The backlog of amazing Nintendo games is one of many reasons why gamers continue to back the company's consoles. Donkey Kong Country Returns is yet another fantastic visit to the company's catalogue of amazing game designs. Other than the brutal difficulty – which many will (and rightfully should) see as a positive – there's very little to complain about in Donkey Kong Country Returns. This is an incredibly challenging, old-school throwback that might not set the genre afire with innovation, but in my book, it's better than the awesome game that inspired it.
The classic Rare-developed Donkey Kong Country gained notoriety on the Super Nintendo as one of the first games to utilize cutting edge Pixar-like computer generated imagery for characters and backgrounds. It was a technique that really brought the environments to life in a world of simplistic pixel art from the competition. The game also established Donkey Kong as a bona fide platforming hero with a background story after years as a bumbling girlfriend kidnapper and part-time go-kart driver. The game was an incredible success that spawned two sequels and a bunch of handheld ports.
In later years, Rare branched out and attempted a 3D platformer in Donkey Kong 64, and Nintendo's Tokyo team (the Mario Galaxy developers) tried its hand with the brilliantly creative Donkey Kong Jungle Beat on the GameCube, but Donkey Kong Country Returns is the big guy's first true starring role on the Wii console, bringing DK back to his original old-school platforming days on the Super NES.
Retro Studios didn't set out to expand on the classic in the same way it did with the Metroid Prime series. Instead, it looks like the team applied the same design process Nintendo did with New Super Mario Bros. Wii: old school values using new school techniques. And even with its more modest production values compared to Retro's last three products, Donkey Kong Country Returns comes out a better 2D platformer than Mario's own Wii revisit a year ago.
With the power of the Wii, the prerendered graphics style has been replaced with real-time visuals. Other than this change, Donkey Kong Country Returns is the tried and true Donkey Kong Country experience, completely refreshed and updated for the current generation of gamers. DK's banana horde has been swiped and his jungle buddies hypnotized by a new troupe of bad guys. While Donkey Kong Country purists may cry foul with the omission of K. Rool and his evil gang from the Super NES original, it was in this area that Retro Studios made the game its own with a brand new set of baddies and end bosses. And at least Donkey Kong Country Returns makes it perfectly clear why a giant banana horde has been stolen. But that'd be a spoiler if I said anything more…
I'll fully admit that as much fun as I was having with Donkey Kong Country Returns, I was just a smidge underwhelmed in my first hour. There are obvious exceptions to the rule, but for the most part Retro Studios stuck very close to the blueprint laid out by Rare in the Super Nintendo original -- so much of the levels stayed within the restriction of the classic designs.
But I have to say, the deeper traveled in this jungle, the better the game gets. It improves in leaps and bounds with every completed challenge. Levels start getting more creative that expand on the basics laid out in the beginning, so while it feels very boilerplate in the first couple of worlds, by World 6 I couldn't wait to see what lay around the next corner. The classic run and jump, barrel-blasting gameplay is enhanced with the traditional mine cart runs, but Retro added its own take with Rocket Barrel runs where you'll have to navigate through hazards simply by boosting up or falling down.
Donkey Kong Country Returns is the polar opposite of Kirby's Epic Yarn. Where Kirby is a very accessible platformer for all ages, Donkey Kong Country Returns is for the truly hardcore gamer that's looking for something that'll really push their skills. There's no question about it: it's a brutal experience and one of the most difficult platformers you'll face. There's absolutely nothing wrong with a game with a wickedly high challenge because it makes it all that much sweeter when you beat the game. But that won't happen overnight -- guaranteed. The only way to finish the game 100 percent is to collect all the pick-ups (KONG letters and puzzle pieces) in each level. On top of that, each level has a time trial, and you'll be spending days trying to beat these times. If you thought the levels were tough on their own, wait until you have to run through them as fast as you possibly can. It's pure insanity.
For as difficult as the game is, Nintendo and Retro haven't completely abandoned the, shall we say, less than experienced gamer. Just like New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Super Mario Galaxy 2, Donkey Kong Country Returns features the welcome "auto play" option if you find yourself stuck. After a few deaths, you'll earn the ability to have the game play for you. Me, I chose to skip the option every time it was presented to me, but I totally understand if there are times where you might want to pull the trigger just to move on.
It is sad that you can only play as Diddy Kong if you're playing as Player Two in the simultaneous co-op mode. Diddy is relegated to power-up status in single player, giving players the ability to rocket hover after a jump to assist with the landing. I do enjoy the Diddy mechanic because it forces you to play the game in two different ways: if you lose Diddy, you won't be able to depend on the slight hover he gives you. I just wish I could take the little monkey out for a spin without his big buddy around.
The game plays with the Wii remote exclusively or with the nunchuk/Wii Remote pairing, but I had far better luck and tighter control using the Wii remote by itself. The game actually requires waggle motions for a variety of controls, from ground stomps to quick rolls depending on which direction is being pressed. I actually had several cheap deaths happen with the Nunchuk pairing during the "waggle" control – if the analog stick is pushed even a fraction left or right when you thrust the controllers for a ground pound, the game will send Donkey Kong into a roll instead and many times right off the edge of a platform. This issue rarely happens on the D-pad because it's either pressed or it's not – there's no in-between to get in the way and confuse the game.
Retro also added a couple of new gameplay mechanics to the standard Donkey Kong Country design. One makes sense: climbing. Donkey Kong can cling to grassy surfaces by holding onto a button, and there are some seriously awesome levels that combine the climbing mechanic with the traditional platforming. The other mechanic seems more out of place: blowing. By holding down and waggling the controller DK blows breath, which can be used to blow dandelions or trumpets or windmills to reveal hidden treasures…or nothing at all. This "blow" mechanic might be used to weaken certain enemies too, but it interrupts the flow of the platforming because you're constantly stopping to check out every single "blowable" object to find hidden items. It's not terrible but it certainly feels unnecessary.
There are eight full worlds of action, but it all keeps going and going thanks to the unlockables that demand a perfect play. If you've been wishing for a game that isn't a simple push over, Nintendo and Retro Studios have answered your call with Donkey Kong Country Returns.