Donkey Kong Country was a beautiful trilogy of games on the Super NES, with installments made by Rare in 1994, 1995, and 1996. Since then Donkey Kong has dabbled in all sorts of rhythm games and racing games, and Rare has been purchased by Microsoft. I never thought I'd see another Donkey Kong Country again. I definitely didn't expect that Nintendo would announce Donkey Kong Country Returns during their press conference at this year's E3, it was secretly being developed by Retro Studios for over two years, it would be ready for a Christmas release this year, and I'd even get to play the game within a few hours. But that's exactly what happened.
So, you played the classic trilogy and want to know how this new one compares? The animations and controls were as smooth as ever. I used the nunchuck to run around, and the Wii remote to jump. I could give the Wii remote a quick shake to activate a few different commands as well. If I was standing still, that would make me slap the ground, either to find a secret or smash any enemy stupid enough to get in my way. A quick shake while running made DK roll, and just like the original games, I was able to roll off a cliff and get a bonus jump out of it. Shaking the controller while ducking made DK pucker up his lips and blow at the bushes in the background. Most of the time this just looked hilarious and pointless, but it was able to blow certain plants out of my way to find some other neat secrets.
The final game will also allow the classic control scheme if you want to hold the Wii remote sideways and ditch the nunchuck, but that wasn't available during our E3 demo. We were able to choose from four stages though. The guy in front of us was playing the mine cart demo level, which looked more chaotic than any of the mine cart levels from the Super NES games. The tracks were rising, falling apart, and tilting in real time as geysers of lava exploded beneath them.
When it was our turn, Dain Melendez and I picked the first jungle stage so we could hop around and learn the controls. Our demo started with DK's house on the left side of the screen, and a small icon asking us to shake our remotes. We shook our remotes, and the house started shaking, as if somebody was going bananas in there. The plot hasn't been changed from the original, and our banana stash had been stolen by a new gang of enemies. Donkey and Diddy Kong burst out of the door in a fit of rage, and we started our platforming romp through the lush jungle environment.
Everything I loved about the original was back: great music, barrels blasting us all around, barrels to toss at enemies or into walls, mine carts, vines to swing on, and secrets. Tons and tons of secrets. I slapped the ground to find some, and now I even blew plants out of the way to find others, and still more were hidden behind walls we had to smash through.
The major gameplay change was the simultaneous co-op, which replaced the original's tag-team system. Remember waiting for your friend to get injured so you could have a turn? You won't have to worry about that anymore. But if one player does get tired, or maybe scared of a particularly dangerous jump, the other can carry them for a while, like they can in New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Another similarity the two co-op platformers have is the way a player comes back after losing a life. Instead of floating by in a bubble, they float by in a barrel that needs to be smashed open by their partner. And when Donkey Kong is carrying Diddy Kong, Diddy can give a small boost to DK's jumps with his jet pack.
The main changes to the level design were the new crazy stuff going on in most of the backgrounds, the ability to jump into the background, and the platforms that fall over while you're jumping on them or riding mine carts across them. There were boats and hot air balloons in the background, and even platforms and bananas back there. Some barrel cannons launched us into the background, and we just kept playing while the camera stayed zoomed out. After finding enough goodies or pulling the approprate lever, we had to find another barrel to blast us back.
After running, rolling, hopping, and swinging our way through the full jungle stage, we took a crack at the demo's boss. He was a giant frog-type monster thing, with a nice weak point on the top of his back that was easy to jump on. But after hopping on his back, he'd get angry and cover his weak point with deadly spikes. He'd also jump around and sprint right at us, and well, he was hard to jump over and hard to run under. This boss tore us up pretty bad.
With my limited time with the demo, it felt like Donkey Kong Country Returns takes the old DKC formula and tries to expand it and perfect it. It's all about barrels and mine carts and everything we know and love about DK. It's just more gorgeous, and a little bit crazier. You see that silhouette?
Donkey Kong Country Returns will be coming to the Wii Holiday 2010. We've been waiting 14 years for a new DKC, so I suppose a few more months can't be too bad, right?