Review: Donkey Kong Country Returns

Donkey Kong Country is a series so old a lot of younger gamers probably don't know it was a series. That said, Donkey Kong Country Returns is an excellent chance to sit your son/daughter down to a nice little show and tell of "awesome game from my day". This is because if they liked DKCR, they're very likely going to like the older classic DKC titles.

For those of you who are younger readers who are completely perplexed at the above statement, let me explain. Donkey Kong Country Returns is a sequel to a wildly successful series hailing from the era of the Super Nintendo. Back when pre-generated computer sprites were all the rage, a little company called Rare pumped out a Trio of brilliant platformer games that became the Donkey Kong Country series. They were brilliant platformers (especially the second) with large amounts of replay value, excellent music (especially the second) and nail-biting, hair-pulling, "throw-your-controller" difficulty. Especially the second one. Rare made a single foray into the next generation of Console with Donkey Kong 64, but once Rare left Nintendo's wing for Microsoft, the series ended, with nothing new but assorted side games and experiments with different genres.

But Nintendo, although it may take them forever to get around to releasing anything (*cough* F-Zero for Wii *cough*) isn't one to let a series down if they can find a way to keep it going, and they handed development of a true DKC sequel over to Retro Studios, the developers of the excellent Metroid Prime series. Now, DKC Returns has arrived, a full sequel to the original series, but from new hands. So how is it?

More fun then a barrel of monkeys!

Donkey Kong Country Returns
Developer: Retro Studios
Publisher: Nintendo
Type: Platformer
ESRB Rating: E for Everyone
Platform: Wii (Reviewed)
Price on Amazon: $46.95
Similar Games: Donkey Kong Country Series
Demo Available: No

Donkey Kong's island home is in trouble. A massive, scowling Tiki head has erupted from the islands central volcano and scattered thousands of tiny Tiki's all over the island. Of course, this probably wouldn't be that bad, except that the Tiki's immediately set about hypnotizing the islands animal population to steal the Kong's Banana Horde. And that just won't do.

This is the introduction to the world of Donkey Kong Country Returns, told in a wonderfully animated (and funny) intro video. Your banana's are gone, the Tiki's have quite willfully taken the blame, and there's only one thing to do: Smash monkey smash. And run. And ride carts. And make dangerous, tricky leaps. And ride hair-trigger barrel rockets. And much more, all in the grand quest to get your banana's back! If this feels in any way similar to earlier Kong titles (like the first), well it is. If you've played Donkey Kong before, you'll know what to expect.

Gameplay and Controls
Which is in truth, some of the most golden platforming to be found on any console. The Donkey Kong series was known for its precise gameplay, and Donkey Kong Country Returns faithfully keeps the classic Donkey Kong feel while at the same time adding new moves and powers to the classic series. Those who played the old games will feel right at home almost immediately. Donkey Kong still moves, jumps and dishes out his trademark roll attack. There are however, a few changes that at first are a little different. In the original Donkey Kong series, the player would pick up speed during a roll attack for every enemy you took out. This feature has been removed, all rolls now have the same speed and length. This partially seems to be due to the change in control, rolling is now initiated by shaking the controller. While this can backfire on you (never try to swat a bug during a tricky jumping section for example) it serves it's purpose well enough and never really felt gimmicky.

Kong has a nice array of new moves as well. When standing still, shaking the controller will result in a ground pounding slam that stuns nearby enemies and can be used to shake away nearby scenery to reveal secrets. Ducking and shaking the controller causes Donkey Kong to blow, generating a stiff wind that will blow away flames or activate certain switches.

Gone also is the older gameplay style of tag team monkeys, each one only needing one hit to be taken out. Instead, DKCR gives you a heart meter on the side of the screen, which gives you two hits, or four if Diddy Kong is riding on your back. Rather then the tag team switch off of the old titles, Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong work in unison, having Diddy Kong on your back gives you a gliding jetpack, which isn't needed to pass any of the games jumps, but is a nice bonus when you have it. All in all, while the moves have changed a little, the game still feels and acts just like a classic old school Donkey Kong title. The levels feel like classic levels, yet feel totally new. Control is fresh and tight, and very quickly you'll know exactly how high and far Kong will jump when you hit the button.

Knowing this is imperative, because just like older DK titles, DKCR is hard. Nintendo hard. By the end of the game, I was burning through dozens of lives on a single level. A guest at my place tried the game and gave up on the second level because it was too difficult. DKCR is a punishing game. It's not that it's cheap, I can actually think of only one time in the entire game that my death wasn't justified, and it was easily remedied. Its that beating DKCR

For those who just can't get past a certain stage however, the game does feature Nintendo's Super Guide. Lose 8 lives in a single level, and the game gives you the option of letting Super Kong take over and show you how its done. The downside is that the game doesn't tally the level as actually beaten, and you can't earn any secrets or KONG letters this way. The downside here is that if you buy this for your kids or someone who's not ready for the crippling difficulty of a DK game, you may find them simply watching the game play itself once they hit the 3rd or 4th world.

You can always take to the Co-op mode and give them a hand though. Co-op in DKCR is handled well. One player controls Donkey Kong while the other controls Diddy. Diddy has the jet pack and can fire his peanut guns, giving him a nice newcomer feel to the game. He can also ride on Donkey Kong's back, giving the first player access to the jet pack and letting the second player ride out some of the more difficult sections. Note that this does make bosses a bit more difficult. Since it's 2 players, not one, you'll need to be on your toes during boss fights, you'll have less leniency for hits.

If there were to be one thing that could have been done better, I would point to world 4.  Now, the classic DK games were known for having minecart levels, and DKCR ratchets that up a notch with Rocket-barrel levels as well as minecart levels. While they're alright most of the time, world 4 is nothing but mine carts and rocket barrels, and despite all of the clever gameplay tricks that kept the tracks fresh, I just got tired of constantly being on a mine cart or a rocket. But if you can push past that world (and it isn't that bad, I played it all in one sitting) the game rewards you with some amazing levels past that.

Graphics and Sound
The graphics are in a single word incredible. This is a title that, I kid you not, manages to look better then the majority of 360 or PS3 games out there. Clever use of color, painted backgrounds, lots and lots of attention to small details, it all adds up to a beautiful experience. I hope those of you who can play this game on an large screen HDTV, because some of the backdrops for the levels will make you want to just put down your controller and just look for a little while. The game is full of little touches of personality, whether its trees waving in the background or water splashing against a ship hull in the foreground. Everything is silky smooth and fluid, with no jagged edges. I don't know how the Wii can crack out such an amazing looking game, but it did. One really special detail that I in particular enjoyed is how animated Donkey Kong is. When things happen on screen, he reacts to them, often in amusing ways that add to the charm of the game. He watches the rising lava when he's on a sinking platform, for example, and if you stand still he looks progressively more nervous as the lava rises and glances at nearby platforms. He'll watch nearby enemies with suspicion. So detailed is his animation that if you do a ground pound while standing on a ledge, his hands will cup the ledge or even pound the cliff side rather then hit empty air like most games. Retro Studios has always had an exemplary eye for detail, and it shows in DKCR.

The sound is also wonderful. Retro Studios clearly has a talented composer, because the music is excellent, staying true to the classic DK style while experimenting with new sounds and rhythms. You'll hear plenty of familiar tunes, but all of the music is up to date and in some cases reborn in some very new ways. The sound effects themselves are perfectly suited, sounding just like you would expect. I did notice one flaw however. The game has a lot of sound effects, so while you yourself may not mind them, others tend to get annoyed by constant sounds coming from the speakers.

Amazingly, DKCR does actually have a plot, which may surprise and shock you. But there is actually a reason behind the Tiki's banana thieving. How about that?

Donkey Kong Country Returns is, quite simply put, one of the BEST platforming games that I have ever played. There is a golden standard of platforming games, and DKCR is right up at the top. It is pixel perfect in its design, brilliant in its execution, and will make you grin so hard your face will hurt afterward. If you have been on the fence with this one, go for it. Retro Studios has delivered a game full of value, from top to bottom, and an instant classic. This one is a must buy.

  • Incredible Gameplay
  • Beautiful Graphics
  • Excellent Soundtrack
  • Platforming Perfection
  • Co-op Mode is a Blast
  • High Difficulty
  • Rocket and Mine Cart levels get a little old after a while.
Verdict: If you like platformers at all, purchase this immediately.

1 comment:

OneBoot said...

Totally agree with all of your points, Viking. My parents got it sometime before Christmas, so I had the opportunity to play it over Christmas break. I will admit to doing a happy little geeky dance after playing it for a few minutes, just because they got it so RIGHT. :D

The biggest thing for me was the fact that they kept the physics of the game nearly identical to the originals. This was important, since I was practically raised on those, and I'm to the point where the moves are all intuitive now. That was what made me want to throw the controller across the room while playing the Mario Bros. for Wii; it just felt too different. But that's another topic.

Anyways, excellent review of an excellent game. Oh, and +5 to your comments on difficulty. It took my husband about 3 hours just to pass the first bonus level. He simply refused to allow this game to beat him. :)

--OneBoot :D