Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze Interview
Retro Studios president and CEO Michael Kelbaugh and Super Mario Bros. 2 director Kensuke Tanabe discuss bringing the great ape back for another swing.
games™: Can you discuss some of the features that differentiate Tropical Freeze from the last instalment in the series?
Michael Kelbaugh, Retro Studios (President and CEO): Yes, of course! We now have Dixie Kong as one of the playable characters. She’s a real cutie and was very fun to implement into the game. The new dynamic 3D camera system is also a big addition to the game. Plus, the Green Balloon and Kong POW features are new. The Green Balloon feature was in fact in Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D, however we liked it so much that be brought it into Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. As far as game theme differences, we’ve introduced a new foe for Donkey Kong and his crew, The Snowmads! They’re frightfully frosty fun! And, we’re very happy to include some beautiful underwater levels brand new to the series in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze with some gorgeous new music. The snow levels are new too!
Kensuke Tanabe, Nintendo (Producer): To add to Michael’s answer, let me introduce a new system in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze called “Pluck” which you may recognise from Super Mario Bros. 2 (Super Mario USA in Japan), which was the first game I worked on as a director, we decided to build a similar system into the game after a quarter of a century. Another feature is that some enemies, but not all, can be carried and thrown in a similar way to Super Mario Bros. 2 as well.
g™: The way the dynamic camera moves appears to be a major enhancement in the sequel what has that allowed you to do with level design?
Michael: The new dynamic 3D Camera really opened the world experience for Donkey Kong in that we were able to now see in front and behind Donkey Kong. That really allowed us to broaden the experience in creating new challenges and obstacles for the player in the level design. Now, instead of just seeing what’s in front of you by a screen length, you can see many lengths ahead of you. Plus, you can experience many game elements in complete 3D, which really enhances the experience.
Tanabe: To tell you the truth, we carefully balanced where the dynamic 3D Camera was applied in levels, and made sure it was used where the element could leave strong impressions and effectively on delivers new experiences to players. Also, when creating the levels in this title, we asked designers to distribute new elements such as the dynamic 3D Camera movement, plucking and features with new partner characters’ abilities equally over the entire game and also to apply new ideas to the main design of each level. In my opinion, this could be the major enhancement and I feel that designers applied what was requested brilliantly.
g™: What does including new characters enable in terms of new gameplay opportunities?
Michael: First, it allows the player more variety of characters to choose from, each with different abilities. Secondly, it allows us to develop different abilities for that character and design gameplay elements around these new abilities. For example; Dixie Kong’s Helicopter Spin allows her to reach high places that other characters may not be able to reach. This allows us to design game elements specific to those character attributes.
Tanabe: On my side, it allows for special attributes, such as each character having a special skill underwater, for example the ability to swim against the current of water. Also, each new character’s jump has its own style, so even in the same level, if you have a different partner character, the impression you would get from it will change. There are also three special moves, call Kong POW, that the combination of a partner character and Donkey Kong can only pull off. If you use these Kong POW moves wisely, it will certainly help you clear the game.
g™: Is there anything completely new you’re attempting with level design, or are you beholden to the conventions established by the series?
Michael: There is a legacy and a feel to the Donkey Kong Country franchise that we felt important to keep. We didn’t want to deviate from that too much or, it really wouldn’t feel like a Donkey Kong Country game. However, the challenge is always how to keep the original style that the fans expect; yet introduce something new and exciting. We were very satisfied with how our new levels turned out and we hope the fans like them too.
Tanabe: As I noted earlier, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is full of new ideas. We believe that we are delivering a surprise to users who already played Donkey Kong before by adding a new swimming element and dynamic 3D Camera angles. Of course, the past features that would make this game fun, such as swinging on vines or clinging on surfaces are back, but we tried to implement them in different ways to bring refreshing new experiences to players.
g™: Has working on the 3D Metroid games influenced your approach to the 2D design of Donkey Kong Country? Also, is there anything you have learnt from developing the 2D Donkey Kong games that you could apply to future 3D titles?
Michael: With every game we make, we strive to improve our overall skills in making Nintendo quality titles. So, in principle, with every game we make, we get better at making them and more experienced. Or, that is our goal of course. In that sense, yes, the experience we gained working on the Metroid Prime franchise was invaluable. Specifically answering your question about 3D to 2D, what you may not realise is that we constructed the levels in Donkey Kong Country Returns and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze in very much the same manner as we did the levels in Metroid Prime. However, levels in the Donkey Kong Country Returns and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze are much, much larger and more detailed. And, I’ll share this with you; we used the Metroid Prime engine and tools to develop Donkey Kong Country Returns, so technically, the lessoned learned on Metroid Prime were directly translated and applied to Donkey Kong Country Returns.
g™: How was David Wise brought back in as composer on Tropical Freeze?
Michael: David Wise and I worked together in the past and we remained in touch and friends over the years. He wasn’t available during the development of Donkey Kong Country Returns but was shortly afterwards. David and I met at GDC after Donkey Kong Country Returns had launched and I discretely asked if he was interested in coming back to work with an old familiar friend (Donkey Kong). I was very pleased to discover that he was not only excited but wanted to start working right away. I also felt that the potential for the collaborative genius of both David and Kenji Yamamoto would result in some simply amazing composition work, in the end, this is exactly what happened and the new compositions in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze are absolutely wonderful.
Tanabe: All the credit goes to Michael on this!
g™: Why do you think the 2D platformer has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years?
Michael: That’s simple… THEY’RE FUN!! Many things, especially in the entertainment industry, are cyclical. For instance, loads of the franchises and game styles that we grew up with are new to those that didn’t experience them at the time they were originally popular and there’s a new audience experiencing them for the first time.
I’ve always felt that great games will always be “great games” because at their core, they’ll always be fun. I still play Tetris. I still play Super Mario and I still play Donkey Kong Country and most importantly, I still have FUN!
Tanabe: This is my personal guess, but one of the reasons could be that people started to realise that 2D games are easier to play as they can usually grasp the dimensions easily. I wouldn’t say 2D games are old-fashioned but rather that this means 2D games are now established as a universal game genre. Having said all this, I think Michael’s answer “fun things are fun, and great things are great” does really have a point!
g™: Do you think that there could ever be a return to the 3D Donkey Kong games?
Michael: Do you want to see a 3D Donkey Kong game? To answer you more directly, I’m a huge Donkey Kong fan and I would love to see another 3D Donkey Kong game. You just never know.
Tanabe: The Super Mario series currently offers both the “return to 2D” and sequels of 3D (As seen in the Super Mario Galaxy series), so I think that either game style can be applied depending on the game design. Therefore the style of the next Donkey Kong Country title would also depend on the game design, so it’s difficult to say which direction it will take at this stage. Maybe the Donkey Kong Country series over time will also feature both 2D and 3D titles like as in the Super Mario series!