Legends never die … even when those legends are obscure Polish 3D platformers.
In the 3D platformer boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s, many new franchises emerged as developers looked to catch part of the hysteria started by games like Super Mario 64 and Crash Bandicoot. One such series was Kao the Kangaroo from Tate Interactive, an independent Polish game developer.
The series starred a yellow kangaroo with boxing gloves who tries to save his family from an evil hunter. Particularly popular in Poland and other parts of Europe, Kao the Kangaroo got four games but eventually faded into obscurity after the release of Kao the Kangaroo: Mystery of the Volcano, which was never released in the U.S.
While it’d be easy to assume that the series would stay dormant, Kao the Kangaroo is getting a second wind. On May 27, Tate Multimedia, the current iteration of the developer that originally created Kao the Kangaroo, is releasing a reboot that reimagines the 3D platformer for a new generation of consoles.
It’s an impressive feat, especially for an independent team that doesn’t have the backing of a company like Nintendo, Sony, or Activision. Digital Trends spoke to developers from Tate Multimedia to discover how this reboot came about and the trials and tribulations of having to compete with the likes of revivals like Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time and Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart on an indie budget.
Throughout the 2010s, Tate Multimedia was more focused on racing games like Urban Trial Freestyle and Steel Rats rather than family-friendly platformers. Despite that, love for Kao didn’t die during that time, and the platforming mascot maintained a small but passionate fan base, with the developer saying it still got emails asking to bring the series back.
About five years ago, a YouTuber named NitroRad reviewed the whole Kao series, garnering hundreds of thousands of views and bringing attention back to this obscure Polish platforming mascot. A #BringBackKao hashtag even trended on Twitter as fans of this forgotten franchise emerged and wanted the series to return after over a decade of rest.
Emboldened by the upsurge of a Kao fan base and demands for rereleases following these videos, Tate Multimedia decided to offer Kao Round 2 on Steam in 2019. According to Tate Multimedia studio head Kaja Borówko, this rerelease was downloaded over 2 million times and showed her there was still interest in this series. Successful indie platformers like Yooka-Laylee and Super Lucky’s Tale also gave hope that a new Kao 3D platformer could be successful.
“We saw a few titles that gave us hope because they were more indie, like Yooka-Laylee,” she said. “Those titles were not from the biggest studios, so that was a good sign. Then big ones came, and it was a good confirmation that it looks like there are still people who are looking for those kinds of games.”
The Polish studio then knew it still had something special on it hands and wanted to bring the series back, but had to decide what exactly to do. Developers at Tate Multimedia threw multiple ideas around as the small team had to determine the best way to bring back a franchise that only nostalgic early 2000s gamers might remember.
“It was a tough decision that took us almost a year and multiple prototypes,” Borówko explains. “We started from this idea of a remaster of the third game in the series, but once we got into it, the game became bigger and bigger, and we wanted to do something else. In the end, we had a game jam here in the studio with our team, and we had four different ideas. We loved all of them, and we decided that we were just going to combine some of the ideas.”
“The flow of the game is very important.”
Ultimately, this resulted in a combat-heavy platformer that still respects the series’ roots. Jean-Yves Lapasset, Tate Multimedia’s head of production, made it clear to Digital Trends that Kao the Kangaroo is a classic-feeling platforming journey, even if it has more modern sensibilities in its design.
“The story is a journey, so each level in the game feels like a journey to the player,” Lapasset explained. “That is very different from how platformers were built in the 2000s, which was more like ‘put as many platformers as you can and make it super difficult.’ For us, the flow of the game is very important, so when you go through a level, you can see references and know what type of enemies you’ll meet, what traps are there, and other new things we have in the game.”
The response to what Tate Multimedia has shown of the new game has been positive. Still, the developers I spoke to emphasize that this is very much an indie game not made on the same budget as the most notable 3D platformers.
A rift apart
Games like Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart and Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time were AAA productions with hundreds of developers working on them. Kao the Kangaroo was not. While Tate Multimedia had bold ideas for a revival that could both innovate and respect the series’ roots, it also had to keep in mind that it was working on a “triple-I” budget, not triple-A. The first place where that rift became noticeable was in crafting the game’s narrative.
“We realized rapidly that story was an area where it will be difficult to complete because we’re a III kind of budget rather than AAA,” Lapasset explained. “On one side, you have big productions like Ratchet & Clank with 300 people working on it for four years. On our site, you have a team in Poland that is very talented, but not 300 people with a $100 million budget.”
Borówko also mentioned that it was difficult to match those games’ high animation quality with a smaller team. Tate Multimedia was passionate, but Kao the Kangaroo didn’t have the same scale of development as a AAA title.
“Development tools a pretty much the same, but we don’t have the time and developer capacity to really use all of the features,” Borówko said. “Especially when it comes to such things as animation and graphics, you can go very, very detailed today and know what’s possible. In the old days, there wasn’t such a difference between what you could achieve as an indie studio compared to the big studios because of the time and resources that you had.”
Kao the Kangaroo might not be the prettiest or technologically advanced 3D platformer ever released. Still, Tate Multimedia knew they had to work within their limitations to make the best game possible. And having a small team does have some notable advantages, according to Lapasset.
“You have fewer people in the room, so they are very committed and know what they’re doing with expertise in each field,” Lapasset said. “In big teams, you have a lot of project management and spend a lot of time doing customer surveys and research to have the studios understand what they need to steer the next game. You have less data to build your strategies in small studios, so it’s more about the feeling when you have expertise and commitment from team members.”
“People appreciate and see the effort and heart that was put into it.”
This allowed the team to work lean and mean, bringing in new ideas later on in the project than they would’ve been able to in a AAA studio. While Tate Multimedia doesn’t have as many developers as AAA studios like Toys for Bob or Insomniac, Borówko and Lapasset believe each developer had more creative freedom and that players can feel that heart in the final game.
“We’re already pretty happy with the feedback that we’re getting from players as people appreciate and see the effort and heart that was put into it,” Borówko says. “They see that the platforming gameplay was most important for us in the end. We needed to make sacrifices and chose to focus on certain things because we couldn’t do everything. That’s something that people value and appreciate as they see that Kao the Kangaroo is what it is supposed to be.”
While Kao the Kangaroo might only be a legend to a few, this new game shows how no game franchise is ever truly gone. As long as some fans and game developers are still passionate about a series, teams big and small can work hard to bring back series, beloved or obscure. And if all goes well, Kao might be sticking around for a while.
“Bringing Kao back after 15 years, we want to stay longer with the title,” Borówko says. “We already have something planned for the fans in the future.”