Donkey Kong Cymru: The Extremely Brief History Of Welshness In Nintendo Games

A Unique Journey through Welsh Representation in Nintendo Games

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Introduction: Wales Eclipsed in the Gaming World

It’s a uniquely Welsh experience. I’ve never been Scottish, or Irish, or Latvian, but those that have inform me when you tell someone where you’re from, the response typically isn’t “What’s that?”. For the Welsh, that basic icebreaker question from anyone outside the UK usually prompts a deep breath and, regardless of whether you’ve got the time, a brief structured lesson on geography, history, and the world’s coolest flags. Wales, to most of the world, is a silent enigma. A country without footprint. As a Welsh person, I don’t expect representation. I was 14 the first time I felt Wales reflected in a video game. The second, I was 26. To say the medium hasn’t exactly been kind to Cymru is an understatement.

The Hiraeth of Sentinels of the Senghenydd Sky

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In 1984, a young designer by the name of Takashi Tezuka was tasked with devising the story and setting for a new game. An exploration epic inspired by his colleague’s childhood obsession with adventuring through the caves around Kyoto, Tezuka decided to delve into his own childhood. It was on the way out of mine, however, that I first noticed Wales in a game on a Nintendo system. Summer of 2010, and a slew of puns in the localisation had convinced me to try Square Enix’s Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies on DS. Sat in my aunt’s spare room, gaudy painting of the 1997 Glamorgan Cricket team on the wall, I arrived at a town called Porth Llaffan.

Kiki’s Denbigh Service

Yet only a mile or two from where I would one day slay that beast and in the same month Tezuka was defining another adventure, another Japanese creative was on one of his own. An animator who had just completed his first film as director, Hayao Miyazaki had arrived in Wales in search of inspiration. Weeks were spent trekking the beautiful Rhonda valley, taking it in, meeting with people, and possibly visiting my aunt. However, it was once he reached Rhymney Valley, my family’s home back generations, that he found the inspiration he had come for.

Miyazaki witnessed the Miner’s Strike firsthand. Maybe the defining act in modern Welsh history, the working folk of Wales and beyond stood up to Margret Thatcher’s government, and it desperately moved Miyazaki. The spirit he saw in the Welsh made the kind of stories he wanted to tell feel obvious. The warmth, the optimism, all in the face of extraordinary hardships. This trip served as the primary inspiration for his next film, 1986’s Castle in the Sky, an idea entirely devised whilst in Wales, and the first film produced by the newly-founded Studio Ghibli.

What’s the Nintendo link?

It’s indirect, but Castle in the Sky would go on to directly inspire the airship levels in Super Mario Bros. 3, whilst Miyazaki’s later work would become a key reference point for Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and perhaps Nintendo’s most outwardly Welsh franchise, Xenoblade Chronicles.

The girl with the Gelligaer

I’d never played a Xenoblade game when the third installment closed February 2022’s Nintendo Direct. And then, a brief burst of Aimee-Ffion Edwards’ vocals was enough to make me sit up. I’d never seen a game with a Welsh lead before. It was almost overwhelming, and enough to make me buy Xenoblade Chronicles 3. Whilst Mio might not be explicitly written as Welsh, there is a familiar tragedy to her story. A deep passion and love for where she’s from, the family she’s known and made, yet a knowledge those feelings were forged through a foot on the throat. No matter how far she gets away, she’s always looking back from where she came. The game continues to throw out nods. I genuinely cheered out loud when I arrived at Llyn Nyddwr. ‘Llyn Nadwyr’ in real-world Welsh translates to ‘Spinner Lake’.

A Lampeter Between Worlds

Tezuka, still searching for a story all those years ago, decided to lean into the overseas fantasy he loved as a child. He went back to the writing of JRR Tolkien, a Welsh speaker who built worlds out of Celtic folklore. Many of the journeys detailed in the books Tezuka grew up reading were inspired by Tolkien’s own Miyazaki-style treks through West Wales (and Ireland, but let’s not let the truth intrude upon a clean narrative). Tezuka began to read up on European folklore, history, and myth, yet through sheer coincidence, many of the stories he pulled came from one place.

The Legacy of Welsh Influence in The Legend of Zelda

These wide-reaching, yet coincidentally sourced references came together. Filtered through Japanese sensibilities and the utter wonder Miyamoto had felt exploring as a child, this became the game we now know as The Legend of Zelda. There’s a word in Welsh that doesn’t exist in any other language: “Hiraeth”. A mournful,…