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Hands-on: Donkey Kong Country Returns

7:28 PM on 10.28.2010 // Ben Perlee

People have been really stoked for Donkey Kong Country Returns. And they should be! After all, the original Donkey Kong Country games remain classic fan favorites, even as DK has been pushed to the side in favor of other Nintendo franchises. In sticking to 2D platforming, remixing the familiar tunes and traditional gameplay, and making Retro Studios the development house, Nintendo has done a lot to make sure this is the game fans have waited 13 years for. I've written about it before, and after two hours with the title, I'm ready to share my excitement with you, so follow the jump for more.

People have been really stoked for Donkey Kong Country Returns. And they should be! After all, the original Donkey Kong Country games remain classic fan favorites, even as DK has been pushed to the side in favor of other Nintendo franchises. In sticking to 2D platforming, remixing the familiar tunes and traditional gameplay, and making Retro Studios the development house, Nintendo has done a lot to make sure this is the game fans have waited 13 years for. I've written about it before, and after two hours with the title, I'm ready to share my excitement with you, so follow the jump for more.


Donkey Kong Country Returns (Wii)
Developer: Retro Studios
Publisher: Nintendo
To be released: November 21, 2010

If you've not read my original preview, Donkey Kong Country Returns is a reboot of the franchise originally developed by Rare. Things have changed a lot since then, and now it's up to Texas-based Retro Studios to pick up the mantle. Done with Metroid, it's actually refreshing to see them make something that doesn't star sexy bounty hunters in space. If you want to finish my preview now, know that Donkey Kong Country Returns is really fantastic, I love it, and any fans of platformers will want to play it. The end.

But you want to more? Alright, well, the game is hard. And pretty. It's pretty hard. One of the most impressive (and frustrating) stages had to be in the second zone of DK's island. Taking place on a wet and stormy beach, DK and Diddy have to traverse across the stage while dodging incoming tidal waves that will take out any enemy crabs, bananas, banana coins, treasure chests, and basically anything that's in the way. This stage is visually stunning, with each crash of the waves rocking the level and destroying stone walls. It's also incredibly difficult, as not only do you need to be thoughtful, you only have a few moments to make a decision. Waves are coming every five seconds, so every step is important.

This sort of quick-time danger is throughout the game. While Donkey Kong Country Returns is never unfair per se, it is brutal in that each stage has an entirely new gimmick to avoid, with barrels almost as lethal as they are helpful. Whereas every other platformer decides a theme for a whole world, and sticks with it for each one, Donkey Kong Country Returns only uses those themes as a starting point, and builds upon them in a surprisingly smart way.

Each of the stages Retro Studios built constantly require you to do something different. Sometimes it's a stage focused on vine climbing, mine carts, rocket barrels, or riding Rambi the Rhino. What's clear is that each of the levels are tightly tuned to instantly entertain, and whenever they throw something especially unique, such as jumping back into a stage at a different plane, or playing through a sunset level when everything is in silhouette, the whole experience is enthralling.

While I struggled through a couple of levels in the second area of the game, and the third area started to put up some more challenge, I wasn't fast enough to check out the other “zones” within my two-hour play session. It's a shame, because there seems to be about eight of these areas. If world three was kicking my butt, then the last worlds should be great for those who want a challenge. Kirby's Epic Yarn this is not; players of New Super Mario Bros. Wii-esque challenge should be stoked to see the trouble DKCR will give.

I also have to say, I love the bosses. I only saw three of them -- a horny toad, three crabs, and a baby bird -- all possessed by the hypnotic Tiki enemies. Each of these bosses have different methods of destruction. I actually needed help to figure out how to defeat the bird, which was surprisingly difficult. The fight involved vomited bombs and a Mayan mask. Between the shared health of DK and Diddy, you can only get hit four times, and in some situations, this isn't much. My favorite boss is certainly the dancing pirate crabs, who attack by alternating dance pattern. Odd, sure, but fun, yes. Thankfully, Retro has a really satisfying method to ending these boss battles, allowing players to whale away at the offending Tikis before sending them on their way. Satisfying to say the least.

Control-wise, DK and Diddy handle like a dream. The physics of DK's island is just like you would have in the SNES originals. Diddy's jetpack often acts as both a savior and a necessity -- and it's the only way you can get to certain items -- so you really want to keep him around. In co-op, he can split off and be controlled by another player, and he has his peanut pop gun too.

Co-op isn't quite as competitive as New Super Mario Bros. Wii, but it is certainly easy to screw the other player up. Thankfully, coming back from the dead is easy, as a balloon will drop the previously dead player right back on the stage. Easy as pie.

One area I'm a little picky about is some of the motion control. You need to shake the nunchuck and remote for rolling and blowing air for certain puzzles, and while they work just fine, they weren't quite as tight as I would have liked. Like I said in the last preview, both DK and Diddy can roll/cartwheel, but when they are together, Diddy can run on DK as he's rolling, resulting in an unstoppable force that zips across the stage.

One Nintendo rep mentioned that he plays the game like this as much as possible. This rolling is super important, as many of the stages require you to do the famed roll jump. Those damn KONG tokens will often be found floating over a pit, and this distinctly DK-esque double jump is your ticket.

That's where players are going to find the most replay -- and challenge -- in Donkey Kong Country Returns. In addition to the standard bananas floating around the stages, DK and Diddy will be collecting banana coins, which are useful for going to Cranky's shop for items, KONG tokens, and Puzzle Pieces. KONG tokens aren't too bad, as they are at least out in the open and easy to see. Puzzle pieces -- good for unlocking secrets in the main menu -- are the hardest ones to get, as the seemingly straightforward levels of the island have all sorts of devilishly secrets.

Sometimes the puzzle pieces are hidden in a plant that needs to be smashed, or it's in one of the banana-collecting chambers, where DK needs to collect all of the bananas in some time-based challenges. However, most stages have anywhere from five to nine puzzle pieces, and considering I could only ever find three or four during any given playthrough, there are some majorly difficult pieces to find. Even if you disagree with me and find the game to be easy, just remember that collectibles will offer the real challenge.

There are some options in the game to help players out who do happen to find it overly difficult. One of them I cannot talk about, but in Cranky's shop you can purchase (via banana coins) extra consumable items, as well as extra lives.

First, we've got confirmation that Squawks the parrot is back. When you use him in a level, he'll sit in the corner of the stage and squawks when there is a puzzle piece nearby. There's also banana juice for invincibility, a boost to the amount of hearts DK can have on the stage, and a giant skeleton key that will unlock a new level in each island zone. These items help in those especially difficult areas, but they are often expensive. Thankfully, the game rewards players with banana tokens often, and they are certainly not a finite resource.

Ultimately, Donkey Kong Country Returns is a fantastic return to form for the franchise. Remaining true to the series' standards, it feels incredibly close to the original SNES games, all while ignoring many of the problems with those first titles. It feels fresh and new, yet true to its roots. Retro fans of the original will certainly want to give it a go, and younger players will benefit from a truly fantastic platformer.

I've got high hopes for the game when it comes out next month, and Nintendo would've really had to have hidden some terrible elements of the game for me to be disappointed. I suspect they haven't.

Ben Perlee,
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