Reinventing a franchise is tough, and nobody knows that better than Retro Studios. The Metroid franchise had been missing from consoles since the days of the Super Nintendo. When Retro was given a chance to bring Samus Aran to the GameCube, the initial response was, understandably, rather hesitant. The normally side-scrolling adventure game turned into a first-person shooter. Once we got our hands on Metroid Prime, players saw that Retro had created an amazing game that is still heralded as one of the best ever made. Thus far, we've only seen more Metroid titles from Retro. It's not exactly a bad thing, but it leaves one wondering if they have any other tricks up their sleeves. Donkey Kong Country Returns is Retro's second chance at reviving a languishing Nintendo franchise, this time as a more traditional 2-D platformer. It's also proof that Retro isn't a one-trick pony but one of the best developers in the business.
Donkey Kong Country games have never been particularly heavy on the plot, and Donkey Kong County Returns is no different. The Kremlings that terrorized Donkey Kong in the previous games are gone, and his jungle home seems peaceful. Unfortunately, a new group of ruffians shows up to ruin Donkey Kong's day. The Tiki Tak Tribe, a gang of living tikis, has appeared and is hypnotizing the jungle animals into stealing bananas, including Donkey Kong's private stash. Donkey Kong has to get them back, aided by his pal Diddy and the occasional other unhypnotized jungle beast. It's pretty basic, but the cut scenes tell it in an amusing way. Everything is cartoonish and unvoiced, not unlike Super Smash Bros. Brawl's cut scenes, and it makes for a silly and enjoyable romp through the not-so-wild jungle.
The basic gameplay in Donkey Kong Country Returns is very straightforward. There's little deviation from the traditional platformer, and that's for the best. The d-pad or analog stick moves Donkey Kong around. One button jumps, and the other is used to grab objects or cling onto walls. Every other action is performed by shaking the Wii Remote, and what you do is context-sensitive. Shake the Wiimote while Donkey Kong is running, and he'll perform a speedy rolling attack. Shake it while he's standing still, and he'll pound the ground like a pair of bongos to shake enemies and activate switches. Shake it while ducking, and he'll blow out fires or spin windmills. All available actions can be learned within the first few minutes, and it's very easy to pick up and play.
There are some advanced skills to learn, though. For example, pressing the jump button just as you land on an enemy causes Donkey Kong to get an extra bit of height from his jumps. Using the roll move off the side of a cliff allows you to do a double-jump in mid-air, making it possible to reach some items. While you don't need to learn these tricks to get through, you'll find certain collectible items are out of your reach if you don't.
DKCR isn't perfect, but that has a lot to do with one glaring and annoying flaw. While the game offers you a few control schemes, none of them do away with the poorly implemented need to shake the Wiimote to perform certain moves. Being forced to shake to roll or pound the ground during a particularly intense sequence can lead to more than one unfair death, and there's really no reason for it. Shaking worked well in the slower-paced Super Mario Galaxy 2, but it feels out of place here. When games like Sonic Colors can offer you every kind of control scheme under the sun, it doesn't make sense to omit waggle-free options for a Classic Controller or GameCube Controller. While this isn't enough to ruin the experience, it's an indelible mark on an otherwise excellent title. There's no reason to force players to remain with waggling controls, and it feels more like a blatant attempt by Nintendo to remind players that the Wii has motion controls, instead of a good gameplay choice.
Although it's available in earlier games, players don't switch between the two Kongs in DKCR. Instead, the player is always in control of Donkey Kong. Scattered throughout the levels are barrels marked with the Donkey Kong symbol. If you break one, Diddy will be released and ride along on Donkey's back. This gives Donkey an extended life bar and the ability to hover in the air for a brief period. This is quite beneficial and makes it easier to survive. Unfortunately, Diddy Kong isn't a permanent addition to the team. If you take two hits from enemies or die in some other fashion, you'll lose Diddy and all the abilities that come with him until you find another barrel.
Like many recent Nintendo titles, DKCR features a cooperative mode where one player takes control of Donkey and the other of Diddy. Diddy has slightly different moves, including a jetpack and peanut popgun. He can play normally or ride around on Donkey's back to offer the same extra powers as his single-player counterpart. The downside is that the game is actually harder with two players. Forcing two characters to navigate the tricky obstacles can make things a lot rougher. Unlike Super Mario Galaxy or New Super Mario Bros. Wii, where a second player can come along for a fun ride, you're going to need two players of roughly equal skill levels to avoid having someone get frustrated. As such, this makes it a noticeably worse cooperative game for younger players or casual-playing spouses than Nintendo's other recent title, Kirby's Epic Yarn. Some of the levels also feel very limited when played in co-op, particularly those involving vehicles.
Frustrations with co-op aside, the level design in DKCR is up there with some of Nintendo's best. Every level brings something interesting to the table without deviating too far from what you've encountered before. Whether it's riding a rocket through obstacles, dodging exploding cannonballs and tidal waves, or just solving puzzles, you're always doing something new and fun. Certain games can fall into the trap of giving you too much of the same thing, but DKCR does a wonderful job of making most of the areas feel new and fresh. There are a few duds here and there, but they're the exception, not the rule. Boss fights are among some of the easiest and fun stages; each has a unique gimmick or ability, so they all stand out.
Each level is also packed to the brim with collectibles. You can collect bananas, which are Donkey Kong's version of Mario's coins or Sonic's rings. You can collect 100 for a much-needed extra life. You can also collect banana coins, which can be traded to Cranky Kong at a shop to unlock levels or helpful bonuses. Each level also has a number of scattered puzzle pieces; some are hidden in secret areas, and others require you to complete minigames to get them. If you find all the puzzle pieces, you unlock extra artwork in the options menu. You can also find the letters K, O, N and G scattered through each stage. The letters are usually in plain sight but require some skillful play to collect. Finding the KONG letters unlocks new stages and a harder gameplay mode. Fret not if you don't have the patience to find all of these items because you can certainly get through the game without worrying about them. Completionists will find their skills put to the test.
DKCR is a deviation from many recent Nintendo titles in that it is legitimately difficult in quite a few spots. It's rarely overwhelming, but the game expects more from its players than most modern platformers. It starts off easy enough, but it gradually throws more things at you. Quick reflexes and fast thinking are necessary to get through many of the later worlds without sacrificing countless lives. Trying to do so while collecting the KONG letters in a level can be enough of a challenge to make even the most skilled gamers sweat. It can seem almost impossible in some cases, especially since having a co-op partner only makes the game more challenging, not easier. It's a credit to the game's high quality that you'll want to keep playing, instead of feeling discouraged.
Rarely did I encounter an area where a death felt unfair, aside from a few problems with the Wiimote. I was encouraged to try again. Fortunately, while the levels can be rough, there are a few things in place to make it easier on players. Extra lives are abundant, and you can even purchase more from Cranky Kong if you run low. The game also features the return of Nintendo's Super Guide feature, seen in titles like Super Mario Galaxy 2. If you should really get stuck on a level, the game offers you the chance to have a guide finish the level for you. You won't get any of the shiny rewards or KONG letters, but it's better than beating your head against a stage you just don't enjoy.
The original Donkey Kong Country titles were known for their distinctive pre-rendered 3-D graphics, which were unique at the time. Real 3-D graphics are commonplace now, but DKCR still manages to be a fantastic-looking game due to exceptionally strong art design. The game is dripping with care and detail, and each level is full of little quirks and twists. It's bright and colorful, but not in a garish way, and some of the more surprising things in the art style lead to some of the most memorable levels I've ever seen.
The soundtrack is fantastic. It's largely comprised of remixed versions of older Donkey Kong Country songs, but they are incredibly well done and perfectly fit the game's tone. In many ways, it's as good as, if not better than, the top-notch Super Mario Galaxy 2 soundtrack.
Donkey Kong Country Returns is undeniable proof that Retro's prowess isn't limited to sci-fi first-person shooters. It may not be the most innovative title on the market, but it makes up for that by having phenomenal level design, beautiful visuals and a top-notch soundtrack. The gameplay is incredible from start to finish, marred only by some unnecessary Wiimote-focused controls and a sometimes-awkward co-op mode. Those few blemishes aside, DKCR is one of the best platformers I've played in years and even arguably manages to eclipse the SNES originals. The difficulty may be a bit daunting, especially younger gamers, but the game offers enough hints and help that everyone should have fun with it. If you're a Wii owner, you'd be doing yourself a disservice if you didn't try Donkey Kong Country Returns.
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