It astounds with sheer design brilliancy and, as far as 2-D platformers go, that is the main recipe for success
Donkey Kong was undeniably one of the strongest and most popular characters under Nintendo’s belt during the time Rare was still an integral part of the Japanese giant. Among the British company’s many achievements during their golden years, the inception of Donkey Kong Country easily ranks as one of the most remarkable. From a contemporary standpoint, it is easy to take both the franchise and the character’s sustained existence for granted; after all, both have been around for so long they precede the birth of many gamers. However, a deep glance at the past reveals that Donkey Kong could have easily ended up as a forgotten relic of the arcade era and a mere trampoline for the launch of Mario towards stardom if Rare had not intervened in his fate.
Prior to 1994 and Donkey Kong Country’s release, the simian’s appearances had been limited to either a mindless villain that served as the videogame equivalent of King Kong, in both Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong 3, or as a caged beast that had to be rescued from Mario’s evil clutches by his young son, in Donkey Kong Jr. Thanks to Rare, though, the gorilla was able to escape the confines of arcade gaming and walk, gloriously, into the 16-bit era by riding on a era-defining trilogy that conquered what was, at the time, the industry’s noblest genre (platformers) and, in the process, produced what is likely the style’s greatest sidecrolling masterpiece: Diddy’s Kong Quest.
Following the conclusion of the saga, the franchise lay dormant for a whopping fourteen years, a time during which the gaming industry’s blind love for 3-D visuals caused 2-D platformers to be seen as a genre that belonged solely in museums rather than as a viable gameplay alternative to the large open-ended scenarios that dominated the landscape. With the arrival of the Nintendo Wii, though, there came a sudden rebirth of sidescrollers, and perhaps aware that the homecoming party would not be complete without one of its most beloved stars, Nintendo (now without Rare by its side) handed over the task of bringing Donkey Kong Country back to life to the only development team that was worthy of the challenge: the highly acclaimed Retro Studios, which were hot out of the conclusion of the masterful Metroid Prime trilogy.
In Donkey Kong Country Returns, as dictated by tradition, the Kong family faces a huge problem that will sound familiar to anyone who has played any of the Super Nintendo classics that came before it: their treasured and tasty banana hoard is stolen. While the crime remains the same, the culprit has changed its nature. The humorous crew of Kremlings (the anthropomorphic crocodiles that tormented the Kongs over and over again during the nineties), apparently tired of having themselves kicked out of the DK Isles in a remarkable fashion, has given way to the Tiki Tak Tribe. Following the theft, the evil Tikis use their powers to hypnotize the islands’ animals and alter their behavior in order to stop Donkey Kong from achieving his ultimate goal of recovering his goods. While the fact that players are fighting regular animals, as opposed to wacky crocodiles with ridiculously amusing behaviors, is a tad disappointing, the Tikis are an interesting bunch that, while not nearly as remarkable as the Kremlings, do have quite a bit of personality.
Like a usual Donkey Kong Country game, Returns is broken into eight distinct worlds, each one with a varying number of levels ranging from six and nine, and a boss sitting at their end. The thematically varied worlds include the usual Donkey Kong Jungle, the fiery fury of a volcano, and go through a beach, a factory, and other interesting scenarios. One would be right to point out that these settings have been used to death in every single platformer that has come out ever since Super Mario Bros. amazed the world in 1985; the Donkey Kong Country franchise included had already presented its own versions of all of those locations. Still what Retro Studios has been able to construct within each one of those clichéd environments is absolutely out of this world.
The level design in Donkey Kong Country Returns is constantly mesmerizing. There is not a single stage in the entire game that feels like it has been quickly slapped together, and there is not one obstacle that has not been planned carefully. The game does an excellent job of finding balance between new ideas and traditional staples of the franchise, and these elements are mashed together to create an adventure that feels, simultaneously, refreshing and nostalgic. All assets that made the series so unique back in its glory days return in full force: blasting barrels are plentiful and are used to create tension as well as excitement; swinging vines are devilish and tricky enough to mess with the timing of newcomers and rusty veterans; and the always trusty animal buddies reemerge even if it is with the considerable caveats that their appearances do not feel sufficient and that their nature is limited, as only two (Rambi the Rhino and Squawks the Parrot) show up.
Furthermore, Retro is so aware of the series’ legacy that the company went out of its way to create a whole world that is mostly filled with mine cart stages. And although such knowledge may cause some to worry about looming repetitiveness and others to be haunted by nightmares of such levels’ zero tolerance towards mistakes, in the long run those fears will likely not materialize. Firstly because, as it is proven repeatedly during the course of the game, the minds at Retro Studios excel at creativity, and they have used that inventiveness to, even in the most limited of scopes, come up hundreds of challenges that stand out and do not overlap with one another. And secondly because checkpoints are abundant and well-placed.
Through these stages, players will control the duo of Diddy Kong and Donkey Kong. However, in a turn of events that may disappoint those that lean towards the nimbler member of the pair, Diddy cannot be moved individually like it happened in the original game of the series, as he stays stuck to Donkey’s back through the duration of the quest. The exception to that rule comes during multiplayer sessions, in which each player takes control of a Kong and the death of one of the members can be reverted by rescuing him from within a DK Barrell. Regardless of the mode, each monkey holds a total of two hearts, meaning that when players have both Kongs they can take up to four hits before finding their demise.
In single-player mode, where both Kongs are a four-heart unit, dropping below three hearts leads to the loss of Diddy Kong, at least until a DK Barrell can be found. As such, keeping the number of hearts at three or above (in other words, keeping Diddy alive) is quite valuable for his presence on Donkey Kong’s back lets gamers use his jetpack, which gives the heroes a nice amount of extra air time and an added dose of control that is extremely welcome when performing many of the dangerously precise jumps gamers will need to execute throughout the adventure. Having a total of four health points, as opposed to the two of the Donkey Kong Country franchise, may come off as one of those breaks modern games have been giving to players in order to make the difficulty level smoother, but in the case of Donkey Kong Country Returns, four hearts is a very well-calculated margin because the title is genuinely hard.
That high level of challenge never becomes overly frustrating, though. Donkey Kong Country Returns is the good kind of challenging, because as much as players may fall victim to the same traps repeatedly, they will rarely feel overwhelmed by anger or frustration. Donkey Kong Country Returns is constantly motivating players to keep on going and not to give up, simply because it is one of the most fun and well-designed games one can find on the Nintendo Wii. And the combination of its very well-placed checkpoints with the good amount of lives the game hands out and its between-levels auto-saving gives gamers plenty of wiggle room not to lose any considerable amount of progress as they go through the adventure. Donkey Kong Country Returns is certainly one of the toughest games the Wii has to offer, and it achieves that without being painful.
The eight worlds and many stages scattered around DK Isles are sure to give gamers many hours of enjoyment, but for those who do not feel satisfied after battling through the game’s already difficult regular adventure, Donkey Kong Country Returns brings a lot of extra things to do. Each stage features the already famous K-O-N-G letters, and this time around collecting them does not add a new life balloon to the Kongs’ loot, as it used to happen in Donkey Kong Country. Instead, they serve as collectibles that count towards full completion.
Gathering all of the letters is a lot of fun, as some of them will require players to do extra insane acrobatics with equally insane timing in order to be grabbed. Besides, all levels have a set number of puzzle pieces that can be found either hidden around the scenarios, or in bonus mini-games whose entrances are also tucked away around the stages. The sad part is that those bonus mini-games are extremely repetitive: there are only about six of them and they are reused, with only very minor alterations, throughout the game. It is a glaringly disappointing contrast with the varied fun bonus mini-games of the previous three installments of the series, where a short list of objectives (such as collecting all bananas or reaching the coin before the time is up) was used as a basis for mini-levels that were quite different in the way they were setup.
All worlds also have a secret stage that can be unlocked by buying a key on Cranky’s shop. Although activating them is easy, beating them is certainly not that simple. Those stages are designed to beat down the most skilled platform gamers on the planet, and they require a lot of playthroughs before all their details can be learned and memorized so that players can finally make it to the end. Being skilled will not be enough to get to the end of these gauntlets, as their solid length and lack of checkpoints will test gamers’ patience and endurance. The prize awaiting those who conquer all secret levels is an extra secret stage that, when completed, unlocks the game’s mirror mode, which will, in turn, allow players to reach the game’s coveted 200% completion.
Donkey Kong Country Returns is, albeit great, held back from reaching the same quality plateau that its precursors were able to achieve in another couple of areas. While graphically it is a beautiful work of art with great multi-layered environments and fantastic character models; in terms of sound the game leaves a lot to be desired, especially because it is naturally put side-by-side with its three older brothers, and in terms of music that is very tough competition. The most remarkable tunes of Donkey Kong Country Returns are remixed songs that felt slightly more compelling in their original form. Meanwhile, the newly composed tunes fail to inspire and live up to the very high bar the Donkey Kong franchise set for itself.
Additionally, the game suffers from rather uninspired bosses. With Metroid Prime, Retro Studios was able to create the most amazing boss battles of a generation, but here in Donkey Kong Country Returns the bosses are not really that unforgettable. On the contrary, the creativity employed in their creation strongly pales in comparison to the brilliancy of the levels that precede them, and while these have been clearly crafted by a team seemingly drawing from a bottomless well of ideas, the boss encounters are sidescrolling battle design in autopilot, failing to provide any moments of remarkable greatness, which were plentiful in the skirmishes of the Donkey Kong Country saga.
Ultimately, though, what the issues of Donkey Kong Country Returns reveal is that the aspects in which the game falters are only perceived as weaknesses because they are inevitably compared to the best of what was offered during the classic trilogy that inspired it. Individually, none of its building blocks stand as the best to have ever appeared in a Donkey Kong Country game, but at the same time, save for its soundtrack, bosses, and mini-games, all of them rank away from the bottom and in pretty respectable positions. The result is a modern classic that, without any legacy to live up to, would come out nearly unscathed from even the most rigorous evaluation. With the exception of Diddy’s Kong Quest, none of the Donkey Kong Country games that came before it clearly surpass it. As such, Donkey Kong Country Returns stands among the best sidecrolling platformers not only of its generation, which was quite prolific in its production of great games of the genre, but also of all time.