In a GDC panel presentation today, Donkey Kong Country Returns producer Kensuke Tanabe said the project's journey from Japan's Nintendo Co Ltd. (NCL) to Austin-based Retro Studios started long before actual development commenced in April 2008.
Tanabe recalled that Retro president and CEO Michael Kelbaugh first expressed his interest in making a new Donkey Kong Country game way back in April 2004. “But unfortunately, the feeling at Nintendo was that we wanted to depend on them to make games we couldn't do at NCL, and we had you guys move on to Metroid Prime 3 at the time,” he said.
It wasn't until four years later, when legendary Nintendo Designer Shigeru Miyamoto also told Tanabe he was interested in a new Donkey Kong Country game, that Tanabe remembered Retro's interest. Luckily, Retro was ready for the project, since the recent departue of a number of employees had left them with a lot of experimental projects that were suddenly next to useless.
“If those members hadn't left when they did, and those experiments had been allowed to move on, there's a chance Donkey Kong Country Returns would not have gone to Retro, so it's a kind of fate,” Tanabe said.
Moving directly from development of four straight Metroid Prime games to the fun and whimsical world of Donkey Kong Country Returns was a bit of a challenge, though. Lead Artist Ryan Powell recalled looking at one level six months in to development and saying, “Man that tree looks like it belongs in Metroid.” The team had to learn how to handle things like two-player camera work and character interesection in a 2D environment, as well.
There were many nice things about moving from Metroid to Donkey Kong Country, though, such as not having to worry about embedding a deep story into the game via thousands of lines of text. “It's just a story of a big ape, wearing a tie, trying to get his bananas back,” said senior director of development Brian Walker. “Just keep it pure and simple.”
Two days of intensive meetings with Miyamoto were helpful in capturing the feeling of the original game, but also highlighted the high expectations being placed on the project. “Donkey Kong was his baby, so we'd better get it right,” Kelbaugh recalled thinking. “No pressure!”
Kelbaugh also remembered subtle pressure from Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, in the form of a simple note that read, “I am looking forward to playing this product with my family and enjoying it.”
The changes Miyamoto suggested for the game could be as subtle as a slight alteration in the rhythm of Donkey Kong's ground pound, from being directly connected to the controller's shaking to a more staggered one-two pattern. “It's surprising to us just how that small detail changed the feel of the player package and made it feel better for it,” said Senior Software Engineer Aaron Walker.
Donkey Kong's new blowing move was also a direct result of Miyamoto's input, an idea he came up with when he was transfixed by placeholder dust-clouds kicked up when Donkey Kong screeched to a halt. At Retro, “the general response [to the idea] was 'What the hell?'” Kelbaugh said, but the team agreed that the feature worked out in the end.
In implementing the game's multiplayer feature, however, Tanabe said he actually had to go against Miyamoto, who suggested a focus on a single-player experience. Tanabe said he really pushed for the feature because he wanted something to set the game apart from the similar Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat, and that he was inspired by the four-player gameplay in New Super Mario Bros. Wii.
In coordinating work between NCL in Japan and Retro in Austin, Texas, “an ounce of prototype is worth a pound of documents,” Walker said. Simply having a quick, playable prototype to show an idea was much more efficient than waiting for a design document to be translated, he said.
Retro technical artist Chris Voelmann also suggested that developers put in extra time up front to allow for easy changes later on. He recalled taking “what felt like years” implementing a tidal wave function in such a flexible way, which paid off later when Tanabe suggested a change that let the tidal waves destroy certain barriers.