After a 14 year absence outside of re-releases, the 2D side-scrolling Donkey Kong Country series is back, and with a nice polygonal makeover as well. DK’s banana horde has been swiped once again, but this time, an evil tiki tribe (is there any other kind in gaming?) is behind it, instead of King/Kaptain K.Rool. The minds behind the Metroid Prime series have resurrected DK and a couple of the gang on the Wii so he can reclaim his precious horde, resulting in one of this generation’s finest, and most challenging, platformers.
The transition between just a single console generation for a franchise can be difficult, let alone a complete shift in development teams. Fortunately, this is a mostly seamless transition. Players who grew up with the 16-bit adventures will feel right at home with DKC Returns. For the most part, it captures the spirit of the original series with sharp controls and fantastic level design. Like before, you’ll have to find the right blend of exploration and smart controlling to not only beat stages, but also collect the KONG letters and find other secrets hidden throughout the game world.
Whether you use the remote and nunchuk combo or hold the remote sideways like a NES pad, you’ll have some sharp controls to work with. However, the shift from a SNES-style setup to a NES one results in a lack of buttons for either control setup, which hurts the game. Button response time is spot-on for both setups though, so it plays very smoothly. The NES-style setup is the most natural for platforming, but the chuk/remote setup is a little more comfortable for long play sessions since your hands conform around the remote and chuk easily. Both setups work about equally well though, so it really comes down to personal preference. I don’t mind dealing with a slightly less comfortable setup in order to get the most natural plat forming controls, so I’ve come to prefer the NES-style after a few days of trying the remote/chuk setup.
Unfortunately, what never quite works as well as it should is the remote shaking that’s required for the ground pound used to stun enemies or uncover goodies, the roll that comes in handy for speedy platforming and bowling over enemies, and the breath-blowing feature that uncovers bananas. No matter which setup you use, shaking the remote gets in the way slightly of platforming. This will lead to at least some needless hits in normal stages. You’ll definitely suffer some deaths due to it, especially in portions of the game that require it - like level 5-8, where the only way to beat the stage is to roll and jump carefully. Here, you’ll find yourself doing a ground pound when you mean to roll, and probably dying as a result. Extra lives are easy to obtain, but the problem is still pretty frustrating. Shaking the remote may take about as much time as pressing a button, but it Isn’t as natural as just pressing a button. The lack of GC or classic controller support is even more puzzling since there’s no good reason the shaking functions couldn’t have been mapped to a button since there aren’t any parts that require the motion controls outright. New SMB Wii at least had you tilt the remote to match an on-screen platform. What’s worse, this lack of buttons also seems like a probable cause for the inability to switch between characters at will.
Series fans who liked to use Diddy since he carried barrels in front of him and not overhead, and was faster, who just enjoyed swapping between the two, or using the tag-team situation to find items are out of luck unless they find a friend to do some co-op play with. Only then can you actually play as Diddy, who now has a popgun to shoot and foes, and in solo play, can gift DK some extra hang time on jumps ala Dixie‘s hair thanks to his jetpack. Co-op play is well-executed, and acts pretty much the same as it has in the past couple of Nintendo side-scrollers. Those without another Wii remote can have fun with others just competing to see who can beat levels fastest, with the fewest deaths, or to see who can get all the KONG letters in only one life, or find all of a stage’s puzzle pieces first. No matter how many remotes you have in your house, you’ll have some options for multi-player fun.
While the controls may suffer from some fundamental flaws, they are at least incredibly responsive, and you’ll be thankful for that when you see some of the challenges you have to overcome in Returns. Not content to just rest on the series’ laurels, Retro Studios has added in new challenges on top of the usual series trademarks including the somewhat-maddening, in a good way, mine cart levels, vine swinging and Rambi “smash through EVERYTHING“ stages, like a rocket you control by carefully feathering the jump button, and stages that rely on the Aztec look of the characters for its platforms - making the shift to tiki enemies seem relatively organic, and benefiting the game from a design aspect. Like the original trilogy, Returns features some incredibly tough levels that will kill you many times over. You’ll get frustrated on the mike cart stages, memorize their layout over time, and then feel a huge sense of accomplishment after finally toppling a stage. Outside of the occasional stage that is hindered by relying on the shake mechanic, most of the levels have just the right kind of difficulty - enough to frustrate you for losing, but not make you turn off the game. I love how tough the stages are even with a checkpoint thrown in - it would have been really easy to either sprinkle them around every part of the level to make things easier, but instead, they only give you one checkpoint - just like the original games.
Visually, DKC Returns satisfies both fans of the original and fans of newer platformers. The 3D graphics are basically what one would expect the series to look like with a modern-day coat of paint. The over world design is largely identical as well, furthering the ability to long-time fans to just jump in, while also not confusing newcomers to the series. The character models look great, and the backgrounds are gorgeous. There’s always something going on in them, and at times, you can shoot back to them with a barrel and play through them - making them more than just pleasing on the eyes, as they can be fun to play through as well. To the developers’ credit, they don’t zoom the camera out so far that you can’t see what you’re doing either. Also, they threw in some stunning areas that are basically playable silhouettes and rely heavily on lighting. Character models are all obscured by darkness except for things like eyes or DK’s tie, and you have to look even more carefully for signs of hidden areas by checking to see if line shines through any part of the environment. Retro Studios definitely delivered a visually-pleasing game that works as both a continuation on the original series, and a great launch pad for what I hope is a full return for the DK gang. Similarly, the music stays close enough to the classic while changing things up enough to not seem like it’s completely relying on the past. The jazz-infused mix of classics is catchy, and the entirely new songs fit in perfectly.
Donkey Kong Country Returns has a few flaws, but is still an incredibly fun plat former. In that sense, it’s greater than the sum of its parts because even though I have some major grievances with the game, I still can’t stop playing it. Like the original trilogy, it overcomes its flaws with strong level design and just the right amount of difficulty. When compared to the original trilogy, I’d put Returns between 1 and 2 as far as quickly goes. It’s far better than three, slightly better than the original, but not quite as good as the second, which remains the best entry in the series. Returns is hurt by the removal of character-swapping between DK and Diddy, and the lack of Classic Controller support. However, while those issues take away from the game, and prevent it from reaching its full potential, it still remains a top-tier game even with its flaws.