Donkey Kong Jungle Beat – 2004 Developer Interview

Donkey Kong Jungle Beat – 2004 Developer Interview

This rollicking Donkey Kong Jungle Beat interview originally appeared in Nintendo Dream magazine, shortly after the 2004 E3 exhibition. The game was still in-development, so the discussion largely focuses on the response from players at E3, but the enthusiasm of legendary tag-team duo of Koizumi and Shimizu is hard to resist as they relate the origins of the project and other thoughts on controller design.

Yoshiaki Koizumi – Director
Takao Shimizu – Producer

—It looked like Jungle Beat received a huge response at E3.

Koizumi: We were very surprised ourselves. We spent most of our time at the event filming people playing, capturing their expressions and gestures on camera. Where did they smile? What scenes did they frown at? That video footage will be an important source of information for us as the development moves forward.

—Given this big response, what was your overall impression?

Shimizu: Everyone was kind of like, "what in the world is this…???" We hadn't publicly announced Jungle Beat before E3, and I don't think anyone was predicting we'd make another game using the bongos from Donkey Konga. So it probably took people aback: here's this sidescroller game, but it's played with bongos…?! (laughs) That's why everyone was just staring at it. The crowd kept looking back and forth between the screen and the controller, while the sounds of the bongos echoed around them. At some point they realized, "Ah hah, this is an action game where you use the bongos somehow." And through it all they had that slack-jawed expression of astonishment. (laughs)

Everyone: (laughs)

Shimizu: Once they got a chance to play, they were still smiling and laughing.

—It must feel like a huge blessing, as a game developer, to see a sight like that.

Koizumi: We've been making games for many years now, but I've never seen a sight like this with so many people laughing and smiling while they play. Of course you sometimes see that in party games, but it's no exaggeration to say this was my first time seeing everyone so raucously enjoying themselves. But the thing that made me laugh the most, to be honest, were the gesticulations of the players. (laughs) When we got back to Japan I showed the E3 footage to the staff at Nintendo, and they were all laughing too. The way they were getting into it was truly something to behold. Like this… (Koizumi starts swinging his shoulders and pretending the play the bongos in an exaggerated fashion)

Shimizu, Koizumi, and the bongos.

—That's amazing. (laughs) Has there been a difference in response between Japanese and American audiences?

Koizumi: Well, as you know, Japanese people are more shy. (laughs) They don't clap very hard so sometimes it wouldn't register.

Shimizu: The clapping sensor keys off sound, so in order to not be affected by the other exhibitions, we had to cordon off more space for the Jungle Beat booths. We had done the same for Donkey Konga, but for Jungle Beat our plan was to have as many units set up as possible within our space, so we lowered the sensitivity of the clapping sensors. But this made it harder for them to register actual claps, too… Koizumi and I were both worried about this, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise: since the sensors wouldn't register unless you really put some oomph into it, everyone had to really get into it. It was a sight to behold. (laughs)

Koizumi: Non-Japanese people don't feel embarrassed about being loud. They were like this… (as if he's become Donkey Kong, Koizumi raises his arms up and makes a big clap)

—If you put too much force into it though, it seems like you could end up hurting your hands.

Koizumi: Yeah, since the bongos are a physical controller, there's a danger of that. That's why we're currently researching exactly how long a playthrough should be to prevent that.

—I see. So you're not supposed to play Jungle Beat for long sessions, in other words.

Shimizu: Yeah. We'll be providing adequate stopping points for players.

Koizumi: We set the E3 version to end after 10 minutes. Players finished it in under 10 minutes though. But they seemed satisfied with that, which was one of our goals.

—What originally led you to the idea of making an action game with the bongo controller?

Shimizu: To answer that I need to go back a little bit and explain things in order. Initially, when Donkey Konga was announced internally at Nintendo, they said they wanted to solicit everyone's opinion on the controls and the controller itself. So Koizumi and myself were called into a meeting, and there we were shown a prototype of the bongo controller for the first time. That meeting was also when they decided to add a mic.

A funny, short video with some good background info if you've never played DK:JB. It also points out how many elements of DK:JB were iterated on to great success in Nintendo's later 3D platformer outings like Super Mario Galaxy.

—I heard that idea came from Miyamoto himself.

Shimizu: That's correct. So anyway, that was how we learned about the bongos. Our new department, the Tokyo Seisakubu (Tokyo Production Department) was established last July, but before that, Miyamoto had tasked me with creating a new action game that used Donkey Kong. In Miyamoto's mind, he wanted this project to be started in Tokyo, and he wanted to avoid a situation where we waffled too much about what to make and ended up making nothing. I think he gave us the project because he trusted us not to do that, and I was very happy about that. (laughs)

—Sounds like a classic Miyamoto move.

Koizumi: They had been doing some basic experiments with the bongo controller in Kyoto, but we still needed to decide on a basic concept for what kind of game to make. It was then, at the very start, that we decided on making a side-scrolling action game. A lot of that had to do with the fact that I'd only made 3D action games until then, and wanted to do something different.

—Right. You started with Mario 64, then you made the two N64 Zelda games, and after that Mario Sunshine for the GameCube, too.

Koizumi: Yeah. So what happened was, the staff and I had all agreed that our next game needed to have controls that weren't too difficult. It didn't have to be a "simple game", but it had to be a game that looked simple… otherwise, given the recent tastes and trends of players, we feared they'd reject it out-of-hand. So by chance someone brought up the bongo controller, and we thought, maybe this could be the key. So from the start, I envisioned an action game built around the bongos. I think that was around the fall of last year?

Shimizu: That's right. Around the end of summer is when we began experimenting in earnest. One thing Koizumi said then that really stuck with me was, "let's make this a game where the people playing it look like they're having fun."

—I see.

Shimizu: He wanted it to be the kind of game that would catch onlooker's eyes and make them go, "What's that…??? Let me try!!" And I was in full agreement.

—The big response at E3 was just as you'd planned, then.

Koizumi: Early in the planning stages, though, almost all of the staff was perplexed by the choice of the bongos: "can we really make an action game with this…?" But as the development went on, they started to see it, and by the end it was hard to imagine anything but the bongos working.

—I can definitely understand their skepticism. I mean, an action game where you hit the bongos to move left or right...?!

Koizumi: Yeah. To be sure, the first thing anyone feels when they see Jungle Beat is that it looks weird. But by the same token, without that weirdness, people wouldn't be drawn in. Our hope is that people will be drawn in by the bizarreness of it... "what's this?!" But then it'll click when they try it out, and they'll get sucked in.

—I see. Well, it's funny because the year before this, the two of you made Mario Sunshine. I was thinking the "Sunshine Combo" of Koizumi and Shimizu would surely put out another Mario game...

Shimizu: (laughs)

Koizumi: After Mario Sunshine, we took a break to re-charge our batteries. I also helped out on Wind Waker.

—Oh really?

Koizumi: Towards the end of the development, yeah. I worked on the ending section.

—By the way, I bet the Jungle Beat development room was very noisy, wasn't it?

Shimizu: It was. (laughs)

—With everyone hitting those bongos nonstop.

Shimizu: Yeah. Koizumi sat near me, and suddenly I'd hear this huge clap from his desk and my bongo sensor would go off. (laughs)

Koizumi: Or when someone sneezed, Donkey Kong would respond to that too.

Shimizu: For Jungle Beat, the bongo sensor can distinguish between hits in the front and rear of the drumhead, but we decided to treat them all the same. We didn't want the controls to get too complicated.

Koizumi: Yeah, it would be annoying, right? Early on we kept things simple, but as the development has progressed, technically its now possible to divide the drumhead into different zones, front and rear, and have more "buttons" that way. But the team hates the idea. I don't know ultimately what will happen, but as of now, for me it's a game built around four inputs.

—Right. Hitting the left drum, hitting the right drum, hitting both at the same time, and clapping your hands.

Koizumi: There's a limit to how much a person can memorize.

—So you want to keep it as simple as possible.

Shimizu: The young women guides at E3 could explain the controls in an extremely concise way. "So you do this, this, and this, that's it!" (laughs) There's too many games today where it takes forever just to learn the controls, and if you don't study the manual you can't even start the game.

A photo from E3 with the female Nintendo guides there in the middle.

—The games at E3 always have instruction sheets posted up by the controls, but sometimes I look at the amount of text there and my eyes just glaze over.

Shimizu: We diligently prepared an instruction sheet for Jungle Beat but no one looked at it. (laughs)


Shimizu: But the fact that nobody read it, yet everyone still played the game, makes me very happy.

—Was there any resistance internally to the idea of using the bongos for an action game, instead of a normal controller?

Koizumi: Yeah, we had some feedback, mostly from people who only played it in passing, that the timing for the jump (hitting both bongos at the same time) was difficult. But we've tuned the game so that being slightly off in your timing is still OK.

—What player demographic are you aiming at with Donkey Kong Jungle Beat?

Koizumi: For this game? I don't know anymore. (laughs)

Shimizu: I think it's aimed at general audiences.

—From little kids to grandma and grandpa, then.

Koizumi: At E3 there was an older man, who looked to be over 60, enjoying himself. (laughs) And while we're fine with both male and female players, at E3 it was the female players who stood out more. At the boss fight they made a face like this… (Koizumi makes a scowling face while banging on the bongos)

Everyone: (laughs)

—Seems like a great way to blow off stress. (laughs)

Koizumi: That's why I think there's an element of exercise to Jungle Beat. Even more than that, I think players will enjoy it when they want to smash something. (laughs)

—(laughs) I can see it now. A child comes home with bad grades, and the Mother immediately goes into the other room and starts playing Jungle Beat. (laughs)

Koizumi: That works too! (laughs)

—"Uh oh, Mom's flailing away on the bongos again...!" (laughs)

Shimizu: Yes, and if she breaks one in her rage, she is welcome to buy another. (laughs)

—A winning sales tactic. (laughs) But actually, I think there are a lot of users who bought Donkey Konga and now have the bongos just lying around, taking up space. I know Donkey Konga 2 will be out soon, but I'm sure they'll be happy to have a different type of game like Jungle Beat to play too.

Shimizu: I think as a company, Nintendo's product development is very driven by consideration for the end-user. The N64 rumble pak is one such example, where a lot of software was developed for it. To be honest, I have a daughter and for Christmas last year I bought her Donkey Konga. But now those bongos are just lying on the floor gathering dust… so for me, I'm on a personal quest in this development to bring those bongos back to life for her. (laughs)

The "foreigner" drumming style, above, and the "shy" Japanese style below.

—Go dad, go! (laughs) By the way, in the boss fight at the end there, why did you make it a "boxing" game like that?

Koizumi: Well, the bongos are something you hit with your hands, so punching just made sense.

—I think Jungle Beat is the first game where clapping makes you dodge, too.

Koizumi: That idea came from a single dev, but before that we experimented with a lot of different things. I thought it would be easy for players to understand if the clap was used to give you "chances" in the game, in a variety of contexts and situations.

—Where did the idea for the two Donkey Kongs on-screen come from?

Koizumi: In a sidescroller, you need to leave ample space around the character or it becomes hard to see what's in front of you. Our solution was to make the Donkey Kong you control very small, but put a bigger DK in the foreground of the screen, and his expressions convey different info to the player during the game. This "double" system has been received quite well by the staff at Nintendo, but I'm curious, what did you think of it when you played? Did the big DK in the foreground get in your way?

—It didn't bother me much, no.

Koizumi: Right, we figured that players would be most focused on the action with the smaller DK.

—What's it been like working on a game with a famous character like Donkey Kong?

Shimizu: Actually, I was the director for Donkey Kong GB, the predecessor of the recently released Mario vs. Donkey Kong. At the time I was just really happy that Miyamoto asked me to do a Donkey Kong game, and it was pretty much the same feeling for me this time too.

—Did you think at all of making a 3D action follow-up to the N64 Donkey Kong games?

Shimizu: All Miyamoto asked us was to make a "Donkey Kong action game", but he didn't specify what kind of action game. So that could have been a continuation of the 3D N64 style, or it could have been like the 2D Donkey Kong Country games. He pretty much left it up to us, the developers.

Koizumi: We actually were very conflicted about which direction to go. But I'm the type of person who can't feel passionate about a project unless I'm doing something new, and Miyamoto gave us the freedom to pursue that.

—By the way, do you actually sit there and play around and hit the bongos when you're brainstorming ideas for Jungle Beat?

Koizumi: Yeah. I'll be messing around with them, nodding and muttering to myself, "right, right, like this." So like, there's a part where Donkey Kong rides on a pig, and when I saw that, it made me want to hit the bongos aggressively like I was galloping or something. (laughs) And our ideas would kind of expand outwards like that, oh ok, what if he smashes through a boulder here? I often find myself "air bongoing" on my commute train too. (laughs)

—I'm sure the people around you are like, who's this weird guy. Is he in a band?! (laughs)

Shimizu: In our development room too, I sometimes play around on the bongos. Actually, we have a real set…

Koizumi: Yeah, we have some real bongos next to my desk. When I'm stuck I often go wail away on those. (laughs) At first the other employees would get startled, but it seems like they're used to it now.

Shimizu: It's like, "there he goes again." (laughs)

Koizumi: I give them a good thwapping when I'm leaving for the day too. "I'm heading home! thwap"—it feels good.

—Please leave a final message for our readers.

Koizumi: Our goal with Jungle Beat is to return to a time in gaming when anyone could enjoy games. Lately everyone's been talking about how the game industry is shrinking. Part of the problem is that the people making video games today are hardcore players. But for the regular players, their experience is that they boot up their console and they're immediately confronted with too much complicated, confusing stuff. In the Famicom era you just had a control pad and the A/B buttons, so most games were intuitively easy to understand—you could quickly figure out what was going on just by picking up the controller. I want to return to that simplicity. So to all the players out there who have felt alienated by the complexity or difficulty of recent games, we definitely want you to give Jungle Beat a try—we're hoping it will bring you back!

"Koizumi relied more on wild gesticulations than verbal explanations for this interview. Has the spirit of Donkey Kong possessed him…?!"

—I do feel that Jungle Beat has a "back to basics" kind of gameplay.

Koizumi: Yeah. The Game & Watch only had two buttons. But the young game developers then were still able to make games for it. It must have been a major challenge. I believe we can still do the same things today, but if you put a controller with a bunch of buttons in front of a group of developers, they're going to want to use all those buttons. This time we decided to exercise restraint and not use everything available, and instead tried to make an interesting game within those constraints. Not using too many buttons has actually helped stimulate our imagination, and for us it's been a great learning experience. It's strange, but reducing the buttons somehow expanded all these new gameplay possibilities.

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