Revealed earlier this month, 7Levels' upcoming Switch exclusive Jet Kave Adventure channels the classic gameplay of the Donkey Kong Country series, with colourful environments, chunky mechanics and madcap action. Mixing prehistory with a pinch of sci-fi (resulting in what the trailer dubs 'stone-fiction platforming'), it looks set to deliver some rock solid 2.5D side-on adventuring with a dash of humour and we're excited to jump in when it arrives later this year.
7Levels is the development studio behind the punishing Castle of Heart, and it also recently published Golf Peaks. We recently caught up with studio co-founders Paweł Biela and Krzysztof Król to talk about their upcoming game, its inspirations and 7Levels experiences of working on Nintendo's console.
Firstly, tell us a little about the game – how does a caveman come to possess a jetpack?
Krzysztof Król: As with many big events throughout our history, the human curiosity is to blame!
Paweł Biela: Jet Kave Adventure tells the story of Kave, a chief banished by his own tribe. When we meet him, Kave wanders aimlessly through a canyon until he stumbles upon a wrecked spaceship. Instead of running away, he spies on the alien trying to fix it, for which he almost pays the ultimate price. When he comes around, he browses through the wreckage and finds a working jetpack.
He also learns about the alien’s plans of destroying the island. Between that knowledge and the newfound extraterrestrial piece of tech, he quickly turns from an exile into the only caveman who stands a chance against the alien threat.
The game is inspired by the classic Donkey Kong Country series – what about those games made you want to make something channelling that style of gameplay?
PB: The DK Country series was the peak of 2D platform games back in the SNES days, and then Retro came and made DKC the peak of 2.5D platformers. I think Tropical Freeze is still the best game in that subgenre and it’s been some time since the launch already, especially if you played it on the Wii U. When we look for inspirations, we take them from the very best, so the choice was easy.
KK: What we love most about the modern DKC games is the flow. If you’re good enough, you can find a rhythm to the level and finish it practically without stopping. This is something we want to recreate in JKA, too.
David Wise’s music was a key component of Rare’s Donkey Kong games – how have you approached the audio side of Jet Kave Adventure?
KK: We’re a small indie studio so obviously we could not afford the biggest name in the industry. Instead, we chose to work with young Polish talents to create music that will highlight the positive, laid-back vibe of the game.
One of the challenges was to mix the prehistoric music with the sci-fi themes, but we think we’ve nailed that in the end and players will like what they hear. We’ve also included special set-piece events in the game where the music takes the front seat. So you can say the audio side was one of the focus points in our design.
Are there any other inspirations behind Jet Kave Adventure?
PB: And I thought you wouldn’t ask! There are two games from 1991 that shaped our childhoods but somehow got forgotten along the way.
The first is Big Nose the Caveman. You may have played on the NES, but at that time in Poland the most popular system was probably Commodore Amiga and that was the version we remember so fondly. This game was a platformer about a very hungry caveman who seeks out to find dinner. While the stake in Jet Kave Adventure is much higher, eating is also an important activity for our protagonist.
The other inspiration is Prehistorik, another platforming gem from Amiga. This game won our hearts first and foremost with its sense of humor, but we also took a look at it when designing obstacles and trials Kave will have to face in his quest.
What are some of the unique features of JKA that players won’t have seen anywhere before?
PB: When you are an indie dev, nowadays you have two main ways to get noticed. You either shock the media and players with a novel mechanic that is so ambitious it wouldn’t have a chance to appear in a high-profile game from a big publisher. I’m thinking of such games as Baba Is You or Papers, Please. This is attention due to unfamiliarity.
The other way is to find a niche that is undersatisfied and cater to it. This is attention due to familiarity. Stardew Valley or Wargroove are so big today because they delivered the same kind of fun Harvest Moon and Advance Wars, respectively, did back in the day, and both are at the same time modern enough that they feel like natural evolutions.
If I were to say which way we’ve chosen, it’s definitely the path of familiarity. With Jet Kave, we don’t reinvent the genre. Instead, we deliver - hopefully - everything you might expect from a great 2.5D platformer and then spice it up with our own ideas, such as the Stone-Fiction setting or the musical sequences I mentioned before.
The game is ‘tailor-made’ for Switch – besides portability, does Jet Kave make use of any of the console’s other unique features?
PB: Let’s not dismiss the portability so quickly! We took care to design the game so it plays great when in the handheld mode. Early at the design stage, we decided we wanted to have more smaller levels that felt bite-sized instead of a few large ones. This way you can have fun and make some progress even when you have ten minutes on the train or during lunch.
KK: The bite-sized nature of levels is our main focus, but we also spent some time tweaking the HD Rumble feature, so it adds to the experience on one hand and doesn’t distract at the more challenging moments on the other.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced during development?
PB: As you probably know, when our previous in-house title - Castle of Heart - launched, it was met with a moderate enthusiasm. Since then we improved the game substantially, but obviously there was a limit to what we could achieve with updates.
Still, the feedback from players was priceless. As they criticized quite often how the player character moved and controlled in CoH, we made it our internal challenge to make sure Kave is super responsive to the player’s input. After all, nothing is more important in a skill-based platformer. We’re pretty confident we passed that challenge, but of course, the final say belongs to the players. We hope their verdict will be positive once they get to play the game - and that moment will come really soon, actually!
7Levels seems to focus on Switch as a platform – as a developer, what are the benefits of concentrating on a single system?
KK: We’re a small and relatively young team. So creating games exclusively for the Nintendo Switch means we can focus all our efforts, time, resources and expertise on a single platform and get better results than if we were to spread thin across multiple consoles.
Probably the fact that our core team is made up of lifelong Nintendo fans who are now fulfilling their childhood dream is also a factor. But I’m not sure.
From a development perspective, which single technical aspect of the Switch would you most like to see upgraded in a potential ‘Pro’ revision of the console down the road? How would that make life easier when making games?
KK: We see two possibilities for the new, more powerful Switch revision.
First one is a similar path to that one Sony chose for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 4 PRO. It means that from the development perspective nothing will change because all new games will have to run on both consoles - standard one and "pro". So we will need to optimize titles to the standard one anyway and then potentially add custom options that will activate only when you play on the “pro” revision.
The other way is a revision in the vein of the 3DS and New 3DS, where we get the option to create games only for the stronger mode to take a full advantage of the more powerful CPU, more memory, etc. However, for the sake of keeping the install base undivided, we keep fingers crossed for the first option.
PB: It would also be great if Nintendo went with a higher-resolution screen so the handheld and docked version would be the same resolution-wise. Improvement for JoyCons connectivity would also be nice, as it would help us identify issues with potential input lags.
Finally, what games have the team been enjoying on Switch recently?
PB: At the moment we’re wrapping up the development of Jet Kave Adventure, which means mostly eliminating bugs and fervently discussing (and sometimes implementing) last-minute ideas. So there’s not a lot of time to play right now.
KK: Many of us can’t wait to play Fire Emblem: Three Houses, but we hear the game is so massive that it will probably have to wait once Jet Kave ‘goes gold’.
Thanks to Paweł and Krzysztof for their time. How do you like the look of Jet Kave Adventure? Are you up for some hot 2D platforming action inspired by Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze? Let us know if you're going bam-bam for this with a lovely comment in the usual place.