Retro dissects Donkey Kong Country Returns

GDC 2011: American developer Retro Studios and Nintendo Japan producer Kensuke Tanabe reminisce about bringing the Kong back to his platforming roots.

Who was there: Retro's GDC talk, titled "Donkey Kong: Swinging Across Oceans," took the form of a panel session. It was chaired by Michael Kelbaugh, president and CEO of the Austin, Texas-based developer, while the panel consisted of Bryan Walker, senior director of development; Aaron Walker, senior engineer; Will Bate, lead animator; Chris Voelmann, technical artist; and Ryan Powell, art lead. It was rounded out by Kensuke Tanabe, Nintendo Co. Ltd. producer and vice president at Retro.

Once again, it was on like Donkey Kong.

What they talked about: The story of Donkey Kong Country Returns starts in 2004. Michael Kelbaugh told Kensuke Tanabe that he'd very much like to work on a Donkey Kong title. At the time, Retro was still hard at work on Nintendo's Metroid Prime franchise, but in 2008, Tanabe brought the discussion back to Retro to see if they were still keen. At the point, Retro had been quietly doing a lot of experiments, but a few key members left the company, and Retro was subsequently unable to pursue the experiments it had been working on. However, this allowed the company to start work on Donkey Kong Country Returns. "If those members hadn't left when they did, then there's a chance that Donkey Kong Country Returns wouldn't have been able to be made at Retro," said Tanabe. "If any of [the people who left] are out there, look what you missed," added Kelbaugh.

Once the team started work on the new Donkey Kong, it found it faced a totally new artistic goal over its previous games. "The words we used were 'fun' and 'whimsical'," said Ryan Powell. However, he said, "We'd been making Metroid for 10 years at that point." He claimed that during the design and prototype phase, they'd find that they were still employing old visual aesthetics. "People would say, 'Man, that tree looks like it belongs in Metroid,'" he claimed.

One of the most important moments in development, according to Bryan Walker, was when Retro traveled to Nintendo Japan to meet with Donkey Kong creator Shigeru Miyamoto--or to the "Jedi academy" to meet "Yoda," as he jokingly put it. "We spoke for hours on [the ground pound] feature," he said, claiming that the character's rhythmical pounding didn't feel quite right. "I remember Mr Miyamoto sitting there and playing with it. After a lot of experimentation, and [physically] pounding the table, it became an offset bo-boom, bo-boom. That process of playing with the features, figuring out how to make them fun--overall it improved the quality of the game."

This wasn't the only suggestion that the team took from its visit to Japan. "During an early demo to Mr Miyamoto, he was running left and right, watching how he skidded. He was really close to the monitor, looking at the animations, kicking up dust. He said, 'Looks like DK is blowing--it might be fun to make DK blow on things.' We agreed to give it a shot. The lights didn't instantly come on [back at Retro]--the initial response was 'what the hell.' It was a fun feature [though], and was in line with the fun, whimsical nature of the game."

One feature that wasn't envisaged by Miyamoto was multiplayer, but producer Kensuke Tanabe was very keen on the idea. "The whole multiplayer function was something I pushed for originally," he said. "I actually worked on the localisation of the original Donkey Kong games. You couldn't actually play in multiplayer, and that was something I wanted to see realised. Jungle Beat was also exclusively a one-player game. As you may recall, New Super Mario Bros. Wii had made four-player possible, and seeing that, I had to get multiplayer into Donkey Kong. The directive from Miyamoto was to focus on the single-player experience."

E3 2010 was the first showing for the game, and it was an exciting but nerve-racking time for Retro. "It was just an amazing experience to us, seeing other people playing our game," Kelbaugh explained. "When we got back, we were highly motivated. There was a real boost of development after E3--we were just on fire." Ryan Powell added, "Coming back from E3, it's one of my favourite times. It's fun, but scary. It was very motivating. We could finally see our product coming together. We had four levels. Now we only had to get the other 70 together." Kelbaugh added that he'd heard Nintendo's president was eager to play the game. "Iwata said [to the press], 'I am looking forward to playing this product with my family.' No pressure then."

The team also faced some hurdles during production, including the need to fall in line with Nintendo's development values. Tanabe explained: "Nintendo, at least in the beginning, doesn't focus on making [spec sheets]. Nintendo does things a little bit differently. The idea is to find this key idea to the game that is fun, make a prototype of that, and iterate on that again and again. I remember, this wasn't [Retro's] style at all. Now I think we've come to seeing eye-to-eye in terms of value in game development." Tanabe revealed that the recent Pilotwings Resort was also produced in the US with Minnesota-based development team Monster Games, which previously made Excite Truck for the Wii. "They, much like Retro, have come to understand Nintendo's design philosophy," he said.

Quote: When asked by a member of the audience what other classic Nintendo franchises Retro was interested in working on, members of the panel replied with answers such as: "Doki Doki Panic." "The joke around the office is Pokemon Prime." Kelbaugh added, "We've been looking at Tingle lately. That's a joke."

Takeaway: Donkey Kong Country Returns was a highly collaborative project between Nintendo Japan and Retro Studios in the US. The team had to adapt to making a fun and whimsical platformer after spending 10 years on a shooter franchise. Shigeru Miyamoto made plenty of important suggestions for core gameplay mechanics. And Kensuke Tanabe was insistent on adding multiplayer while bringing Retro in line with Nintendo's development ethos.

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Discussion

100 comments
TinyIota
TinyIota

Anyone have a feel for what "bringing Retro in line with Nintendo's development ethos" means? Retro was already developing for Nintendo. Why the difference now? What was their strategy/ethos before?

oollw
oollw

you are right fighting4air

nintendobleu
nintendobleu

i liked dkcr, but it felt it was missing something the previous dkc had. it didnt have that dark feel you got in the dkc games, this one felt a bit more childish and they should of aimed a bit towards the older audiences who played the old ones when they were out.

fighting4air
fighting4air

Why can't nintendo just make a new game? They don't understand that they have a fan base which does want something other than Mario and Donkey Kong and no crappy third party designers are delivering at all. And people that "thumbs down" this just like buying the same games for each of their generations of systems I guess. I just get tired of playing similar or exact replicas of previous games because they are the highest quality games the system has to offer.

cachinscythe
cachinscythe

@waZelda @mininudu I myself find DKC2 to be the best in the series as well, with DKC3 a close second. I don't think, however, that it's completely fair to compare them because they DO have different qualities to them. Like I said, I think the gameplay in DKCR is more refined as are the collection aspects, but the tone of the older games is nowhere to be found. I don't think something was missing If you were to ask ME what made the difference, I'd say it's a combination of the music (too kiddy in Returns), the enemies (look like Crash Bandicoot baddies in Returns as opposed to the more sinister designs of the Kremlings), the levels (factories, mines, mills, and claustrophobic coral reefs conveyed a more serious tone than endless jungle, cave, and ocean settings), and the sound effects.

Metroidimplant
Metroidimplant

gpuFX16 Team Ninja had Nothing to do with the story of Metroid Other M it was your good friends at Nintendo and Sakamoto who butchered Samus Aran's personalty, Team Ninja only worked on the Gameplay and graphics of Metroid Other M which by the way were done well in my eyes and I personally wouldn't mind if they made another game like Metroid Other M providing they fix all the flaws of the first and give Samus Aran her old personalty back. Don't blame Team Ninja for something that isn't there fault and Metroid Other M is stall a good game just a dissapointment by Metroid Standards.

mininudu
mininudu

@cachinscythe: I agree with your comment. Something was missing on DKCR. The music is a good example. DKC2 in my opinion still the best.

waZelda
waZelda

@cachynscythe: I also had a feeling like something was missing when I played it - and I hadn't even played an old DKC until playing Diddy's Quest a month before DKCR, so it can't be just nostalgia either. I blame the music and boss fights for the most part.

wazzawazza18
wazzawazza18

@ joo phish yes ive been thinking about this for ages. even is its not a direct remake just 3d donkey kong again would be great

EdwardoMario16
EdwardoMario16

DKCR is the best example of how to do "New Retro" right. Something New SMB Wii did alright in and something Sonic 4 epically failed in.

SoohooSan
SoohooSan

Thank you Retro Studio for bringing back Nintendo beloved franchise!

CrazyPhillip
CrazyPhillip

their should be Donkey Kong Country Returns 2

enrique_marrodz
enrique_marrodz

After playing this one I remembered all the love I still have for 2d platformers and DK. Now I want DKCR and DKJB (NP)!

Marka1700
Marka1700

There was only one this about this game that disappointed me. Boss fights were not on par with what I expect from Retro Studios.

Ezmai_RauteZ
Ezmai_RauteZ

Sega should Hire Retro Studios for Sonic 4, seriously

beanofengland
beanofengland

@cachinscythe I appreciate what you are saying there, though I wasn't really talking about sales and 'winning wars'. My point was that Im personally unhappy with the Wii's hardware in this generation. I admit there have been lots of great games, but the no matter what game you play (maybe with the exception of the Mario Galaxies) the low resoution and last gen visuals of the Wii just put me off. This was never a problem in any of the previous generations, as they were so similar in terms of spec (I still believe Nintendo consoles always had the graphical edge even if the competition, regardless of how many colours it could throw out, the systems were used to better effect). My Wii looked a lot nicer when I only had a small tv, now its streched on a large HD screen and looks horrible on inspection even with the composite cable (Smash Bros Brawl is an artistically brilliant and a masterpiece of fun but if it was in a higher resolution it would have looked absolutely amazing). Im really looking forward to Nintendo's next console, that is going to be something REALLY special!

cachinscythe
cachinscythe

@superjuggen I'm glad someone else knows what I'm talking about. I don't know that I agree that the games got more serious the farther into them you got, though. I think it's more that there were simply areas that were light-hearted and areas that were more serious. For games released in a time before atmosphere was even recognized as significant to a game experience, that's truly remarkable for me. To this day, I swear that when I swim through the coral reef levels in DKC3 I can feel the water crushing my lungs! The music and graphics just mesh so well in those levels. And the boss fights in DKC2 and 3 feel like actual power struggles, even if they are kind of laughable in terms of difficulty. The Kremlings even seemed like a credible threat in those games! It's so weird to think that all just sort of disappeared in favor of comical antics like giving K. Rool boxing gloves and making his lackies complete buffoons.

superjuggen
superjuggen

@cachinscythe I also enjoyed NDKC a lot, but as you say, there's no seriousness. The old games got this darker atmosphere the further you got into the game, both in visuals and audio. NDKC keeps the happy-happy feeling throughout the whole game, with very vibrant, "cute" colors and mostly below average songs, at least compared to the old games. Waking all of the bats, later to be chased by the big bat, was really fun though. The new game has still got the same sense of humour imo. It was more fun to beat your enemies in the old game though, because of all the funny expressions and sounds they made.

cachinscythe
cachinscythe

@nickfolk420 Right. I have an opinion that disagrees with yours and it makes me retarded. There's a word for that: elitism. The 360 came out of the gate a full year ahead of both Wii and PS3. That put it in a position to overtake the hardcore market, and it pretty much did. Most of the third party PS3 games look worse than their 360 counterparts. In general, it's only the exclusives that stand out on the console, and for the most part I find those "standout" exclusives to be variations of the same old stuff. Don't get me started on how overrated Uncharted is, fun or not. Infamous is pretty much just another superhero sandbox game. Killzone and Resistance are yet more shooters in the traditional war setting that pervades the genre these days. Lair was poorly received. White Knight Chronicles got mixed responses. Ratchet and Clank is fun but not very innovative at all. And the graphical advancements are based on the outdated concept of "something that looks good IS inherently good" and really doesn't look that different from 360 to begin with. (IMO) Outside of Heavy Rain and perhaps Demon's Souls I can't think of anything truly unique on the console...unless you want to count UPCOMING stuff, which I don't. And I don't find any of their exclusives to be much more fun than the 3rd party of 1st party offerings I can find on 360. So "way better" is a significant stretch for me.

nickfolk420
nickfolk420

@cachinscythe how can you say that " the 360 is ahead of the PS3 by a substantial margin." the ps3 has way better exclusives and graphics and if you dont think so your retarted

cachinscythe
cachinscythe

A PERSONAL OPINION: When it comes to Donkey Kong Country Returns, I have enjoyed the game immensely (what I've played of it). However, there's something missing from it that the old ones had. Not something NECESSARY, but something I recognize as missing: the slight feeling of seriousness. The music in the older games made for a foreboding atmosphere--particularly the underwater levels and boss levels--that DK lost somewhere around DK64 in favor of goofy lightheartedness. That might have been a touch of Rareware that Retro simply can't provide, but that doesn't make DKCR worse than the older games. It just means its value comes from other places like collectibles, superior graphics, and gameplay mechanics. Anybody else know what I'm talking about?

cachinscythe
cachinscythe

@beanofengland I'm coming into this conversation late, but based on you last comment, I must soundly disagree. The Master System was actually capable of more colors than the NES. The SNES and Genesis pretty much tied in terms of overall power. It was only when the N64 released that their consoles started besting the competition in terms of technology. Funny thing is, if you look at gaming history, the most capable consoles NEVER win the war. NES won over Master System. SNES and Genesis pretty much tied until Sega got stupid and released a ton of attachments and the Saturn. PS1 creamed N64 and Dreamcast. PS2 creamed Gamecube and Xbox. Wii is creaming 360 and PS3 in terms of sales and in terms of hardcore appeal, the 360 is ahead of the PS3 by a substantial margin. If Nintendo isn't focused on tech anymore, it's because they've figured out what hardcore gamers refuse to acknowledge: the best hardware never wins.

dzimm
dzimm

Myimato's thought process is fascinating.

Joo_Phish
Joo_Phish

please make another DK64, please please please

beanofengland
beanofengland

@isaacmj The DS has had some really great games don't get me wrong my comment was mainly aimed at the Wii but the various incarnations of the DS still have'nt satisfied me personally. I'm a massive fan of Elite Beat Agents as me and my old mates at uni used to play the head to head mode pretty much everyday (that dog level to Highway Star is mind blowingly cool) and have over 30 DS games. Im just miffed at Nintendo for allowing both of their handheld and home console systems to fall so behind the curve in terms of technology (again emphasis on the Wii). Nintendo have always managed to strike the balance between tech and gaming goodness, with their consoles were always slightly more capable that their competitors (open to some debate I know). NES > Master System and early home systems like amiga, commadore etc SNES > Sega Megadrive/Genesis (ugh i'll get flamed for that) N64 > PS1 and Sega Saturn Even the Gamecube was graphically superior to the PS2, and the Wii its pretty much a Gamecube with the motion controls and wifi. The point I'm trying to make is by just making a new console out of old parts they have slipped behind and are now more interested in making Fitness and Artistic games, in an attempt to widen their target audience to cover the lack of big budget third party support.

-Elite
-Elite

I would love to see a remake of the N64 DK. .... OOOH BANANA.

hotdiddykong
hotdiddykong

Retro Studios is one of the best, They did an EPIC job on The Metroid Prime series and their change from Realistic to Cartoonish was suprisingly AWESOME! They did an awesome Job on bringing back DKC for what we expected it to be, a crazy Hardcore 2D Platformer with amazing visuals and music, the remix of past masterpeices were just spectacular. Here's to Donkey Kong Country Returns 2: Diddy and Dixie's Kombak! :D

Sepewrath
Sepewrath

Retro is one of the best studio's in gaming right now, I'm looking forward to seeing them do their own original project one day.

Flint247
Flint247

DKCR is a great game to play.

shayeskingston
shayeskingston

retro studios are probably the best studio i've seen develop games for a long time. I really enjoyed Metroid prime trilogy and although i have not played DKC returns i intend to and have heard that it is a great game. i hope nintendo lets them develop some more games as so far they have all been good quality and i want to see whats to come. :)

supershyguy65
supershyguy65

They may have made some decisions about the game that some people might not approve of, but I enjoyed the finished product anyway.

slimskelter
slimskelter

I'm glad the game was more difficult than previous episodes.

Decon96
Decon96

@turtlebird95 Miyamoto is a strangeeee dude, but a brilliant one at that.

g1rldraco7
g1rldraco7

Crazy story. It worked out on the end though.

turtlebird95
turtlebird95

"it might be fun to make DK blow on things" Wtf Miyamoto?

isaacmj
isaacmj

@beanofengland I may agree with the Wii not delivering what we expected, but what's wrong with the DS? I've played and beaten more games on DS than in any other console and I believe it's a system completely filled with original and fun titles. Maybe if more people dropped their preconceptions and grabbed a copy of Elite Beat Agents or Might and Magic Clash of Heroes, the DS would have the respect it deserves.

beanofengland
beanofengland

I was a diehard Nintendo fan from my childhood in the 80s right up to 3 or so years ago. Basically the Wii and DS have let me down bigtime, and after playing DK Returns ( I hate the damn shake to roll!!! ) and the complete lack of challenge in the new Kirby, im almost about to throw the towel in on Nintendo this generation. Sure the Mario Galaxy games were pretty much pixel perfect, and the Smash Bros games are beyond epic, but I just feel with the Wii's dated hardware and the megaslew of dire Wii Waggleness going on I've had to look elseware for my gaming fix, i'm currently having an affair with Sony, and deepdown I still feel my heart belongs to Nintendo.. *sigh* I can't wait for the NEXT GEN nintendo console, the Wii dead to me... *sob* And yeah, a new HD 2D Metroid on a console capable of delivering 1080p sexiness would make me throw that greasy PS3 right out of the window...

gabrielwoj
gabrielwoj

I really liked this game... Also, I think Metroid Prime 2D would be great... I really miss 2D Metroids, waht was the last? The Fusion

19Gam3NErD91
19Gam3NErD91

i loved the game and now just want a sequel. please nintendo do it quickly!

isaacmj
isaacmj

"after spending 10 years on a shooter franchise"? I think Metroid Prime games belong to the first person adventure genre. If you play Unreal Tournament, Halo and then Prime, you'll notice they are not similar at all. By the way, Retro is great! I can't wait to see thir next project, just lower the difficulty a bit, those rocket levels were just insane!

GSgirl
GSgirl

just keep the good work guys

OhhSnap50893
OhhSnap50893

We've been looking at Tingle lately. That's a joke.

foxhound_fox
foxhound_fox

They showed us that 2D platformers still have room to grow... and that they are substantially good developers who need to be let free by Nintendo and allowed full control of something.

dRuGGeRnaUt
dRuGGeRnaUt

They did a very good job of this game.. however its sooo short.. I got i for my wife for Christmas, and she passed it in a day(not all the "bonus" stuff). I just tend to think that these games are alot simpler to make than a 3d go anywhere universe, maybe they should put the extra $$$/time into making it longer.. seriously? a old school side scroller that can be passed in a few hours? not worth $50. But again i say, excellent job, and its very donkey kong-ish, just next time, make it loonger pls

Fusionmix
Fusionmix

I'd love for them to make what would essentially amount to Donkey Kong 64 2. That game was incredible in just how much there was to explore and do. If Retro could somehow recapture that with the better tech of the Wii in order to avoid the pop-in and draw distance problems, and streamline some of the gameplay (fewer Kongs, please :P) to beat back the tedium... I would buy it in a heartbeat.

jhpeter
jhpeter

Retro Studios = Classic Rare The gameplay is one the most fluidity on Wii library. We want now a remake of the other 2 donkey kongs, please.

Lykanthropie
Lykanthropie

another DKCR would be great. but it should be a bit longer and with more bonus levels. But what ever retro brings next, i am sure its very good game. If Nintendo plans to bring out a new home system they should wait for a new retro game to be available on the first day. Maybe a Mario game, or Zelda, Guess Maio would be interresting, as i don't really like new super mario bros. wii (guess controls for mario bros. games are not as good as super mario controls), and only the first galaxy game was really great i am sure retro could make it much better, new super mario world would be great, or a 2d/3d zelda game. However if they don't make any mistakes as they did in times of the n64 nintendos future could be as great as its past before, and as dragon quest returns, mayber final fantasy will it too.