Donkey Kong Country Returns (Wii) - Review by Chris
While Nintendo's big three franchises have all received new and original outings on the Wii, with some seeing more than one opportunity to flourish on the hardware, several other key Nintendo characters have been left out in the cold, with gamers wondering whether they'd ever see these classic characters in new games. Roll on E3 2010, and Nintendo pulled out the stops, announcing that many of these characters would finally get their chance to shine. Foremost of these was Donkey Kong who, after being out of the 2D side scrolling business for over 10 years, would finally see the release of an all new title spearheaded by the minds that successfully brought Metroid into 3D, Retro Studios. With Donkey Kong Country: Returns finally out on store shelves, have Retro done justice to the DKC legacy?
Donkey Kong Country: Returns centres on the premise of a mysterious tribe of Tikis awakening after the eruption of a volcano and descending upon Donkey Kong's island, who set about hypnotising the various animals so that they can steal all of the island's bananas. Not wanting to let the Tikis off lightly for pilfering his food, Donkey Kong teams up with Diddy and heads out to take down the Tikis one by one, hoping to return the island to a state of status quo and retrieving his vital food source. There's little allusion to the story throughout the game outside of the opening sequence and the boss battle encounters but here, it's a case of more is less as it allows a greater focus to go on the gameplay rather than some padded out piece of narrative which would ultimately drag the game down. Some gamers may be disappointed at the lack of Kremlins in the game but it shows that the developers are squarely set on carving their own unique take on the series without deviating from the path too far.
Stepping in to fill the shoes that Rare left empty many years ago, developer Retro Studios has opted to adhere to blueprints this time around and not attempted to reinvent the series like they did with the Metroid Prime games. As such, Donkey Kong Country: Returns retains the very 2D gameplay which made the originals so enjoyable all those years ago. You'll control Donkey Kong through a vast array of engaging and varied locations as he attempts to put a stop to the Tiki tribe, with Diddy Kong, the only other member of the Kong clan who gets involved in the gameplay, tagging along for the ride. Just as with New Super Mario Bros. Wii last year, this game sticks to the template of old school platforming goodness, keeping the traditional run and jump, barrel blasting gameplay which were things the originals were loved for as well as the likes of Rambi, the K-O-N-G letter collection and of course the much loved and hated mine cart levels all making comebacks which will surely appeal to fans of the originals.
With the developers sticking to the blueprints of yesteryear, you could be forgiven for thinking that the game would simply opt to act on nostalgic factors to get by and while the aforementioned returning mechanics certainly do just that, and yet still manage to feel fresh given how long it has been since the last 2D Donkey Kong game, if the game had simply rested on these laurels it would still be considered a great game. But thankfully, Retro has stepped it up a notch but introducing several new mechanics to really make it feel like an advancement of the series, without alienating gamers. Foremost of these is the ground pound ability, which will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has played the Super Smash Bros. games. It's used for a variety of things, such as triggering switches, getting rid of destructible scenery or taking enemies off of their guard so you can land the final blow, and all of which are expertly integrated into the gameplay. Other inclusions include now being able to cling to and climb grass covered walls or ceilings, with some stages incorporating this into some exhilarating gameplay sequences which really will test your skills, and the new rocket barrel sequences, where you'll have to carefully guide a rocket barrel through a series of obstacles and enemies without hitting any of them. Again, these become fiendishly tricky as the game progresses making for a true gamers challenge.
That's primarily one thing that makes Donkey Kong Country: Returns such a good game: the level of difficulty is set high so as to really push you and the sense of satisfaction from beating even the standard stages, never mind the no checkpoint special stages, is great and it continues to increase as the levels become more treacherous later in the game, with the K-O-N-G letters and jigsaw pieces, which help to unlock hidden content, being so precariously placed that you'll find yourself repeating stages over and over again until you finally manage to grab them all. It really is a gamer's game but even if you have trouble with particular sections, the Super Guide help system has been implemented which allows the game to clear a level for you after you fail at a section 8 times.
A simple completion of all of the game's levels will take considerable time given the difficult of later stages put full completion of the game can only be achieved by collecting all of the letters and jigsaw pieces. Similarly, a time trial mode which lets you play through the game's levels in the hunt for medals goes towards the true completion of the game and given just how accurate you'll have to be in all of these elements, you'll still be here well into next year attempting to collect everything. Throw in a Mirror Mode unlock, which increases the difficulty even further with Donkey Kong only having 1 health piece, and 2 player co-op and Retro Studios have provided one of the most fleshed out Donkey Kong experiences in a long time, and one which is an incredible joy to play through.
Donkey Kong Country: Returns utilises two particular control setups for use: one making use of only the Wii-mote held horizontally and another making use of both the Wii-mote and Nunchuk. The former makes the game feel very much like the classic Donkey Kong titles of yesteryear and feels very natural, given that it is a 2D game, and is perhaps the setup that gamers will gravitate to most in aiding the nostalgic factor when playing the game. The Wii-mote and Nunchuk setup also works extremely, and the analogue stick doesn't frustrate in the dimension as it does in other 2D titles, but it adds very little to the overall experience as the game is capably handled by the Wii-mote on its own.
The only and only real issue with the controls, and one which will certainly linger long for anyone who spends any significant time with the game, is the mapping of the roll, ground pound and blow mechanics to a shake of the Wii-mote. While the getting Donkey to blow up dandelions and blow out fires is less problematic because you're holding down on the d-pad, rolling and doing a ground pound can be extremely difficult to specify due to a slight delay in the game responding to buttons not being pressed. It can mean you'll roll rather than ground pound when you want to, which can lead to some unnecessary deaths. Having roll mapped to a shake of the Wii-mote seems counter-intuitive and really should have been mapped to a button, but it's something which you'll gradually get used to as the game's levels become more devious.
Gone are the pre-rendered visuals of the original games and in their stead come real time visuals which are bright and colourful and ably reflect the themes of each of the game's locations extremely well. The further you delve into the game, the more elaborate the levels become but even with this elaboration, the game still manages to look fantastic in every element presented on screen, with some brilliant environmental effects, such as the Tidal Terror level and the crashing waves, fantastic flowing level design which played with back- and foreground elements and a level of detail which will have you stopping every so often and taking in the surroundings. This level of detail extends to some nostalgic inputs, with old school Donkey Kong sprites being used to adorn certain elements and it's something which never feels out of place and will leave a smile on your face.
Characters are done to the same high standard as anything else, and it really shouldn't come as a surprise given the art team in charge of creating all of the characters. There are plenty of nods to enemies from older games but also a good helping of new ones which fit in perfectly with what has come before it. The attention to detail in the animation of all models is superb and little subtle movements will really take you by surprise as many developers wouldn't go as far as this team has. Add to this the fact that the game runs at a rock solid frame rate throughout, with only 1 or 2 instances of slight slowdown, and you have a game which retains the visual atmosphere of its predecessors but ably feels at home in the modern generation of games.
Audio plays a big part in making Donkey Kong Country: Returns feel very much a part of the Donkey Kong Country series of games. While some may say that Retro has played it safe with the selection of the songs included in the game, with many holding some sort of resemblance to some of the songs in the earlier games, it ably manages to create its own unique atmosphere and quality that is both distinctly Donkey Kong and Retro Studios in composition. There is definitely a hint of the work from the Metroid Prime games emanating throughout some of the game's pieces of music and while it initially sounds out of place, it quickly settles in and feels very homely within the series.
Given the development team behind the game, there was no need to feel any trepidation for the way the game would turn out as Retro Studios have once again created an absolutely fantastic game. It's a true gamer's game, requiring pinpoint accuracy and timing from those that play yet never sacrifices fun to get to this level, with the entire romp from start to finish perhaps being the best Donkey Kong game in years. Fantastic presentation values, some truly standout moments and a good helping of new gameplay mechanics show that this series still has plenty of tricks up its sleeve so hopefully it isn't another 10 years or so until the next iteration. Donkey Kong is clearly in capable hands and it's finally great to see the big guy back in action. A must own for any gamer this holiday season.
Pro: Difficult yet enjoyable gameplay from start to finish, some truly standout moments for the series, fantastic presentation values, tight controls
Con: Having to shake the Wii-mote to ground pound, roll and blow is counter-intuitive
Final score: 9.2