The man who created Donkey Kong had some specific advice for the people who are making the next Donkey Kong game: The gorilla better slap the ground properly.
"He was very clear from the get-go about his expectations for the ground-pound," Retro Studios' Bryan Walker told me, speaking of a meeting top Retro people had with Nintendo's legendary lead designer Shigeru Miyamoto when Retro's next game, Donkey Kong Country Returns was in its infancy. "It wasn't just BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM. It had to be [slapping his knee rapidly] buh-BAM, buh-BAM, buh-BAM!"
Ground-pounding is important. Every not-so-little thing is important when you're making a successor to the classic 1994 Super Nintendo game Donkey Kong Country, which itself was a revitalization of the Donkey Kong character invented by Miyamoto in the 1980s.
"He was extremely emphatic about our direction, that we're making a better DKC."
A decade since they got the tough assignment to turn the hallowed Metroid series into a first-person shooter, Retro Studios has finally gone public about the Nintendo-owned studio's semi-voluntary effort to release a new Donkey Kong Country game this fall on the Wii.
Texas-based Retro clearly does not take easy assignments.
"It was fate that this game just fell into our laps," Retro president Michael Kelbaugh said during our an interview last week in Los Angeles. In April of 2008 Retro found itself without some key personnel — game design and art leads on the Metroid Prime series who had departed to form their own company, Armature — and an "experiment" the team had been working on came to a halt. Kelbaugh said he'd already mentioned to Nintendo president Satoru Iwata that he'd love for Retro to take a crack at a Donkey Kong. Miyamoto wanted a new Donkey Kong Country. So, in April, the project, codenamed "F8," began.
Donkey Kong Country Returns is not a port of the original Super Nintendo game, though it is made to look and feel familiar. A player controls Donkey Kong with occasional help from Diddy Kong, running left to right to pound bad guys, ride mine carts, swing on vines and collect bananas.
The big changes for the new game include added visual depth that allows Donkey Kong to interact with things in the background, as well as co-op multiplayer, which allows a second player to control Diddy. If you play the game solo, your Donkey Kong will be able to team up with Diddy only at select points of the action. Diddy helps the player by clinging to his back and providing some extra jetpack propulsion. He also adds two hearts to the player's health bar. But, when playing co-op, the Diddy player can run around on their own, team up for a jetpack boost or shoot a peanut gun for a ranged attack.
"You can play with a very inexperienced player and an experienced player and enjoy yourself," Kelbaugh said. "You can be two expert players or you could be you and your son."
I tried the game solo for a few minutes, getting a sampling of a lot of the action you can see in the game's trailer.
The interactions with the background were interesting, requiring me to pay attention to barrels and other details in the back with which I might be able to get Donkey Kong to interact. The action felt smooth and familiar to what was in the SNES series. The mine cart jumps were traditionally tough.
I played the game with a Wii Remote in my right hand and a Nunchuk in my left. Whenever Donkey Kong had to drum the ground to blow up a mine entrance or something, I had to shake both controllers vigorously. The game will also be playable with just a Wi Remote held sideways, as if it was an old-school Nintendo controller. (You do the ground-drumming in the Remote-only configuration by shaking the controller.)
Kensuke Tanabe, the Nintendo manager who has worked with Retro on the Metroid games and is involved with Donkey Kong Country Returns, told me that one of the less-obvious additions to the DKC formula is the gorilla hero's ability to blow a puff of air, which he noted I wasn't doing while he watched me play (Hey, it was my first time!) I told him I had been prompted to do it once but that it simply blew the fuzz off a dandelion. "Naturally if you take it at face value it may seem like an insignificant sort of thing," he told me through a translator, "But it really is a gateway to experimenting and finding a lot of things hidden in the environment."
As this is a video game, one made by Nintendo no less, there are many game details that the creators won't divulge yet.
Any return of other Donkey Kong family characters, such as Cranky and Lanky?
Tanabe: "There was a direction from Mr. Miyamoto as to what to up point in the series' legacy to draw from, but I think it will be the most fun for people to play it themselves and see who pops up along the way."
Okay, but what about DK's animal buddies, like the rhino he could ride in the first Donkey Kong Country?
Tanabe: "I know people certainly have enjoyed them in the past so we are definitely considering those elements of gameplay. But you'll have to excuse me for keeping this secret for a little while longer."
Tanabe: "There are no underwater stages this time around."
Wait. That last one was an answer with information. Walker elaborated, saying that experiments with DKC-style underwater levels: "felt slow... It just wasn't the kind of gameplay we were looking for."
So I guess that indirectly answers the question of whether Donkey Kong will ride a swordfish.
Tanabe did shoot down the possibility of a return of DKC villain King K.Rool. "There will be no alligators in this game," he said.
All three of the Donkey Kong Country Returns developers expressed to me a sense of adventure about making this game. They are stepping into something new and daunting, none of them nor the rest of Retro having had development experience on the earlier DKC games, which were made by now-Microsoft-owned Rare. Making a DKC game is a big change from making a Metroid Prime.
"Initially we were thinking storyline, storyline," Kelbaugh said by way of example. "We would constantly re-focus the designers and say, 'Hey, this isn't Metroid Prime. This isn't a long, detailed lore-based historical story.' This is as simple as 'Somebody is stealing bananas and I have to get them back.'"
Whether it was learning to stretch their art muscles in a new way to make a more light-hearted character and world or to forget about narrative backdrop, this new game was a shift for the Metroid veterans at Retro.
"We shifted gears from making a very gritty, sci-fi edgy type of environment to such a whimsical character." Walker said. "We constantly have to revisit [questions like] 'Why would Donkey Kong do this?' or 'Why would this environment be like this?' And then we start thinking: 'We're making a game about a gorilla wearing a tie.'"
Tanabe, Kelbaugh and Walker hope that what the team is crafting will feel familiar to people who love Donkey Kong Country but modernized. They are making Nintendo's marquee Wii title for the holiday season. And that should be plenty of pressure. Check the quality of their previous collaborations and you'll see they have a shot. They just better get the ground-pound right.