Review: Donkey Kong Country Returns
There’s always a level of nostalgia when a great series is rebooted for the current console generation, but where New Super Mario Bros. on DS and Wii revised an old school 2D idea by adding new elements and abilities, Donkey Kong Country Returns mostly plays it safe by bringing the original concept and an innovative level design without extra bells and whistles.
From the jungles to the pirate ship-infested beach, to the caves full of mine carts, Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong are chasing after masked music instrument-shaped monsters who have hypnotized all the animals on the island into bringing bananas to their volcano-dwelling master. Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong remain immune to the hypnotism, and punch the monsters’ lights out as the Kongs prove to be extremely hunger intolerant.
Each level within the eight areas of the island has the Kongs collecting bananas, gold coins, puzzle pieces, and the letters K-O-N-G. Puzzle pieces seem to only unlock gallery items like images and music, but completionists will want to find every hidden area and grab them all. Collecting the K-O-N-G letters in each level will unlock other more interesting bonuses later on. You can play using the D-Pad by holding the Wii remote sideways or use the Nunchuck and Wii remote in combination, shaking the controller in combination with a direction to stomp, blow at, or roll at nearby enemies.
If you’ve ever played a side-scrolling co-op platformer with friends you know how competitive a game like Donkey Kong Country Returns can get even when you’re supposed to be working together. Where New Super Mario Bros. Wii had families butting heads and stealing each other’s items and coins, Donkey Kong Country Returns will have friends talking trash to the person who missed a jump after stealing a heart item the other player needed more.
You’d expect DKCR’s strength to lie in its co-op gameplay, letting one player sacrifice themself to grab a letter or puzzle piece while the other stays safe, ready to let the other player use a shared life to jump back into the game without having to restart from a checkpoint. In a lot of ways it’s a fusion of the original SNES run and the mechanics of a New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Instead of the second player being able to hide inside a bubble when things get tough, Diddy Kong can jump onto Donkey Kong’s back and let the first player do the work until they’re comfortable going off on their own again. Diddy Kong seems somewhat built for a lesser player, as he can not only ride on Donkey Kong’s shoulders but can hover using a jet pack whereas Donkey Kong must be more precise with his jumps. While on Donkey Kong’s shoulders, the first player gains control and can use the jet pack to hover to safe ground (which is also a part of playing single player). Unfortunately, even for those who can work together, DKCR never quite becomes the satisfying bonding experience you may have hoped for. Instead, it plays best with one player and leaves little for Player 2 to do otherwise. The option to play in an online co-op game would have been welcomed, yet that feature is not included. Disappointingly, you cannot play as Diddy Kong in single player – a character many people loved to play as in the original series. It’s baffling why this option was not put into the game.
On my own, however, I’m not very good at the game. And it’s not for lack of trying: any game that offers multiple opportunities to buy a 7-Up for a low price should draw suspicion to its difficulty, but I first assumed that offer was for younger players who don’t have good enough reflexes for a platformer. On the contrary: DKCR is hardly meant for younger players at all; it’s clearly geared toward the original fans of the series and assumes they have done nothing but honed their skills all these years. Even the in-game items like an invincibility banana juice potion and a temporary extra health point don’t help much, as most of your vulnerabilities will come in the form of missing jumps and falling into pits or crashing into stalactites in a barrel rocket – both of which equal instant death regardless of the Kongs’ health.
But the game excels on levels that focus on platform jumping and getting shot out of barrels. That’s where my fondest memories of the series lay, and in DKCR they’re the least frustrating. Cart levels, while fun, pop up too often and require too much precision for an average player to enjoy without wanting to throw their controller. And while getting into a barrel rocket is exciting at first, the controls are finicky, overly sensitive, and you end up fighting gravity more than guiding your character. Tap 2 repeatedly and you’ll mostly hover, but hold it down or let it go for even a second and you’ll soar upward or downward, often crashing into something. It requires constant focus and becomes very nerve-racking when trying to dodge both enemies and your environment. Whereas many games throw in tutorials that are never needed, DKCR doesn’t tell you anything at all, so the first time in a barrel rocket becomes somewhat of a learning experience, to say the least.
Also back is the Rambi the rhino. Both Kongs can ride on it at once, tearing up enemies with his horn by running into them or breaking through special blocks that only he can break. This helps get through to some secret areas, which the game is full of.
Families looking for a cute Wii game to play with their kids: this isn’t it. I absolutely cannot see children playing through more than the first area of DKCR because of its difficulty. While the game looks friendly and each level does great things visually with depth, layering, and scale, once they reach the second area all bets are off. The background begins to interact with the foreground, and while it creates a great effect and the feeling of a 3D world in a 2D game, these events are often unexpected and spell an instant retry for the player. When I first saw the huge waves crashing in the beach’s background I figured it was simply a scenery animation, that is until the wave crashed into the platform Donkey Kong was on and washed him away, causing him to lose a life. Explosive canon balls are shot from the background toward you, and at one point a giant squid destroys the platforms as you run through the level. Don’t worry: if you lose too many times the checkpoint pig will give you the option to have Super Kong run through the level for you (you will not keep any items collected by him). The environments are full of life and danger, and explore a wonderful variety of platforming and barrel-hopping, but only after losing many times will you finally learn to be very careful of things that may pop out, fall down, or crumble under you. Retro Studios (who were behind Metroid Prime) has done a spectacular job of bringing the feel of the SNES games to the Wii (even down to the music), but by the 15th life I’d lost dodging pickaxes while riding a mine cart, I eventually realized I was playing for nostalgia, not because I was actually enjoying the game.
In the end, what I’ve learned from Donkey Kong Country Returns is that I really, really hate mine carts, and if I play another mine cart level in the next 10 years it will be too soon.