Donkey Kong Country Returns Review

-Shawn Trautman

All the reviews I’ve done have been for games that were completely new to me, and therefore had no nostalgia attached to them - even games from 20 years ago. I’m not as confident about this one. While Donkey Kong Country Returns on Wii is not a direct port or remake of the Donkey Kong Country games on the SNES, there are nevertheless certain touches that will tickle the nostalgia bone of anyone who loved the original trilogy.

And love them I do. I was blown away by the original games as a teenager, putting untold hours into collecting every banana, coin and K-O-N-G letter. Then, when I met my wife many years later, I learned that she too loved the games and owned a SNES with all three. Some of our courtship happened with us jumping, swinging, and helicopter hair-ing our way together through places called “Barrel Cannon Canyon” “Tree Top Town” or “Demolition Drain Pipe.” I say all this just to get it out there: yes, nostalgia will probably play a factor for me from time to time. Now, on to the game at hand.

Donkey Kong Country Returns was developed by Retro Studios, who also made the exemplary Metroid Prime games, making this the second time this American studio was entrusted with updating a beloved Japanese franchise. While they didn’t revolutionize this property as much as the last, it is still clear how much attention to detail and pure love was paid to this game. The gameplay is tight and challenging, the music is superb, and the visuals are stunning. This is a lengthy and challenging game that anyone can pick up, but few can master.

GAMEPLAY - Donkey Kong Country Returns is what is known as a “2.5-D platformer” - a term of art used to describe modern games that use polygonal graphics and three-dimensional depth, but still restrict movement along a 2-D plane, like the 8- and 16-bit games of old. Like the older DKC games, the action consists mostly of jumping on platforms and enemies, solving small environmental puzzles, and using things like mine carts, rocket barrels and animal helpers to get around. The platforming is smooth and precise, even if there are a few of the hated “waggle” controls to contend with. 

And, like many of the old 16-bit platformers, this game is hard. Not “ooh, that was a tricky little section” hard, but “make you tear your hair out and question your sanity” hard. Luckily, this game did what the old DKC games (and Super Mario World) did so well, and that’s allow you to go back to earlier, easier levels to pick up extra lives and even some items that might make things easier for you. The levels are still crazy tough, but at least you know you always have a chance. It’s always up to your own skill, rather than some arbitrary number of lives, whether you’ll succeed or fail. And fail you will. Over and over again. I’ve heard from friends that played it solo that if you die more than eight times in a row on a level, the game will give you the option of having the “Super Guide” - a silver gorilla - run through the rest of the level for you, subject to you taking back control at any time. This is not available in co-op, however, which is the way I played the game, meaning it was all up to us humans to make it through to the end.

Speaking of the differences in co-op, in single-player you control both Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong. You actually move and jump with Donkey, but Diddy rides on your back and has a rocket pack on that allows you to extend your jumps and also to hover for brief periods. This rocket pack is absolutely essential to several parts of the game, and makes everything so much easier. But when you are playing co-op, one player (me) controls Donkey and the other (my wife) controls Diddy. This means that somebody will get the spry, limber and agile Diddy, while someone else will get stuck with slow, lumbering Donkey, whose jump is much shorter in length and height. And in a game as difficult as this one, that commands so much precision and perfection, playing as Donkey for the whole game was tough. Playing co-op is a blast for getting to hang out and play with someone you like, but from a pure gameplay perspective, single player is by far the better way to go.

STORY - I don’t know. Some evil tiki-type guy is using music to hypnotize various creatures that live on the same island as the Kongs into stealing the Kongs’ bananas. I think. There is a brief introductory cinematic which is pretty cute, if not particularly illuminating, and then you get another short cinematic before and after each boss fight, but none of them really tell you anything. Story is not the draw for this game, and if you come into this game looking for a deep and involving narrative, you will be sorely disappointed.

PRESENTATION - Boy is this game ever pretty. Choosing a side-scrolling perspective allowed Retro Studios to get around the Wii’s limited hardware and create some truly beautiful and impressive visuals. The initial worlds are serene beaches with waves crashing and giant whales swimming along (and sometimes becoming part of) the levels. Later worlds take place in dank caves or ferocious volcanic lava floes. Each environment is unique and is presented with a clean and simple aesthetic that nevertheless holds endless little touches and surprises. 

The environments themselves are gorgeous, but it’s what happens in them that is truly impressive. There are huge monsters that take up the entire screen, levels where giant waves wash over all but small safe portions of ground, levels where you spend most of your time running from a screen-filling plague of killer insects, levels that take place at sunset and are entirely silhouettes, levels that switch planes between the background and foreground, and levels that use mine carts and rocket barrels to create a dizzying sense of speed and panic. Each level (of which there are over 50) has its own distinct style and at least one “wow” moment. They are so pretty and varied that it is a joy just to sit and watch someone else play, as you can catch details you won’t see while playing. 

The music is also fantastic. There are a small handful of tracks that have been taken from the old DKC series and updated, which is a nice treat for fans, but most of the music is new. There is a great main theme of steel drums and island rhythms that fits perfectly with the island setting, but each world, be it jungle or factory or cave, has its own different style, and the tunes never grow old. Special attention should be given to the final world, the volcano. The music there is so dark and foreboding and sounds remarkably similar to the music used in the Magmoor Caverns area in Metroid Prime.

CONCLUSION - This is one of the hardest games I have played in a long time. Recently, only Viewtiful Joe (another retro-inspired, 2.5-D platformer) comes close in pure, controller-throwing rage. But it is also a vibrant, meticulous piece of game design that is at once approachable and deceptively deep. The developers clearly understood what made the original Donkey Kong Country series so lovable, and they distilled the best parts (charming aesthetic, tight platforming and tons of collectibles) down, added some modern touches, and delivered one of the best games made that year, and one of the best ever for Nintendo’s outgoing console.

Verdict: 92%

Donkey Kong Country Returns: Gameplay Trailer

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