With the series missing in action since 1996, the reveal of a follow-up to Rare’s acclaimed Donkey Kong Country games was met with much excitement, as well as skepticism. Could Retro Studios, responsible for the successful revival of the Metroid franchise, also work their magic on Donkey Kong? The results are in, and the answer is a resounding yes.
That said; if you’re looking for an experience that’s identical to the old Rare games, you might want to look elsewhere. Donkey Kong Country Returns does its best to recreate the feelings one felt when first playing Donkey Kong Country, but unlike New Super Mario Bros. before it, it constantly experiments with new tricks and changes to the old formula. Whether or not you like the changes done can greatly vary depending on how much you liked the original titles.
Unlike Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, DKCR returns to traditional platforming. Donkey Kong has his traditional roll attack, as well as the ground slam. In addition, DK can now blow on things to either exploit enemy weaknesses or reveal items and collectibles hidden in the background. Diddy Kong works differently this time around, as he hops on DK’s back and uses a jetpack to slow DK’s descent for a second or two rather than serve as a second character you could tag-in at any time.
While the stage design is tough, the game does have accommodations for the more casual players. The infamous Super Guide makes a return in the form a white DK, which will show you the basic method of beating a stage without actually showing you any of the hidden collectible locations. You can also buy lives, heart boosts and even invulnerability potions from Cranky Kong’s shop, though they’re all entirely optional for the player looking to challenge himself.
The gameplay is smooth, but not without its faults. The blowing and ground-pound mechanics severely break the flow and speed of the game, needing to completely stop to be able to perform them, which is necessary in most of the game’s stages. Rolling, blowing and the ground pound are all mapped to shaking the Wii Remote. While it’s easy to get used to, an unresponsive shake is enough to send someone leaping to their death, which happens a lot more than one would expect. It’d be simple enough to map these functions to button presses, or let people choose between the two.
Some of the later stages are downright awful when playing them in co-op. While DK and Diddy can play independently of each other, Diddy can hop onto DK’s back like in single-player. This is just about the only way two can finish some of the later stages, as they’re clearly designed for one player to go through.
The game’s aesthetics are nicely done. While the classic Kremlings are nowhere to be seen, the Tiki and the animals they control fit well with the game’s look and feel, as do the worlds selected. New enemies are constantly being introduced, all vibrant and colorful. I really liked how Retro makes up for the Wii’s visual shortcomings by making everything as vibrant, colorful, and alive as they possibly could. Ruins come crashing down and enemies react to DK as he explores vivid landscapes on his quest to recover his banana hoard. The music has a few original tracks, but the redone tunes from the original Donkey Kong Country are the real show-stealers, always matching the mood of whatever stage they’re played in.
DKCR boasts a nice bit of replay value as well, as there are plenty of puzzle pieces to collect in every stage. These unlock artwork, concept art, music and other items. In addition, every stage has a time attack feature that challenges you to beat the stage as fast as possible, as well as a secret mode for those who thought the base game wasn’t challenging enough.
While DKC purists might be put off by the change in the formula of the traditional games, Donkey Kong Country Returns is an excellent comeback to what is considered one of the best game series of the SNES era, as well as a nice entry point for people who never played the original games. It combines just enough difficulty to make it satisfying, without making it completely frustrating, and it reminds us what the originals were all about. If Nintendo will let Retro Studios work on to the franchise for a while longer, it could turn into something great.