the more conventional lead of these other games and use a flat playfield due to unknown difficulties such a playfield would introduce for the artists. We developed zebra, hyena, and other game objects and developed an AI scripting system based on macros whereby scripts could be written once and then shared in both the SNES and Genesis code bases. The end result: a very high-quality game engine, complete with all the “fluff” - dust at Monroe’s feet on dusty ground, white bang stars and quick sub-second frame-freezing for impact emphasis (as seen in many fight games), screen shakes, and one very major problem.

Behind the scenes dissention had crept into the ranks of the project leadership. The project manager wondered about gameplay - we didn’t want to just have the player wandering around mindlessly batting hyenas with a machete. On December 11th, 1994, our boss told ______ and I that Viacom representatives would be visiting the next day to check our progress, and that this was do-or-die for the project. We stayed up all night doing tweaks, bug fixes, and more “fluff”.

Our efforts paid off; the dog-and-pony show worked. And so did we, all through Christmas, New Year’s, January, and February. The SNES programmer began work on the first boss, a swamp snake, represented on the SNES with a long sequence of round 16x16 sprites closely tied together and moved using mathematical formulas for a smooth, natural (i.e. not mechanical) animation. It was an interesting idea, but very difficult to implement.

In the meantime, the gameplay issue had still not been addressed, and Viacom was beginning to wonder about the viability of the project in light of its August 1995 deadline. Some drastic changes were in order on our end; this was “it”.

THE REORGANIZATION: DO OR DIE

Change happened, and took the form of some key personnel changes and a radical shift in the project’s direction. The project manager was taken off the project and replaced with ________, a talented artist and aspiring project leader. An additional Genesis programmer was hired, ____________, a non-nonsense fellow from England with many years of experience. He was declared the Genesis lead and his get-it-done utilitarian style set both the pace and the tone for the remainder of the project.

With just five months remaining, the decision was made to scrap the entire engine, start fresh, and crash through a breakneck schedule, follow a conservative cut-and-dry plan that was guaranteed to deliver the wanting gameplay, and put something on the store shelves. The way we stored playfield data, the manner in which tiles corresponded to collision actions, the type of object collision, and even the size of the tiles reflected a thorough departure from the first engine. In short, whereas we had one elaborate engine in the first Congo, with complex AI, task systems (yes, we had a cooperative Tasker on the SNES), playfield managers, object-to-object communications, and the like, the second Congo would have five very simple engines, each offering a rather limited set of player actions and thereby enabling us to force the gameplay. It took a most literal form: Every level in the new Congo employs either a forced scroll or forced forward motion. There would be no free wandering and exploration ala Zelda, just nonstop, intense action.

The three programmers worked closely together and made the decision to give up their individual offices and move to a single large one. We worked collaboratively to divide tasks and made sure that whatever one platform’s programmer came up with could be quickly and painlessly ported to the other. Every day was a long day. Some started at 6:00 in the morning; others at 2:00 in the afternoon. We lost all sense of time except for the schedule and generally went home only to sleep. Desperation and determination drove us onward.

A NEW BEGINNING

In about two month’s time, we completed the River Ride level. To demonstrate proof of our mutual cooperation, we disabled our “death” subroutines and ran the Genesis and SNES versions simultaneously and side-by-side. We did not touch the controllers but let the currents of the river push the boat as far as it could go. The SNES, with its venerable WDC 65SC816 processor and the Genesis with its zippy 68000 both landed the raft in exactly the same position. This demonstration revealed the collaborative aspect of our team that would become key to the project’s survival; we simply lacked the time to write anything twice, so whatever was written on the SNES was ported straight over to the Genesis without modification, and vice versa.

Shortly after its completion, E3 rolled around. We stayed awake for 44 hours straight to put together a presentable non-playable demo of the river ride level in Congo, get on the plane to Los Angeles, get to our rooms, and finally to the show. Viacom ran the SNES demo on Day 1, and the Genesis one on the last two days. Public feedback was positive.

For the first time in the project since its inception ten months earlier, and knowing it was still in jeopardy, we began to become excited, and yes, even proud of our work. ___________, the new project manager, spent countless hours building and playing the levels, and working closely with the programmers to tweak the physics, player control, and animation. He helped coordinate the aforementioned cooperation.

The SNES programmer had been able to salvage much of his earlier work from the original Congo engine - the Task Manager, the Object System framework, and parts of the Playfield Manager, as well as some general screen special effects including color fading, transitions, and a proportional font-printing engine. The water effects in the River Ride levels reflect some of this earlier work and combine column-shifting with H-DMA to produce a pleasing ripple effect.

It would take more than technological cunning to re-win the trust of Viacom NewMedia, however. While their visiting representatives expressed encouragement by our progress following the mid-project reformation, hearsay trickled down that some of the suits there thought the project was already in the toilet and could not be salvaged. This only girded our determination. In some of us, it produced anger, not outright rage, but the anger of being slighted, the feeling one gets from an arrogant “professional” who, in his pea-sized brain, focuses his tunnel vision on one particular criteria and bases all judgment on it.

We were decided, programmers, artists, and project manager alike: We would not deliver merely the bare minimum in five months time, as Viacom expected. We would deliver a product that would fall into the upper tiers among SNES and Genesis games, one with the polish and finesse in its visual appeal and overall feel that one would expect from the product of a full one-year effort. And we would do this not in twelve months, but in five.

The artists cranked out boatloads of drawn, digitized, and rendered art - gray gorillas, Amy, Monroe, playfields, bullets. The programmers forged ahead, completing the Mudslide Levels, Platform Run, and the Escape from Zinj.

The Platform Run was our internal name for the third set of non-shooting playfield-based levels. We had originally come up with the idea to have Karen riding a rickety platform with wheels - an ancient cart turned skateboard. The SNES programmer came up with the physics for this level, and the platform would slow down going up slopes and accelerate downward. When the player hit the jump button, Karen had to land on the platform when she came down, adding to the game play. However, the marketing geniuses at Viacom decided that the Platform was too inappropriate, not enough like the movie. With no room for schedule slippage, we were forced to keep the original physics engine designed for Karen riding the cart (Karen ala cart?) but remove the latter and have Karen simply running through the level. We quickly gave Karen a whip to make up for the lost gameplay and added “whip points”. This last-minute, ad-hoc change due to the shortsightedness of our client compromised what could have been the most fun and appealing level of the game, in this writer’s opinion. But, “the customer’s always right”. To be fair, these levels do have a certain appeal. They require the best timing, as the player uses only the jump button. Moreover, the whip, when latched to a pole, can be held for a variable length of time, allowing the player to determine the direction of Karen’s swinging release.

The other case in which the client made a truly bad decision came in July as we were completing the final level, Escape from Zinj. This level is the only one in the game that employs a truly forced screen scroll, separate from the character’s (Amy’s) own movement. The programmers worked feverishly to produce the closest thing to a truly 3D level the game had to offer (perhaps aside from the shooting levels). Escape from Zinj used height (Z) independently of vertical movement (Y). We were especially pleased with the results of this level and had entered the tweaking and bugfixing stage when suddenly, Wham! Out of nowhere, they come back with a demand to see a “wave” of lava following Amy. Making such an implementation look good in the available timeframe evoked visions of a twisted metaphor of Houdini’s last struggle. Moreover, the 3-D nature of the level meant that we would need to perform something similar to the water-level changes in some of the dungeons in Zelda: A Link to the Past. One important difference: In Zelda, the character does not go behind vertical walls or pillars in those rooms, at the point where the liquid meets the walls. This is due to the way Zelda utilized the SNES’s background planes to achieve the filling effect. Our engine was not designed like Zelda’s - ours was a continuous scrolling buffer, not a series of small rooms that could be tailored individually for each room’s special effects. To solve this problem we stuck an oblong lava-edge sprite at the trailing edge of the scroll buffer, and popped it to the new trailing edge when the forced scroll changed direction. It was our hope that the player would pay very little attention to this wave. Despite this, there is plenty of action in these final Escape from Zinj levels, and I do believe the game will keep the player far too occupied with staying alive to notice the lava. These levels are probably the best Congo has to offer for their combination of game play and visual appeal and are my personal favorites, though the River Ride may beat it on the last point taken alone.

FINAL TWEAKS IN THE FINAL WEEKS

An external contractor delivered all of the sounds and the sound driver with but a couple of months remaining in the schedule. The SNES driver lacked the ability to “force” a sound, hence the cutting out of machine gun fire. Nevertheless, it did offer the ability to specify left and right volume, and of this the SNES programmer, following the general initiative to far exceed expectations for a five-month product, took full advantage. He utilized the capability to provide stereo distance muting (far-off sounds are softer, and play relative to their position respecting the character on the screen).

Smoke effects were added to the Escape from Zinj, again, not a requirement but a determination to show our skeptical client what we could do. Rain and splashes in the mudslide level, a pulsating background in the Platform Ride, absolutely beautiful artwork in the final shooting level, and wonderfully smooth rendered frames of Amy the Gorilla in the Mudslide and Escape levels all bespoke a satisfaction we took in our work and its quality. We wanted to be able to say we were proud to have our names on this product.

During the final two weeks, we were exhausted. Viacom had begun to QC the product in preparation for Nintendo’s and Sega’s more rigorous testing processes. They came back with fewer and fewer bugs. August 7, Final Day, rolled around. The customer expected the binary uploaded to their server by Midnight. That evening, my boss asked me if I needed anything from him. I told him I was fine. He confided to me that he thought Congo was in the top 20% of games out there quality-wise. Most of those games had a year or more of development time; ours had five months. I performed a few last-minute, minor changes, added the signature bytes, and created a build, which we then uploaded. We were done, just waiting for their QC process.

And waiting… And waiting yet more.... Another day passed, and on the second day after the upload, we got a call saying their QC had found a bug and that we would not get our bonus. The bug was a shift in palette colors that happened if the user moved from the title screen to the game menu, back to the title screen, and back to the game menu. It was a legitimate bug, a bug they may have, in fact, caught earlier and not informed us, knowing they could take our bonus in this way… This is only a theory.

However, despite this, Congo was finished, on time and on budget, and the team felt absolutely great.

Most left for much needed two-week vacations after that. They returned to find that Viacom, acting on data in the film industry reflecting poorly on the movie Congo, had cancelled the project.

The foundations of our beings shook. We had just been told that immeasurable labor, passion, sacrifice, and stress, in short, fourteen months of our lives had been wasted. For some of us, this was the most devastating day in our careers.

It was not completely wasted, however… The Congo you see here was written in five months time and is one of many untold stories of cancelled projects. It is perhaps unique in that cancellation followed project completion. The suits and big shots working for the Client, who said the project was “in the toilet”, may as well have said the very same about our lives. They didn’t skip Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and every other major holidays to produce something great. They saw the game as a mere petty side-show to the movie, a promotion. For us, it was our lives, and we poured our heart and soul into it.

Will I get sued for releasing this game? It doesn’t really matter anymore. I would probably still be making video games were it not for this last, decisive, and mortal blow to my career as a video games programmer.

I do know this… The work we poured into this will no longer be hidden in a closet. Whether the game “sucked hard” as one former Viacom employee so eruditely put it, or is a playable, action-packed and fun adventure completed in five months I will leave to you to decide, based not on hearsay, but on your own experience and judgment.


I've now had the chance to play the game and I can only say, man that guy who said it was crap was completely wrong, he probably never even played the game but heard it from someone, who heard it from someone else, who never even played the game either. The game is no new Zelda, Super Mario or Donkey Kong, but is still in the better end of the SNES game range.

The game has a funny little feature. When the titlescreen has been on for about 10 seconds, the game will restart and the next time titlescreen appears, the colors have changed. The game is not just a side-scrolling DKC clone. The first couple of levels takes place on the Congo river. There's a platform level, side scrolling, one top down, clearly showing that the game had a lot more to offer than what the former Viacom employee claimed.

I have my own theory why the game was canned. The graphics and everything about the game is great, except one little detail, which may not be that little at all. The control of the game is very hard, atleast for an unexperienced gamer, which may be one of the reasons why Viacom decided not to go for it. But after a lot of practice you get used to it and the game shows you why it deserved to be released, because of it's very different stages. Did I forget to mention that it was completed in just 5 months? :)

The game's option menu has a music and sound test along with a password option. I managed to get a few passwords from the programmer aswell.

AMY'S MUDSLIDE LEVEL:
eye-moon-star-star

2ND GREY LEVEL
eye-eye-star-moon

KAREN PLATFORM LEVEL
star-sun-moon-eye

FINAL SHOOTING LEVEL
eye-star-eye-sun

ESCAPE FROM ZINJ
sun-moon-sun-eye

A cheat code also exist, according to the programmer. To get 30 lives, backwards lives display, sparkly death in river level you should do the following. On the titlescreen press Left, Right, X, Left, Right, X. I've tried the code but didn't seem to work either way.

ADITIONAL
PICTURES