Developer: Retro Studios / Publisher: Nintendo / ESRB: Everyone
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Donkey Kong Country Returns rounds out what has been a great year for gaming on the Wii and completes a trifecta of beloved Nintendo icons returning to the stage. While Super Mario Galaxy 2 continued to pursue physics-bending gameplay and Kirby’s Epic Yarn boasted some seriously brilliant art direction while sacrificing challenge for accessibility, Donkey Kong Country Returns went another route: a brass-tacks return to the platforming genre. Although Galaxy 2 and Epic Yarn were truly amazing games, they lacked a certain element of challenge traditionally found in platform titles. They focused on the experience and presentation as a whole with the enjoyment of the play-through as a paramount concern.
Donkey Kong Country Returns is a little different in that it’s hard… It’s damn hard. In fact, I don’t remember the last time I had such an expletive-laden, controller-throwing experience. The sheer unforgiving nature of the level design and controls demand near perfection from the player. Whether it’s a well-timed jump or the memorization of particular sections of a mine-cart level, Donkey Kong Country Returns is not for the faint of heart and extensive platform experience is necessary. While this might not sound like a lot of fun, let me assure you that it very much is. After dying twenty consecutive times, each bringing me within an inch of lodging my controller into the center of my television, the conquering of a challenge was as satisfying and as sweet as any gaming experience I’ve had this year. It’s a true testament to the delicate nature of the challenge and gameplay that I would continue to attempt portions of the game dozens of times. It’s extremely difficult without ever seeming unfair or irrational in that difficulty. The objectives are clear and the technique is obvious and that, in turn, encourages you to continue because success is seemingly always within grasp. As much as I cursed the game whilst playing, Donkey Kong Country Returns also engendered plenty of triumphant cheers and ultimately, that’s what you will take away from the experience.
Donkey Kong Country Returns has a lot more going for it than just being extremely difficult. The environments find Donkey Kong in familiar territory with plenty of jungle, beach, and underground action. The eight worlds cover a wide variety of scenery. Each level functions as a traditional two-dimensional platform stage but with action shifting between the foreground and the background. This goes a long way to keeping the level design fresh and dynamic in a game carved from traditional platform tenets.
Likewise, Diddy Kong spices up the action as well. In single-player mode, Diddy acts as a bit of a cushion with his hover ability and extra life [not sure what this means, is he a cushion because you play as him if Donkey Kong dies?], and alleviates some frustration in the game’s more difficult areas. However, in two-player [co-op?] mode, Diddy Kong is an entirely different story. As a second player takes the reigns, Diddy plays differently yet completely complimentary to Donkey Kong. He retains his hover ability and instead of DK’s ground-smashing fists fit for moving triggers and buttons, Diddy dispatches projectiles capable of killing or stunning enemies [any quick descriptor of the kind of enemies you'll face?]. You must work together and play to your respective strengths [like?] in order to progress through the game. Multiplayer in Donkey Kong Country Returns is fun as hell and is a completely different experience than single-player mode. Along with hidden puzzle pieces and letters, bonus sections, time attack medals, unlockable levels and music tracks, there is plenty of Donkey Kong Country Returns to keep you busy for a very long time.
Donkey Kong Country Returns actually sticks to the style of its predecessors more or less, and for any fan of the series, this is great news. The colors are vibrant, the animations are smooth and by and large, everything looks fantastic. There was, however, some occasional slowdown, found mostly towards the end of the game in the lava and factory stages, but it even that didn’t bog down the experience. While the whole game looks great, the silhouette levels were definitely a highlight for me. They were comparatively basic in terms of level design but shined in their style.
Upon beginning Donkey Kong Country Returns you’re immediately prompted to use the Wii Remote horizontally. As this was the suggestion, I played the game in its entirety in that fashion and to be honest, it drove me a little nuts. Particularly when using the directional-pad. While I understand this is more of a gripe about the controller and not the controls, the small d-pad occasionally proved unreliable when it came to ducking and that forced some unnecessary deaths. Beyond that, the controls are great. They’re simple yet require a particular mastery in certain sections because the difference is minute between a roll forward and a fist-pound yet hitting the wrong action can result in instant death.
Throughout the lifetime of the Wii, it has been a widely accepted practice to completely revamp returning franchises. By its very nature, the Wii encourages change and, generally speaking, this is a positive thing. However, it’s refreshing for a title to buck the trend of compulsive innovation and return to the hard-nosed basics of the genre that spawned it. While the Wii is generally known to be the home of casual gaming, Donkey Kong Country Returns proves that there is still room for hardcore challenge. If not that, then why else am I still having nightmares about the mine-cart levels?