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Donkey Kong Country Returns – Review

Game Name: Donkey Kong Country Returns
Platform(s): Nintendo Wii
Publisher(s): Nintendo
Developer(s): Retro Studios, Nintendo
Genre(s): Platformer
Release Date: November 21, 2010 (US) December 2, 2010 (AU)
December 3, 2010 (EU)
Price: $49.99 US – $89.99 AU

Sixteen years ago, Donkey Kong Country took the world by storm on the Super Nintendo providing a graphical and gameplay experience that at the time was completely groundbreaking. The game spawned two highly successful sequels and although Donkey Kong would find the spotlight again in other titles such as Donkey Kong 64 and many spin-offs, fans everywhere ached for a rebirth of the platform favorite. Retro Studio’s have now revived the classic 2D sides-croller with updated graphics and gameplay, but did the studio capture the same magic that Rare started with long ago? Here is my review for Donkey Kong Country Returns.

Forget about having to rescue a Kong or take down a robotic enemy, Donkey Kong Country Returns story is straight to the roots of where the series began, recovering Donkey Kong’s treasured banana hoard. The first thing I should get out of the way starting off is how DKC Returns is NOT a remake whatsoever, but a complete re-imagining. Instead of Kremlings, the main enemies are now odd little island residents called Tikis from the evil Tiki Tak Tribe. Tikis are pretty small in size but with the main power to hypnotize creatures and turn them evil.

We start our journey with the king of swing with Donkey Kong & Diddy getting their whole banana hoard stolen from the Tikis. Enraged, the duo head off on an adventure through DK island to recover the hot goods once and for all. There isn’t too much emphasis on the story as it is simple and to the point, but it is obvious the game was made with that in mind as like the classic Donkey Kong Country titles, the story is mainly just a filler tale to have an excuse to traverse through the amazing levels and actually concentrate on the gameplay itself.

Just because the story is simple does not mean that the game lacks character though. Donkey Kong and Diddy make a perfect return to their true forms in this title and it feels like they have not missed a beat since their last platform outing. One of the main things I worried about though when it came to Retro Studios making this game was if they would be able to recapture the magic of a Rare-style boss battle or enemy design in general. I always thought that when it came to making enemies for any platformer, Rare filled each character with such life and charm that it tied together the whole game. I can easily say that Retro did a perfect job in this department.

Most of the enemies may be a bit different from the buzzards, bees, and Kremlings you would be used to seeing in a DKC title, but the new batch are just as good if not better designed than the classic ones. There is also a huge variation as well, from biting berries, pirate crabs, and the different Tikis as well as many other animal foes, each enemy is clever and makes each stage an adventure in itself to see the next foe as it is obvious a lot of time and heart went into each one. For the fans that grew up on the series, there is also some appearances throughout the game of a few classic characters. Cranky Kong runs a shop now and still possesses his same attitude. Rambi and Squaks the Parrot both make an appearance as well which can help you on your journey through the vibrant world.

Consider Donkey Kong Country Return’s a return of Donkey Kong and Diddy, but also a return of the platform titles that were meant to be played and experienced instead of watched like a movie like most titles of today.

Much like the Metroid Prime series, Retro Studios have in my opinion completely revolutionized the Donkey Kong Country games while keeping everything that made the games so special to start with in tact. While the game does use the WiiMote and Nunchuck (the nunchuck being completely optional), the motion controls used in just the right way which blended in perfectly with the classic formula. There are many differences though and the first that is worth noting is that unless you are in the multi-player mode, Diddy is no longer playable. Instead of being a faster alternative for levels, Diddy now rides on Donkey Kong’s back, providing two extra heart capsules (of which the player gets four altogether) and giving DK the ability to hover over gaps with his jet pack. After the first level, I literally forgot all about wanting to use Diddy alone though as Donkey Kong performs perfectly with this method and actually felt truly upgraded with these features.

In many ways, the game still plays the same as the older versions with jumping, running, collecting bananas and life balloons and of course platforming being the key ingredients. The motion control comes into play though with a few different moves though. The first move is the classic ground pound which is actually a huge necessity as you must use it to break through crates, floors, and many other obstacles. Just shaking the Wiimote and Nunchuck in a fitting ground-pound like fashion is all that is needed to quickly and effectively perform this. I did have a couple of instances though where it went on a just a tad longer than needed though, but overall this move will probably be the most executed for anyone who picks up the game.

The next move is a brand new one to the series, and that is the ability for Donkey Kong to blow flowers and other objects to show hidden items and bananas as well as weaken certain enemies. This performs exactly as it sounds was a great new addition to the list of many new features. DK also has his classic roll attack back which is used about the same as well finishing out his hugely revamped ability list.

I could not honestly even type up this review though without mentioning the difficulty though. At times it is a breeze to go through certain levels and stomp enemies into the ground without problem. The thing is though is that the game is much more brutal in many of the later stages in particular and will test even the toughest and most polished of player to the max. This isn’t the “chuck your WiiMote in frustration” kind of difficulty though. Donkey Kong Country Returns has many areas where you must properly think ahead before just running straight through as if you don’t, you will be seeing the game over screen a lot. Coming up with strategy to beat each level and taking your time makes the game much easier to immerse yourself into each level. This non-hand holding technique is refreshing the whole way through and also makes completing each level more rewarding upon completion.

What makes the difficulty high in some areas is a very thought out level design. Not one time does a level feel the same, as each usually had a different way to play from the next. Along with the standard platform fare are new twists on the mine-cart levels from the original title, sliding fast down hillsides, blasting through the air in barrels as well as piloting a rocket barrel and many more methods, each one of these performed smoothly throughout the experience and like most of the game, relied on precise timing and thought to perform effectively. Add in the many enemies with different methods of defeat as well as DK and Diddy’s enhanced move pool and you have a very in-depth gameplay system. Rambi the Rhino also makes his return with the ability to plow through enemies, walls, and spikes at the blink of an eye and is used throughout the game as the only animal buddy available. If you are already missing Winky and Expresso while reading this, fret not as Rambi honestly is all that really is needed in this game as there is already so much variation as it is I think those additions may have overdid it if they were to be included.

Each area has it’s own theme (such as Caves, Volcano, Forest & more) which plays out with the appropriate enemies and hazards. With five to eight stages followed by a boss battle in 8 fully booming worlds, there is a lot of content packed in this game. Each stage has different forms of completion. The first being to collect every puzzle piece hidden throughout the stage. This is no easy task as the puzzle pieces require some serious hunting at times and usually are in positions where you must make the perfect jump to reach or made available by playing and beating a bonus game. The KONG letters are also back and unlike the puzzle pieces, these are usually out in the open. Just because these are usually visible does not mean that is an easy feat to obtain all four though as placement can be brutal to grab, such as times when flying through a stage in a minecart, so a bit of trial and error can go a long way to grab all four letters by the end of a stage.

Each world also has Cranky in his shop in which he can supply you with help if you are having some trouble. Items such as balloons, banana juice which can turn you invincible, and even Squaks the Parrot who can point out puzzle pieces in stages as well as a couple other items can all be purchased using the banana coin currency found in each stage. One item at a time can be equipped before heading into a stage as well. I can’t tell you how many times I shopped with Cranky as every item is extremely useful in it’s own right depending on your desperate situation. If you are REALLY having trouble, after 8 deaths on a stage you can activate the “Super Guide” which summons Super Kong to finish each stage for you. This can take away from the rewarding experience in the game to me at least, so use this only if you feel extreme need. You can also not collect items or officially complete the level this is used on, so honestly consider this feature a SKIP function.

Boss battles come at the end of a stage and each boss is different from the previous one. I loved each design as the the game mixed up the usual formula of just jumping on the boss to death to giving each boss battle it’s own setup with different gameplay and strategies.

Of course it wouldn’t be Donkey Kong Country without some type of 2 Player mode, which is where two-player co-op comes in. The second player controls Diddy who has access to a pop-cap gun, different variation of the ground pound and of course the slight speed and jumping edge over Donkey Kong as well as the Jet-Pack I mentioned earlier and the classic cartwheel. While in co-op, players can also have Diddy jump on DK’s back and do a co-op roll as well. Considering this is drop-in, co-op adds a huge amount of value to players who want to go through the vast worlds with an extra player and performs just as sharp as the single player mode while adding that fun-factor of having a friend die right along with you if mistakes are made. Now if you are just dying for Diddy play, you can kill off DK and finish each level as the smaller Kong but this is more of an unofficial yet working way of using that option if you have the two WiiMotes.

After completing the game, it usually takes quite a bit of work to actually finish the game overall. In order to get the coveted 101% status, you can dive into Time Attack mode and try to get the best time on each stage as well as go back and get all letters and puzzle pieces you may have missed in the overall game. Each stage also has a “Shiny Gold” status which is tough to obtain but doing so can give unlimited bragging rights and once you reach this I cannot explain the level of accomplishment this feat truly has. I don’t think there is any way someone could purchase Donkey Kong Country Returns and ever feel a lack of content as the game is the most complex and rewarding gameplay experience the series as a whole has had to offer.

Each world as I mentioned is an experience all it’s own. With detailed and vibrant and colorful 3D designs, many will be having a nostalgic rush for the familiar feel of the stages and with all of these being fully updated and crisp, the experience feels modern the whole way through. Donkey Kong and Diddy have never looked better as well and are fully detailed down to the trademark Red tie and hat. Enemies are also cleverly designed and fit perfectly within each world and provide a lot of balance and contrast to the particular level played, allowing their personalities to consume areas and pulling in the player’s focus to the obstacles at hand.

In a brilliant move, a good portion of the music from Donkey Kong Country titles has been put into Donkey Kong Country Returns making the whole game start and finish with the complete feel of the beloved classic. Muting this game is almost a sin as the soundtrack is so nostalgic playing without sound would in my opinion take away from a full experience. As far as sound effects go, Donkey Kong sounds like his usual self for the most part, but this has also been updated with a bit more realistic sound bytes. Diddy did sound a bit off to me though, as if the pitch was a bit to high, but this didn’t effect my opinion really whatsoever as it is just too minor of a thing to really worry about when so much other nop-notch audio is being used.

It can be quite an accomplishment to revive an entire series with just one title, but that is what exactly what Retro did with Donkey Kong Country Returns. The updated graphics along with the remastered music from the classic games really made the game feel modern yet it stayed true to the originals. The control scheme was updated perfectly for the Nintendo Wii as well and added “just enough” motion controls to modernize the gameplay.

In a way, think of Donkey Kong Country Returns as a gift to those who grew up with the series. The difficulty may be insane at points, but there was never one time where I wanted to give up as each stage completed feels rewarding and kept me going all the way through. Add in the simple yet effective story and the new roster of imaginative characters and this may be one of the best platformers in years. Retro Studios took what made us all love the big gorilla to start with and improved it in almost every way making Donkey Kong Country Returns not just a great game, but a title that is sure to go down as the rebirth of the franchise.

I Give Donkey Kong Country Returns: