Ebullient drumming seems to have become a recurring theme throughout the Donkey Kong franchise – something that’s deeply ironic when you consider that Kong’s been struggling to find a beat of his own of late. Recent years have seen the snappily-dressed ape dabble in everything from cutesy puzzlers (Mario VS. Donkey Kong) to peripheral-based music games (Donkey Konga), often to varying degrees of success. However, as anyone who drummed themselves silly in Jungle Beat will tell you, Nintendo’s sprightly simian is at his best when he’s swinging, leaping and barrel-rolling through colourful worlds in yet another of his exceptional, side-scrolling platformers.
Donkey Kong Country Returns, then, is the game we’ve all been waiting for. It’s the game that single-handedly makes Donkey Kong relevant again, whilst doing away with much of the mass-market cleanliness of New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Ant and Dec might be waving the Donkey Kong Country Returns banner for all to see on national television, but there’s nothing ‘family friendly’ about Retro Studio’s punitive platformer, that’s for sure. It’s ruthlessly challenging, unapologetically stubborn, and clearly aimed at hardcore gamers. And that’s precisely why we love it.
Everything you ever knew and loved about Rare’s 16-bit classics is present and correct, with Retro Studios choosing to refine, rather than reinvent, the existing formula. Just like the original games, Kong controls like a dream, with just the right amount of ‘weightiness’ to every last leap. What’s more, the series’ unique brand of ‘hop and bop’ gameplay has made the transition with aplomb, and, to this very day, nothing quite matches the feeling of chain-stomping the heads of three consecutive enemies.
That’s not to say that Retro Studios hasn’t added a few unique touches of its own, though. As well as a plethora of innovative new moves (more on those later), they’ve also shoehorned in an adorably-retro story involving the search for Kong’s lost fruit. This time, Kong’s bananas have been stolen by minions of the Tiki Tak tribe, strange floating creatures who have hypnotised inhabitants of the jungle, turning them against our primate pal. Your mission is to retrieve Kong’s bananas while, at the same time, dodging death at the hands of crustaceans, vultures and, er, possessed voodoo drums.
Fortunately Donkey Kong seems more than up to the challenge, boasting an impressive arsenal of new moves with which to defeat foes. Drawing inspiration from Jungle Beat, Donkey Kong can now perform a ground pound attack – activated by waggling both the nunchuck and remote in unison. Ground pound attacks can be used to flip giant enemy crabs, revealing their tender tummies for ‘massive damage’. However, they can also be used to reveal hidden bonuses in the level such as coins, puzzle pieces and those all-important bananas.
If there’s a complaint to be levelled at Donkey Kong Country Returns, though, it’s that the majority of the game’s attacks have been mapped to the analogue stick. Hold the stick to the left or right whilst waggling the nunchuck and remote, and Donkey Kong will perform his trademark barrel roll. Hold down and whilst waggling, however, and he’ll drop to the ground and start blowing at the immediate area for hidden items. This isn’t too much of a problem for seasoned gamers, although the rate at which Donkey Kong barrel-rolls into chasms rather than performing a ground pound attack is alarming.
In keeping with the original games, Diddy Kong can be found hiding in special barrels dotted around each level, and breaking them open will allow Diddy to ride on Donkey’s back. Switching between the simians is no longer possible, but Diddy is certainly worth having around, if only for the fact that he increases Donkey Kong’s default number of hearts to four. Diddy also boasts a jetpack, which not only enables Donkey Kong to jump further, but also allows him to correct jumps mid-air – something that you’ll be eternally thankful for during the game’s trickier levels.
Take too many hits, or tumble down too many chasms, and Nanny Nintendo starts pimping the Super Guide from NSMB – which guides less-able players through the levels automatically. Regardless, we can’t honestly see anyone other than seasoned gamers completing Retro’s latest over the Christmas hols’. Even the first boss battle had us cowering behind the sofa in tears, as he gobbled up our lives like sweets.
But that’s what makes Donkey Kong Country Returns such a blast. Retro Studio’s tight, intricate, and yet seemingly spontaneous level design keeps you on the edge of your seat at all times. In just the first hour alone, you’ll dodge cannon-fire in a makeshift rocket, ride mine-carts through dimly-lit caves, dodge hazardous tsunami waves behind cover on a beach, and elude the grasp of an enormous octopus as he flails wildly around the level. Not to mention that you’ll do so while avoiding all manner of environmental destruction – with everything from broken bridges to snapped mine cart rails and toppling totem poles all vying for your attention.
Donkey Kong Country Returns also marks the first game in the ‘Country’ series to feature fully rendered 3D thanks to the increased horsepower of the Wii. Previously, mode 7 trickery and clever pre-rendering techniques were used to create the illusion of 3D gaming, and so it’s lovely to see the game as was originally intended by Rare all those years ago. Even by today’s lofty standards, Donkey Kong Country Returns is an absolute stunner, and is certainly a contender for being the prettiest game on the system.
Character models and animations are utterly flawless, as are the sumptuous environments you’ll access via the game’s overhead map. Enveloping jungles, sandy beaches, blue skies and picturesque rainbows are in abundance here, making Donkey Kong Country Returns a visual treat from start to finish. Our favourite level takes place during a golden sunset, and bathes the entire level in shadow, recalling Playdead Studio’s Limbo. Occasionally, explosive barrels will even fire Donkey Kong into the distance and onto pirate ships for a welcome change of perspective – and such moments never fail to elicit a satisfied smirk. The game’s soundtrack is equally as charismatic, dishing out revamped ditties and all-new tunes in equal measure.
Levels are utterly packed with secrets, from power-ups to collectibles and even bonus areas. As well as the return of K-O-N-G letters, there are also hidden puzzle pieces to seek out, and all help to extend the game’s 7 hour lifespan. Since collectibles are hidden with extreme care, finding them all will requires patience, dedication and complete focus, and so it’s usually worth having a friend help you out.
Unfortunately, cooperative play isn’t all it could have been – with players endlessly playing ‘catch up’, or fighting for survival as opposed to helping each other out. Levels appear to have been designed specifically for single player gaming, and the game’s multiplayer offering lacks th
e spit and polish of, say, New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Cooperative puzzles could have added an all-new element to the game, but unfortunately Retro hasn’t seen fit to include any, making for an experience that fails to create a sense of camaraderie.
That said, Donkey Kong Country never really was about multiplayer. It was about pelting it though the jungle on the back of a smelly rhino, collecting bananas. And, in that sense, Retro Studios has well and truly succeeded, creating a platformer that stands among the finest Nintendo has ever published – and that’s including its in-house efforts.
Some might say that Donkey Kong Country doesn’t evolve the series in any meaningful way, and they’d of course be right. Retro have adhered rigorously to the original template, and it’s true that the game adds little more than a few new moves and motion controls. To overlook the intricacy of Retro Studio’s design, however, would be foolish indeed.
To put it simply, Donkey Kong Country Returns has the charm, playability and charisma to steal the hearts of an entirely new generation. And with the modern pleasures of Facebook, My Chemical Romance and Russell Brand, that’s really saying something…
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