There I was, beside my younger brother. My fingers were intertwined and propped up against my chin as I gave the glowing screen before me a pensive stare. My little brother, always the astute assistant, stands dutifully besides me and says, “It’s been fifteen years.” A devious smirk moves across my face and I respond, “Yes, but now we know for sure, Donkey Kong is back.” See, not only are we huge Donkey Kong Country fans, but apparently Evangelion nerds. We have no friends. What we do have are hours upon hours of memories playing Donkey Kong Country as ten and nine year old children respectively. This series of games consumed a large part of our childhood; and everyone loves nostalgia. Retro Studios have conjured up epic amounts of nostalgia with Donkey Kong Country Returns. The title retains all the trappings of the original with beautiful graphics, addictive gameplay, and nail-biting challenges.
Donkey Kong Country Returns starts like its originator; Donkey Kong and his sidekick, Diddy Kong, must recover their stolen hoard of bananas. In this iteration, the bananas are taken by various animals due to hypnotization by the mysterious Tik Tak tribe. In true Nintendo fashion, the story is minimal and forgettable, but Retro took several steps to make sure it’s at least an enjoyable narrative. There’s plenty of slick animation and cartooning to imbue the voiceless simians with plenty of personality. The Tik Tak tribesmen even have marginal personality, despite being speechless and nameless, thanks to their character designs and movements. The biggest narrative surprise is the use of full motion video. There are no voiceovers and it is a shallow story, but the FMV balances that out by being beautiful and fun to watch – in an over the top, popcorn flick kind of way.
In the mid-nineties, Rare’s release of Donkey Kong Country featured ground breaking visuals. Retro Studios didn't have the same opportunity here, since the Wii just doesn't have the horsepower. However, the developers are smart, and instead of dwelling on the limitations of the Wii they focused on the things that the Wii can do. The results are nothing less than gorgeous.
Retro reached deep into the well of artistic talent they have at their disposal and pulled up masterpiece after masterpiece. The game has eight different environments, which are jungle, beach, cave, cliff, factory, ruins, and volcano (all Nintendo games have to feature a lava-inspired environment, right?). Each area is lush, colorful and realized with an artistic hand that is among the best this generation. The architecture and textures are carefully selected and designed to capture the current environment. The backgrounds and lighting are also meticulously rendered. And on-screen enemies and characters have fluid, expressive animation. Some stages are presented in high contrast silhouette, and again it is stunning. The attention to detail and colorful texturing combine so well that it is easy to forget that the game is low resolution.
In addition to great staging, the developers found a way to squeeze some staggering special effects out of the Wii. The effects are used to cleverly enhance the geometry. Lighting effects and shadows are used throughout the game while particle effects improve all environments in the game. Volumetric effects, like clouds and fog, are used tastefully as appropriate. Depth of field, motion blurs, and layers across 2D planes also combine for some of the slicker, yet more subtle, visual effects. It’s also impressive that the performance holds up to the demands that the game places on the hardware. There are no slowdown or anti-aliasing issues, while load times are fairly brief between stages. All of the graphics used in Donkey Kong Country Returns are nothing new or even high-tech, but they are brought together to produce something that looks like a polished masterpiece. It’s safe to say that Donkey Kong Country is not only one of the best looking games on Wii, but also one of the best looking 2D platformers this generation.
The soundtrack is also stellar. Many fans will remember the SNES soundtrack as being jazzy fun that found a way to get stuck in your mind for hours. Well, it has returned to form and is just as infectious as ever. The background music has a driving drum beat that is familiar, but not monotonous. It is also matched to each new environment appropriately. The sound effects are also well designed with only one miscue - every banana collected causes a tweeny sound effect to play over the Wii remote speaker, and that can be just a little annoying.
There are some concerns with the presentation, but all are minor. It is disappointing that Retro decided to forego any voiceover at all. Some characters simply beg to be voiced, like crotchety old Cranky Kong. It is also strange that the overworld seems neglected, or even a second thought. The stage progression is linear and it's always easy to tell where to find the secret stage in each world since the same pyramid is used to represent it every time. Donkey Kong’s and Diddy Kong’s overworld avatars are even represented by a coin icon instead of animated character models. But at this point, I may have crossed the line between legitimate criticism and nitpicking.
One of the things gamers anticipated the most before getting the game was to see how Retro Studio approached the gameplay. They are well known for their legendary approach to revitalizing the Metroid series with Metroid Prime, and hopes were high for this revitalization. I can tell you that any anticipation should be tempered. On one hand, I know I’m playing a great Donkey Kong Country game; in fact it has the best gameplay in the series. It also has the best level design to ever grace the series. However, on the other hand, many will be acutely aware that Retro did not take an inventive approach to the gameplay mechanics, and kept most of the gameplay in the pre-defined box that Rare designed sixteen years ago. The controls did move out of the box with the motion control, but this is more a misstep than a progressive move.
The controls are simple and familiar. You have the choice of playing with the Wii remote horizontally or using the Wii remote and a nunchuck (oddly, there is no classic controller support). Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong can perform a basic jump with the press of a button. The jumping mechanic is very simple, maybe even archaic, and there are minimal controllable physics behind it that will allow for slightly longer jumps. Diddy Kong can extend his jump slightly with a jetpak by holding down the jump button. Overall, it can be difficult to judge jumps and distances with the basic jump.
There is an advanced jump that can be performed by rolling and jumping before the roll animation is complete. This is the only way to augment the distance and height of a jump, but it relies on rolling, which is a problem. Rolling is performed by shaking the Wii remote while moving forward, and this decision is baffling. It is not precise and will often inaccurately render your intentions. Donkey and Diddy can also do other classic moves like grabbing with a touch of a button and slapping the ground (Diddy will stomp and shoot a peanut). The grab is mapped to a button while slapping requires shaking the Wii remote with no directional input. This is the only motion control that feels somewhat satisfying, especially when using the nunchuck.
There are expanded moves available to the mascots. With Diddy Kong piggy backing on Donkey Kong, a continuous roll can be performed. This is perfect for mowing down rows of enemies. If you duck and shake the remote (again, an imprecise move to pull off) you can blow wind. This is used to find secrets and activate some items. A new mechanic that opens a lot of new gameplay options is the ability to grab on to and climb certain surfaces. The two most outstanding gameplay elements are the return of minecart rails and the barrel rocket. The barrel rocket is both fun and infuriating. You will have to maintain altitude by managing acceleration. These expanded moves control well for the most part and the new ones are great additions to the series.
Even though the controls have their pros and cons, there are shining lights that are all pro. These are the platforming, level designs, and challenge. As mentioned before, the minecart rails and barrel rocket levels are exquisite. But the level design is pure genius, which is not a surprise considering the level design of Retro Studio’s past games. Each level features mind bending platforming puzzles and challenges. They are brimming with secrets and collectables to search for. Best of all, the game is hard as nails; there are challenges that even the most demented levels of New Super Mario Bros. Wii can’t compare to. Prepare to die a lot in this game, and plan for alopecia (because you will pull out your hair, in case you didn’t get that).
The boss battles have the same infuriating yet fun motif as the levels. They are all pattern based, but the patterns are subtle enough to make sure you need a few moments, or lives, to figure out. One of the bosses is even a blatant allusion to a classic Nintendo boss, but I'm not telling which one. The best part is that each boss battle ends with a dramatic opportunity to beat the nonsense out of a Tik Tak tribeman using the motion control. In a game where most of the motion control feels ill-advised, this is the one moment where it feels wonderful and satisfying.
The co-op is also much improved over previous installments. It’s played simultaneously, and levels are designed to force players to work together and consider each other. The second player can also piggy back on Donkey Kong to help him out and give him the jetpak ability. Like the original Donkey Kong Country, it’s obvious that the co-op is intended for an experienced player matched with an inexperienced player. That dynamic is always there, and the game never really embraces the full co-op movement like New Super Mario Bros. Wii did. There is one gripe regarding the co-op. It seems that the second player was forgotten in minecart rail stages and barrel rocket levels. They simply have to hitch a ride, or even worse they can attempt to help and ruin your control. The latter can be especially irritating in levels that require tight precision.
Donkey Kong Country Returns is a big game. It has the Nintendo standard eight worlds, and will take between 12–15 hours to beat. In addition, each stage has four K-O-N-G letters to collect as well as several puzzle pieces. Completing that task to 100% may take well over 30 hours. Once that is done, there is more. This includes a time attack for each stage with a bronze, silver, or gold medal, and each world has a secret stage that once completed will make a ninth world accessible. This game wants to keep you coming back for hours after hours, just like its predecessors. There is even an achievement system that will net you the ability to unlock image art, music tracks, and dioramas. Stuffed onto this DVD is one of the better $50 values on the Wii.
Donkey Kong Country Returns is both the perfect time machine and the best Donkey Kong Country in the series. It finds several ways to tickle that nostalgia bone I bet you didn’t know existed. It lives up to its previous iteration's high production values, despite the hardware limitations. It’s as if Retro Studios figured in their mind that if Ansel Adam did not need a high-tech SLR camera to take breathtaking pictures then they do not need a high-def console to make a beautiful game. The music is also spot on and the gameplay is matched exactly; sometimes to a fault. Even though the majority of the gameplay feels like Retro played it close to the vest, there are sparks of brilliance placed throughout the game. The same can be said of some of the disappointing control decisions; for every misstep there are some new additions that should become standard fare in future games. The most memorable elements of the game will be the level designs that are demented yet ingenious, and the platforming challenges which are world class. Donkey Kong Country Returns is a definite buy for any platforming fan, and the co-op makes it an attractive buy for any parent-children duos.