A game so good it’ll have you beating your chest and flinging your feces in excitement.
In case you hadn’t noticed, in the last couple of years, the Nintendo Wii has been subject to the revival of a number of key franchises in the company’s portfolio; franchises that have either strayed far from their humble beginnings or simply haven’t been seen in many years, if not both. The beloved Donkey Kong franchise is the latest to follow this trend—in the footsteps of New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, and even, to some extent, Metroid: Other M—with its newest incarnation, Donkey Kong Country Returns. Interestingly, the game’s developer, Retro Studios, is the same company responsible for the re-imagination of another classic Nintendo franchise, in the form of the Metroid Prime saga. However, this time—as mentioned—the company was tasked with bringing a series back to its roots, rather than taking it (quite literally) to another dimension. It’s been 13 years since we’ve seen the Kong family in 2D platforming fashion. In fact, the game’s titular character hasn’t been played in this form since Donkey Kong Land for the Gameboy back in 1995. Well, as the name suggests, he makes a return in DKCR. And what a triumphant return it is.
I previously wrote a first hour review of the game (http://firsthour.net/first-hour-review/donkey-kong-country-returns
), and now, after spending much more time with it (and considering Retro’s history with Metroid), I’m of the opinion that Retro should be given full responsibility over all major Nintendo IPs henceforth. This game is—and I’m trying really hard not to oversell it—perfect. Okay, well, maybe not perfect, but about as close as you can get. I kind of had trouble writing a review because of this. I didn’t know exactly how to convey the sheer brilliance of this game, but, at the same time, I know words can only go so far. Only after playing will you understand why everyone’s going ape over this—and hopefully, if nothing else, this review will get you to do so.
Donkey Kong Country veterans will feel right at home in this new game. Most of the original concepts return in much the same form; vine swinging, barrel blasting, mine carting, banana grabbing, KONG letter collecting—it’s all there. Not returning however is K. Rool and the Kremlings, much to the dismay of some diehards. Fear not, the Tiki Tak Tribe makes an excellent new enemy. There’s much variety in the many forms the tikis take, as well as the animals and boss creatures they have under their control. Other noticeable omissions include underwater levels and a sizable roster of animal buddies to command (save for Rambi and Squawks), the later being the most disappointing—not because their absence leaves something to be desired, but because it would’ve been interesting to see how Retro implemented the likes of Expresso, Winky, or Squitter, to name a few.
Donkey Kong can still jump and roll to defeat foes and ground pound to reveal hidden items. Ground pounding near enemies will also stun them now. I mentioned barrel blasting, but barrel throwing also returns (it is DK’s thing afterall), and is used to not only attack enemies but break into hidden areas. Although the lack of many types of barrels didn’t go unnoticed, I didn’t really miss the likes of the steel or TNT barrels at all. Seems you can teach an old Kong new tricks, though… Donkey and Diddy can now cling on grassy surfaces to climb or brachiate their way through levels, and the blow mechanic means it will take more than brute strength to solve puzzles, defeat certain enemies, or find hidden treasures—like puzzle pieces, a new item that unlocks bonus material if players track down a level’s entire set.
Another noteworthy addition is that of the health meter, represented by two hearts in the top-right corner of the screen. Basically, Donkey Kong can take two hits now instead of one. Players can also find hearts to heal themselves throughout levels. Retro’s also added a new “vehicle” for the Kong’s to ride in: the rocket barrel. In rocket barrel levels, the player is required simply to hold or let go of the ’2′ button to make the barrel rise or fall to collect items and weave around hazards. Simple in design, these levels provide some great fun and challenge, and are a welcome addition.
One of the biggest changes is how Diddy Kong is implemented in single player. Instead of swapping between the two Kongs as you see fit, you remain in control of Donkey the whole time while Diddy rides on his back. This does several things: It adds two more hearts to your health (Diddy will be lost if the player takes two hits however), it allows you to roll through enemies ad infinitum, and it allows you to make use of Diddy’s jetpack, which not only lets you jump farther but better time and land your jumps (this is easily the most important attribute). The Kongs can work separately in two player mode though, which we’ll get to in a bit…
Level design is absolutely ingenious. Everything from the pacing, to the placement, to the look itself is virtually flawless (this becomes all the more evident in Time Attack mode). And I just can’t get over how incredibly creative Retro’s use of the foreground and background is during play. If not interacting with it directly/indirectly in some way—using barrels to blast between various planes or changing the scenery entirely—the player is often treated to eye candy in the form of scripted animations. Things like a giant octopus breaking up a pirate ship in the background, or a mole riding along in a mine cart in the foreground, are a common sight throughout the entire game, if not otherwise breathtakingly gorgeous scenery. Sharp eyes may even spot an interesting easter egg or two.
The attention to detail is also there. The way certain elements react as the player passes by, or how the player’s character will look in the direction of dynamic focal points throughout a level is truly phenomenal. Inching your characters towards the edge of a cliff will even prompt a change in their animations the closer they come to falling. It’s just spectacular stuff.
Looking past the bells and whistles, however, DKCR’s levels provide some of best platforming we’ve ever seen in a 2D game. Utilizing all of the big ape’s techniques, players will battle their way through eight punishing worlds, each with its own unique enemies and obstacles to overcome. And Retro never throws the same series of obstacles at you twice, which not only helps to increase challenge but the variety of the experience as well.
Speaking of challenge, the game is deliciously difficult. It’s one thing to get through the game, but another entirely to find all of the KONG letters and puzzle pieces while your at it—with the bonus levels being some of the most challenging (and some of my personal favourites). And just when you thought the game couldn’t get any more difficult, Time Attack and Mirror modes really put the player’s platforming skills to the test (so you better stock up on balloons). And ifthat wasn’t enough, you can do it all with a buddy in co-op mode.
In co-op, two players take on the task of tackling the Tiki Tak Tribe together (say that ten times fast). Player one controls Donkey Kong, and player two controls Diddy. Diddy controls exactly the same way as Donkey Kong does and, in essence, possesses the exact same moves. Some moves behave differently however. For example, Diddy’s ground pound isn’t really a ground pound; he shoots the floor furiously with his peanut popguns instead. The basic effect is still the same, but as an added bonus, the peanut shells he fires will crack open upon impact, and the nuts inside will begin bouncing along the floor ahead of him ala Fire Flower Mario’s fireballs. Most enemies the nuts hit will either be killed, or stunned. It’s a great way for those lacking platforming skills to take down or approach a string of enemies. For example, when playing with my girlfriend—a gamer by no stretch of the imagination—this was a common tactic she used. However, skilled players will still want to jump on as many enemies in succession as possible for bonus coins and lives.
More important however is Diddy’s jetpack. Again, when playing with my girlfriend, the jetpack helped her land and time jumps she would have otherwise been unable to, especially across wide gaps where roll-jumping would have otherwise been necessary and difficult for new players to pull off during hectic situations. Donkey Kong Country Returns is a very challenging platformer after all, and I feel that Retro made Diddy the perfect way to gradually introduce new players to the series.
Should a player fall, they can revive themselves at any time with the push of the ‘A’ button, so long as the other player is still alive. Doing so costs one balloon, which will float down on screen with a DK barrel tied to it, containing the newly revived player. The floating barrel behaves similarly to a bubble-encased player in New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Shaking the Wiimote will coax the barrel closer to the other player, who must touch it to bring their partner back. Of course, to save on lives, you can always wait for the other player to grab a DK barrel. If at any time the second player feels overwhelmed, they can hop on Donkey Kong’s back and let player one take command. But player two doesn’t have to just sit back and watch; while on DK’s back, shake the Wiimote to fire your popguns as much as you want.
My only qualm with co-op is how off-screen players were handled. If one player falls behind, they have five seconds before the game automatically teleports them to the ahead player. I’m not sure why Retro couldn’t have just given the player as much time as they wanted to catch up. Even if off-screen platforming was deemed too difficult, most of the time the ahead player could simply backtrack to allow the other to see, and if they couldn’t, one balloon would seem an appropriate penalty for failing to work together. It’s just yet another means for the lesser player to bypass part of a level, and I feel that the floating barrel and hoping on DK’s back were enough.
I personally don’t mind off-screen platforming, but some argue that there shouldn’t have been any at all; that the game should be split screen or zoomed-out when players grow too far apart. The problem with zooming out, in this game, is that certain secrets and even solutions to puzzles would be revealed. Splitting the screen would be a better solution, but I fear that in a fast-paced platformer such as this, the sudden transistion back and forth between one and two screens would often cause confusion and death as a result. But I digress—this minor issue doesn’t change the fact that co-op mode is solid, with lots of fun to be had for both veterans and newcomers alike.
The game’s sound design is also worthy of note. The sound effects are great, even the ones that play out of the Wiimote’s speakers. In fact, this is probably the first game I’ve played where I actually enjoyed hearing something come out of those things, especially when collecting a large string of bananas or bouncing off a series of enemies’ heads. The soundtrack is a wonderful mixture of new tunes and remixes of old classics that sound superb. They do a great job of transporting you back to the good ol’ days of playing the original—and getting stuck in your head just as easily.
This game was clearly created by Nintendo fans, and Retro clearly loves doing what they do. It’s been a long time since a game has gotten me this excited, not just to play, but to have others play; I want people to play this game or, at the very least, witness its masterpiece in motion. As far as 2D platformers are concerned, Donkey Kong Country Returns has set a whole new bar; one so high, I dare say no one will come close to reaching anytime soon.