It has been held in near unanimous agreement that the Donkey Kong County games for the Super Nintendo are some of the best games not only on said platform, but of the platforming genre in general. Despite this all encompassing praise, in the years following 16 bit era, Donkey Kong has mostly fallen off the radar in terms of top tier platformers.
Since the departure of Rare, the developers of the Donkey Kong Country franchise, from Nintendo in 2002, Donkey Kong has mainly been used as a sort of guinea pig test subject for new ideas. This came in the form of games such as Donkey Konga and Donkey Kong Jungle Beat showing off Nintendo's Barrel controllers, DK: King of Swing and DK: Jungle Climber which tried to move the ape into a new style of gameplay revolving around climbing pegs, and the Mario vs Donkey Kong series which brought back the style of gameplay from the original Donkey Kong arcade games. While I personally never had much interest in these games, I appreciated their desire to innovate. On that same note, there was no reason for me to have any interest in these games as, aside from the occasional session of Donkey Kong games with my grade school friends, I have never had any real one on one time with the big ape myself.
This is why when Nintendo announced Retro Studios, the same developers that revitalized the Metroid series with the Metroid Prime games was going to be doing the same for Donkey Kong with the release of Donkey Kong Country Returns for the Wii in 2010, I was less than amused. It had been 14 years since the last of the acclaimed Donkey Kong Country games was released on the Super Nintendo and Donkey Kong Country Returns seemed to me like another one of Nintendo's Nostalgia ridden games akin to Super Mario Bros. Wii or Metroid: Other M trying to woo players with their 1990s style
This is not to say that I have a problem with Nostalgia. I love my childhood games as much as the next person, but I had no real emotional connection to Donkey Kong and I was not looking for a trip down memory lane. I wanted something fresh. I wanted something new. I wanted the innovation. But that's where my thinking was wrong.
My lack of insight into the Donkey Kong Country way of life made this game, not a rehash of a decade and a half old concept, but rather a whole new experience that showed me just why the Donkey Kong Country franchise was so popular in the first place.
The game presents itself as a 2.5D side scrolling platformer similar to its SNES predecessors. All character's, items and landscapes are represented by 3D models, but the character's movements are limited to a 2D plane: at least for the most part. There are multiple levels in which by either necessity or as a level secret, you can move Donkey Kong from the main two-demential path of the game into a parallel set of platforms positioned in the background of the levels. This is just one of the small but significant ways that Donkey Kong Country Returns expands upon the original series concepts.
It also has plenty of the series trademark blast barrel sections and the oh so literal on rails mine cart sections. It even combines these two ideas into new sections where you have to fly in a rocket barrel as it propels you either forward or vertically while you try to dodge everything in your path by carefully balancing your heigh with a button press.
The game also lets you choose which style of controls you want to use, with options for both the Wii Remote and Nunchuk or by turning the Wii Romote on its side like an NES controller. The main problem with this is that both control schemes require motion controls for certain moves, and while moves like ground pounding works well with the waggle and even feels intuitive, having to shake the Wii Remote to roll or to execute the new move of blowing doesn't feel natural and are sometimes unresponsive or will perform the wrong move all together if you are not perfectly hitting the right direction on the analog stick or D-pad. It would have been nice if they gave the option to map those moves to buttons.
The story is almost non-existant with little more than a short opening cutscene that explains that group of mind controlling tiki statues have stolen DK's banana hoard and he and his pal Diddy Kong must set out, once again, to get back their bananas. I do not hold this as a criticism, however, as it does tell you everything you need to know, better than the original Donkey Kong Country in fact, and you will be concentrating far too much on staying alive to question the reasoning of your daring quest.
Yes, that is right, this game is hard. Brutal even. Do nott let the cute and colorful animals deceive you. You will die and die and die again. Luckily there are plenty of ways to easily build up a large collection of lives, which is good as it is nott hard to lose up to 20 or 30 lives in a single level. Surprisingly, I never found myself overly frustrated, and more often than not I was left feeling more determined to finish a level after each consecutive death, as the levels are all very well structured and highly intuitive, as long as you are up for some challenge and level memorization. Something to think about before psyching yourself up to play this game is that there is a difficulty curve that comes in the form of the final boss, and in a game that can already be excruciatingly difficulty, a spike right at the end can near ruin the whole experience of the game.
One more minor gripe I had with Donkey Kong Country Returns was its tiki antagonists. Even as a relative newcomer to the Donkey Kong world, it just didn't feel completely like a Donkey Kong game without DK's arch rival King K Rool and his crew of killer Kremlings. But the Tiki's do hold their own and along with the various bosses, add some humor to the package. And for someone coming in brand new to the Donkey Kong franchise, this won't be a problem at all.
Donkey Kong Country Returns does a lot to streamline the experience to keep the focus almost entirely on the gameplay. Aside from the Kremlings getting the axe, there are many other characters that did not make the cut. In fact, aside from Donkey Kong and Diddy, the only other classic Kong to make an appearance is Kranky who runs the item shop, so do not expect to see any surfboard carrying or bakini wearing apes in this game, or any ghostly old ladies. The only real complaint with this streamlining is the inability to switch between characters. For all the Diddy fans out there, you will be stuck playing as DK for the entire game with Diddy taking the roll of a power up, adding extra health and a jump boost. But do not let that get you down. If you really want to play as Diddy, grab a friend and play co-op with one player controlling Donkey Kong and the other Diddy Kong, just make sure you are both of a similar skill level.
The ability to play Co-op along with with a Time Attack mode and a slew of collectables to collect in two-dimensional world with more areas to explore than many three-dimensional games will have fans of sidescrolling platformers coming back over and over again.
In the end, I learned something. Is Donkey Kong Country Returns a game made to appeal to the fans? Absolutely, but that does not just include the old fans, but new fans as well.
--Alex Brown (DAX)