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Turning Nintendo: The Donkey Kong Country Returns Interview
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Turning Nintendo: The Donkey Kong Country Returns Interview

May 30, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[What does it take to become a Nintendo studio, and to make a Nintendo game? Producer Kensuke Tanabe, who works at the company's Kyoto HQ, and Retro Studios president and CEO Michael Kelbaugh discuss the mentality that has enabled the studio to deliver great first party games.]

Making a Nintendo game isn't easy, and it's not a skill most developers in the West are steeped in. There's a specific mentality the company engenders, a philosophy and way of working that it maintains. In this interview, Gamasutra tries to get to the root of that by discussing the development of Donkey Kong Country Returns with Nintendo EAD producer Kensuke Tanabe and Michael Kelbaugh, president and CEO of Retro Studios.

Tanabe has worked with Retro since the Metroid Prime days, and has been responsible for ensuring that the developer's games maintain both the publisher's and the series' signature feel. Both the Metroid Prime games and DKCR are beloved by the series' fan bases, so clearly, the process has worked.

The two also discuss making games accessible to children without making them insulting -- preserving a sense of discovery and challenge while maintaining depth that makes them enjoyable to adults as well, something else Nintendo excels at.

What do you find the most important notes to hit when reviving a franchise, or revisiting one?

Kensuke Tanabe: Well you know, the first thing you've got to look at is the what comprised the heart of the gameplay in the original, or the other titles in the series, and make sure that that comes across in the new game as well.

For example, you look at a game like Metroid Prime, which was in first person, unlike the previous games in the Metroid series. But despite being in the first person perspective, you still had those core elements of gameplay that made a Metroid, Metroid. You had searching these environments. Those kind of gameplay bits that really comprise the heart of what the game is need to be in there, and they were.

So for example, when it comes to the Donkey Kong Country series, I think a lot of fans remember the graphics of the original very fondly and so, while we're not doing exactly the same thing, the idea is still to meet the expectations, or perhaps exceed them, graphically, to give a lot of impact to the visuals.

And additionally you know I think a lot of people have very fond memories of the background music in Donkey Kong Country, so actually those melodies have made it over intact into Donkey Kong Country Returns.

So it's really about looking at what aspects of the franchise stand as representative elements -- the things that really stand out to people -- looking at those and making sure that they remain intact in the newest iteration of the franchise.

Today has been interesting, because prior to talking to you, I talked to Iwatani-san who did Pac-Man, and in his case they took the important elements of the franchise and then just drilled down into them, and isolated them from each other, to make a different experience.

It's a similar conceptual approach, but in this case Donkey Kong Country Returns is continuing along the same lines, whereas Pac-Man Championship Edition takes the existing Pac-Man maze game and hones it, and focuses even player interactions with it.

KT: Exactly like you're saying. You know blow it out, or drill down.

And how do you identify those points that you think should be blown out?

KT: We call them "memorable moments." It's the kind of process that really relates to your memories of the game, you know? If I was to ask you on the spot, "What was Donkey Kong Country 1?", you're probably going to see a trend if you ask several people. "I remember this about it," "I remember this about it," "I remember this about it." Those elements sort of naturally sort themselves, and you can see what people felt impacted by when playing the game.

Can you talk about those memorable moments?

KT: Sure, sure. I'll give you a play-by-play. One of our goals from the beginning was to create these memorable moments. They didn't have to be significant as related to the gameplay, but they needed to be diverse. For example, the octopus [in the level background] -- the first time you see the octopus you go, "Wow that's cool," and then as you progress through the level you actually interact with him.

One of the very first elements is the big ship carrying all the bananas away. When I first saw that I said, "Wow that's really, really cool." As grand as that is, that's a memorable moment from the first time you see it.

So the goal is to try to create, at some level, a memorable moment in every level. You want to surprise the player. You want them to go, "Oh wow, that was cool! I wasn't expecting that." So we tried to from varying techniques to offer that as much as we could in the game.

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Kamruz Moslemi
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Whatever Japanese magic Nintendo casts on their western studios when holding their reins it is a very potent and very necessary incantation. Looking at the track record of western studios who previously were doing great things under Nintendo's spell and how they fared once they broke loose to work on their own really hammers home the importance of their influence.

Jacob Pederson
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As much as I LOVED Donkey Kong Country Returns, I don't think the coop mechanic worked very well in the parent/child sense. Donkey's purposely handicapped play (no double jump), means that the younger player should be Diddy, right? However, there are so many points in the game, where a mistake by one player can kill the other; so Diddy makes a timing mistake, killing Donkey, but is able to save himself with his ROCKET PACK. What do we have now? Diddy faces certain doom by himself . . . neither the parent nor the child has any fun and we quickly loose interest.

Playing coop with another skilled player is a much better experience, but the nagging gap is still there, why can't Donkey double jump?

Russell Carroll
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Totally agree.

As someone who has more than 50 retail Wii games (more than half are by Nintendo themselves) the fact that I don't have this game in my library I think is pretty telling. I borrowed it from a friend and found the multiplayer with my kids was more frustration than fun (the same kids I played through NSMB + most of Zelda Four Swords with).

I'm planning on renting the game the next time my brother is in town though to see if we have more fun with it (though I think not having the ability to double-jump and the overall difficulty will still make me pass on it a second time).

I'm glad it has done well for Nintendo/Retro and it certainly is fantastic looking and imaginative, just not my cup of tea so far. Clearly there are others for who it is perfect :).

Ben Droste
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I played it through both in single-player and in co-op, and single-player was certainly much easier for the reasons you mentioned.

It felt like co-op was a late addition, worked in after a lot of the levels had already been designed. There are a lot of platforming moments that require to you quickly jump from one collapsing platform to another, which usually means one character gets ahead and the other is left to die. Or small platforms that only realistically fit one character at a time (even if they don't collide they are easy to lose track of when they share the same space).

Playing through New Super Mario bros Wii at the same time (that at my friend's house and DKCR at mine) in two-player co-op proved a good way to contrast the two games, and Mario clearly comes out on top.

Some key differences include:

- mario is very generous with extra lives, while DKC is rather tight. This means in hectic multiplayer situations mario is a lot more forgiving and allows the player to focus on enjoying the action rather than fearing the ever looming game over screen. When someone died in mario our top priority was to get them back in the game, where as in DKC we always found ourselves assessing our lives counter first to judge if it was worth waiting until the next DK barrel or not. Not so fun for the player that has to wait.

- Mario allows the player to 'bubble' at any time and save themselves from death, while DKC takes only half this mechanic (the ability to return in a bubble(barrel) after death). Even if this made the game easier, it also made it far more enjoyable. Getting left behind in a fast section, or falling into a pit because the platform was too small to fit both of you was no longer a cause for frustration.

- the generous lives and the bubble feature also made the game far more enjoyable for another reason: it encouraged players to have fun with the system. Friendly griefing (deliberately knocking your team mate of the edge and seeing if they bubble in time), attempting crazy jumps, or jumping to you death to collect a pickup then bubbling away, are examples of fun gameplay that was only possible in mario's co-op - and provided a great many laughs when they went wrong (something that would be far less funny with limited lives to throw away in the name of fun).

It seemed to me that New Super Mario Bros. was about the joy of multiple people playing together, while DKC was about trying to have two people play a challenging singleplayer game at the same time, and it often didn't work.

Although I did enjoy it very much as a singleplayer game :)

Samuel Batista
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I wish they had elaborated more on what it means to be a Nintendo developer. How the development process differs from traditional developers, both independent and owned by other publishers. I find it particularly interesting because most development studios have a core strength that they exploit for their success. Nintendo, and Retro as well, manage to flourish with all kinds of genres and themes, I wonder what allows them to explore new and interesting possibilities and still maintain an incredibly high level of quality in their titles.

Ron Dippold
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This is alluded to in the last answer, but he diplomatically skips over what a disaster early versions of Metroid Prime were, how Retro cancelled all other games in order to produce one decent game, and how they worked almost a year of 80 hour weeks to get that single game in good shape out with constant stick/carrot from Nintendo.

That reads as negative, but I don't intend it to disparage Retro, just as an example of just /how hard/ it is to make a Nintendo game. Retro seems to have taken it to heart. Rare apparently gave it up long ago as too much work.

Kamruz Moslemi
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If Nintendo ever changes their ways the soul of gaming will die. They are to videogames what Apple is to consumer electronics.

Rafael Brown
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I do love the subtitle on the article from the main page, "How a Western studio was able to convey the classic Nintendo feel in DKCR". No knock to Retro, but the implication is that a western studio would have a hard time making a game in the classic SNES feel of DKC1-3 which were made by ... a western studio, Rare.

Dylan Woodbury
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Am still playing the game (on co op), and I really wish it came out before New Super Mario Bros Wii. Maybe the Mario team could have taken some good notes with regards to co-op for their game (the bumping into each other drove me INSANE - something I really would have thought would have become evident after playtesting...)

Cordero W
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There's Miyamoto, always giving his "suggestions" to whoever works under him. lol Which isn't bad.

My main problem with DCKR is, how they said, was aimed at children. I was a child when I played DKC 1 through 3, and I can see the resemblance, but aiming too much to children naturally made me feel like I was playing a game that was...for children. It disappoints me cause DKC is a franchise I don't want to see be boiled too childish for someone my age to enjoy (the 20s), meaning people who grew up with Nintendo are left out of the limb, much like a lot of Wii's library unfortunately.

My idea of a DKC for the target audience I'm in is a more appealing art style, a little less hand-holding, and a little more immersion (such as bringing back memorable enemies such as the kremlings, cause the tikis bored me to death). I liked the heart system, but I detested the co op. I hated it so much that I simply told my friend I want to play the game by myself cause co op is actually a handicap since it drains your life. They should re adapt the tag system that was used back in the old DKC. If a partner dies, there should be no life penalty. In addition, the "tag" system is a lot more friendly than the "wait for the other person to do this or do that", because to be honest, a side scroller platformer isn't the best medium to do this in due to the pace always changing. It works for beat em ups cause you have to defeat all the enemies before you can move on, but for platformers, it makes the gameplay feel too slow. But, as I said above, this game was aimed for children.

Anyway, aside from that, after I graduate from college, I would like to intern with Retro and hopefully join their team, as I would like to be involved in future projects of theirs. Sounds like they may become the next Rare. I just hope they find their niche and stick with it.

Kamruz Moslemi
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Retro has already long surpassed Rare as far as I am concerned. I also wish they never settle into a niche, that is a kiss of death for a developer working with Nintendo who is known for displaying immense flexibility.

Russell Carroll
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"...this game was aimed for children."

I always bristle when I see a comment like this. I'll take it your opinion and agree to disagree. As an aging gamer (apparently) in my late 30s I really adore the approach of games like DCKR (even if I found the game itself frustrating). The games of my teenage years, and the ones of today that follow that same approach of trying hard to be cool and "edgy" (CoD, GoW, and the like) are the ones that I find to be childish nowadays. I guess my perspective has changed over time, and certainly not just in regards to games. For example, I'm more interested in watching documentaries as I've aged and less interested in the latest action thriller (when I was younger it was certainly the other way around).

Perhaps it is just me getting old :).

Regardless, I am glad that there are games for different people and different age groups. I see Nintendo games, by and large, to be titles that my dad will play with my kids, and the ones that the older generation doesn't find offensive in multiple ways.

For me there is something to that fact that you could perhaps tie into a definition of maturity. I often think as people in their 80s as the most "mature" of all, and so what games interest them I tend to think of as being the real definition of "mature" content. Using that definition, Wii Sports might be the game most enjoyed by mature players in this generation :). That's just my thoughts and opinion on the topic though, and I'm good to disagree on the point ;).

Kamruz Moslemi
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If you ask Nintendo you will be told that they make games for people of all ages. This approach has always been at the core of their philosophy and the catalyst of their continued success.