Donkey Kong Country will always have a special place in my heart. I not only fondly remember the first time I ever played it, but I remember just about every session of the game I’ve ever had. The game was just so ahead of it’s time in terms of the visual style, and was one of the hardest, most rewarding games on the platform. Donkey Kong Country 1 and 2, at least, managed to meld a perfect union of challenge and flair; enchanting you while it punished you at the same time.
So, with all those expectations, does DKC: Returns live up to the original’s name? I’d answer with a resounding “yes”.Like most Nintendo titles, if you’re expecting a story – you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Just like the first game, Donkey and Diddy awaken to find that their prized banana horde has been stolen – but this time instead of Kremling Culprits, it’s angry enchanted Tiki Gods – but none of this is a problem, because the world that it takes place in is more colorful than most big-budget RPGs. Like most Nintendo games, the story doesn’t matter – the gameplay and visual charm is where this game really delivers.
The visual style simply looks excellent. There are a ton of different enemy types in the game, and each world does a great job of presenting itself in a unique way. You’ll never get bored as you progress, as just about every level throws something completely new at you – and all the while you’ll be gazing at the crisp mix of 2D and 3D sections, many of which that will have you interacting with the foreground and the background, Yoshi’s Story style.
Just like in the original series, barrel puzzles will play a big part in many of the levels: and this time around, you’ll find a lot harder (and more unique) challenges than those found in the classic Donkey Kong Country snow mountain level-set. Barring the barrel sections, there are a number of sticky sections that are much harder than they should be due to the controls, but I’ll get to that later.
Musically, Returns delivers as well. I didn’t think Retro Studios would re-use a lot of the old classic tunes, much less top them, but I was pleasantly surprised. You can distinctly hear most, if not all of the original Country SNES tracks in Returns, and most of the time they’re given a modern rehaul. For instance one tune in particular was completely remixed into a jazzy theme, but kept the nostalgic feel of the original – it was pretty astounding.
Sadly, even though the classic underwater theme was included, you won’t actually be going underwater in this one: the team felt like it slowed down the gameplay. It’s a questionable call for sure, considering they could have made it work (and Rare did make it work on the SNES), but the level designs are so brilliant that it doesn’t hurt the game overall.
Cranky’s Shop also makes a return, but this time it’s a lot more useful. By collecting Banana Coins throughout your travels, you can not only buy lives, but special one-use items (think Super Mario 3), and keys to unlock secret levels. In addition to collecting coins for the shop, you’ll also be able to nab puzzle pieces and K-O-N-G letters in each level, which open up new gallery items – completionists will want to collect all of the K-O-N-G letters for sure, as it opens up a secret level, and an entirely new game mode that changes your entire second playthrough.
Chalk those secrets up with a brand new simultaneous coop mode that was built from the ground up, and you have a ton of replay value. For the novice gamers out there, Nintendo’s “Super Guide” makes a return, and you can even buy Squawks the Parrot to help you find the puzzle pieces in each level. In short, while the game is hard, there is help for frustrated gamers if they choose to take advantage of those options.
So far so good – Donkey Kong Country Returns manages to tickle your retro bone while re-inventing the Kong wheel in just about every facet – except in the control department. Sadly, the controls are actually a step down from its 1994 SNES counterpart, and mainly due to one extremely important ill-mapped action: rolling. As previously mentioned, rolling is an extremely pivotal part of the game. In a DKC series title, getting off a perfect roll-jump is necessary for grabbing secrets in most levels, and nailing extremely tough jumps: but it isn’t so easy in Returns. In order to roll, the player has to shake the controller while running: yep, you read that right.
Shaking the controller is also how you blow (while holding down) and ground pound (while standing stationary) – so as you can see, shaking the controller in general gets a bit tedious – especially when you’re roll-jumping around fifteen consecutive times to escape an oncoming foe who is destroying the level bit by bit. To add insult to injury, there’s no way to use the classic controller.
There’s really no excuse for the lack of classic controller support. Blowing could have easily been mapped to an alternate button, and rolling/pounding could have worked exactly like it did in the original Donkey Kong Country series. Forced motion control is really something Nintendo likes to push with their first party Wii games – the problem is, not everyone likes it – and in this case, it makes an already difficult game even harder, which isn’t something that should happen. For those who are interested, you can use the nunchuk, but like most retro style games, I wouldn’t recommend it – just turn your controller sideways and play it classic NES style.
Despite control issues, Donkey Kong Country Returns isn’t a game that should be missed by any platformer fan. If you have a local partner in crime, the experience is even better, but solo, it’s an extremely fun, well designed romp through the jungle.
Like Galaxy 2, Donkey Kong Country Returns proves that you don't need fancy HD graphics to look great - the level designs are also some of the best in years.
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While the core gameplay is solid, the controls are very ill-conceived - which wouldn't be so bad if the game wasn't unforgiving on a number of levels.
Just about every theme (even the water theme!) is back in action, and most of them sound even better than their retro counterparts.
The main story should last you around 4-5 hours, and is completely playable with a friend. If you choose to go after the collectibles, you're looking at 10+ hours per completion.
Donkey Kong Country Returns is a new classic that still manages to pay homage to the source material.