Review by SneakTheSnake

"The 2D platformer genre returns."

Kommenting on the Kong Klassic Kollection

For the good of subjectivity, I'm going to make sure to take off my rose-tinted glasses and toss them out the window. I don't want my thirst for nostalgia to taint this review. Sure, I could give you my own story of how much I eagerly anticipated the original Donkey Kong Country, but that wouldn't offer much new information - none relevant, anyway. Most everyone on Gamefaqs.com can spin an excellent yarn on their first exposure to their favorite video game series, but one of them won't be me. Not in a review. That being said, I'm convinced that this game is worth an immediate purchase, and I'll take the time to tell you why.

Also, I'll try and keep the comparisons to the original Donkey Kong Country out of the limelight here, as Donkey Kong Country Returns is its own product, deserving of a critique of its own strengths and weaknesses. Some of the pluses and minuses are either parts of the genre convention or are examples found in both the original and the revisit, however.

I'll Stop Monkeying Around...

2D platformers are a dying breed. How many, for example, do we Wii owners have to call our own? A remake from the Playstation era, Klonoa? A few WiiWare or Virtual Console titles? Sonic Colors? Despicable Me? Gosh-dang New Super Mario Bros. Wii? Correct me if I'm wrong, but our selection is poor, and the selection on other consoles is even less. That Donkey Kong Country Returns is one of the only of its kind on the Wii is not the only thing that makes it so enriching and unique. It's a great package, a challenging, enchanting, wonderful game - not under the "remake" qualifier, not just a superb platformer, but a refined product overall..

What's the story? In the midst of a volcano's eruption, a group of rogue tikis soar out of the spewing lava and ash. This abrupt eruption sends these shifty statues and taunting totems flying all across Donkey Kong Island. The tikis then proceed to hypnotize the hapless animals of the island – except for Donkey Kong and his pal, Diddy. They're immune to the alluring music and swirley-eyed stares of the tikis, and the two simian soulmates set out to un-hypnotize the animals and, most importantly, get back the banana hoard the animals managed to steal while under the tikis' spell.

And that's really about it. The story is quite minimal, bare-bones. The greatest amount of exposition is what bookends the game, the intro and ending cutscenes – there isn't even any dialogue. It may have been nice to include a bit more – why DK and his little buddy are immune to the tikis' hypnotic antics, perhaps – but the cutscenes are, at the very least, very well-produced. For context specific moments, the FMV scenes even differ whether Diddy is with you when the moment occurs.

What Goes Around, Kongs Around

The gameplay is one hundred percent 2D sidescroller; you'll be running, jumping, hopping and bopping your way through dozens of levels. You'll be bashing the baddies, collecting the K-O-N-G letters (this time they reveal something a lot more substantial than simple 1-ups!) and puzzle pieces to unlock dioramas, still images and music. The K-O-N-G letters aren't hidden too hard, but the puzzle pieces may be stuck in crevices, platforms which appear solid but are actually hollow (think New Super Mario Bros.), or are earned in bonus levels.

Donkey Kong Country Returns has a fluid gameplay structure. Pick a level from the world map - much akin to New Super Mario Bros. - finish the level, and you'll be presented with a wrap-up screen with how much loot you've collected, how much is still out there in the level to collect, and if you've gotten any updates for your collection of unlockables.

Nothing about the gameplay is very oblique. Though the game lacks a proper tutorial, there is nothing cryptic about how the game is presented to the player, even for newcomers. It's possible to head right through the level without trying too hard to grab the special goodies in each level, or the purists can scavenge the levels in and out to uncover every piece of the puzzles - literally.

Navigating Donkey and Diddy through the various levels is also a snap. The two buddies travel in tandem, with Diddy always on DK's back in the single-player mode. They'll be running through a dense forest, a beach with glistening water, a menacing factory, through the innards of a volcano and many more.

The game doesn't suffer by having an overall “gimmick”, a silly doo-dad or special power that Donkey and Diddy have to use in every level. Rather, almost every level has an interesting new gameplay dynamic, a new type of challenge. There are the typical “rising lava” levels, the mine cart levels and so on, but others offer something new, at least to the series. One level is completely covered in mist, and cautious players must go by the silhouettes of the characters – and the machinery in this foggy factory – to get by. Another has players riding atop a giant whale and using its blowhole to rocket into the sky to collect goodies. Yet another has red and blue platforms set up throughout the level, with only one color of platforms able to be activated at a time. The player must skillfully pass by red and blue buttons along the walls to activate the platforms of each color.

The game always seems to be throwing something new at the player, but the new elements never feel overwhelming, burdening or tacked-on. They all feel like a natural progression, an expansion onto what's been established. My favorite world, by far, is the factory, in which every level offers not only a wonderful aesthetic but expertly designed levels and great gameplay mechanics.

One might also notice that there's a certain interplay between the background and foreground. All too often, DK and DIddy will be launched into the game's background to play through part of a stage. The integration of this gameplay mechanic is used often enough to make level design all the more intriguing.

It seems as if just about every level is shoddily built but overall immaculately designed - let me explain. While DK and Diddy are traveling, they'll encounter temples, ruins with prehistoric remains, sunken pirate ships and the like - places that truly appear worn, old, and in disrepair. Almost every level features parts of it that explode, fall into itself, fall, tilt, collapse, shatter, or generally fall into disarray, emitting a sense of panic and urgency from the player. It helps the game's world feel more organic, in a way. With this, and the constant shifting between background and foreground, make for absolutely excellent level design at points. This is an unpredictable, exciting and daring world, expecting a lot of attention and dedication from the player from the get-go.

That being said, this is the first game in a long, long time which elicited a feeling of true shock, horror and peril from me. I could hardly believe the things the game had me doing, the sheer feats of danger and daring Donkey endeared. Riding on a mine cart, sure. Riding on a mine cart through a barren wasteland of tar and fossils, okay. Riding on a mine cart over tilting, crumbling, collapsing platforms through a barren wasteland of tar and fossils atop – and then inside – a giant egg, whose brittle shell is being shattered by jagged spikes in your path? I can only say that it's been a while since I've felt a sense of urgency in the games I've played.

Do or Die, Says Cranky Kong

This is not a game for beginners. I can attest to being a gamer for multiple decades, but even I was challenged, my gaming skills pushed to the brink in these tests of skill and quick reflexes. The mine cart levels and rocket barrel levels – two kinds with forced scrolling, propelling the player forward at breakneck speed in do-or-die, one-hit-kill fury – were particularly challenging. I finished the game by the skin of my teeth, shelling out hundreds of banana coins (from which I had a very large cache) for several extra lives, doing my best to get by.

In short, even on the first few worlds, the game can be extraordinarily hard, especially if you're trying to find all the loot. I can never use the phrase "breeze through a level" and "Donkey Kong Country Returns" in the same sentence without the word "not". There are great deal of baddies and obstacles out there standing in the way between you and your precious banana hoard, and you're going to have to bring your platforming skills to the table.

The Super Guide is back in full swing; once a player dies about ten or so times in a given level, Tutorial Pig pops out at the beginning of the stage or the nearest check point and offers a helping hoof. You won't keep the goodies that the Super Guide Kong - aptly named Super Kong - nabs for you, but you can tackle the level on your own when you're ready and nab the goodies for yourself.

Also, it can be quite fortunate for novices or newcomers, as DKCR features drop-in drop-out co-op for two players. Player two always controls Diddy and, if he's not riding piggy-back on top of old DK, he's on his own, using his jet-pack to hover from one platform to the next or his peanut pop-guns against the tikis.

That's not the end of the extra help the game can provide. Donkey's ornery octogenarian relative Cranky Kong owns a shop in every world, and players can purchase extra lives, health potions and the like. Squawks the Parrot is available for purchase, and he can help players sniff out puzzle pieces. Also, for twenty coins apiece (a mere investment, really), players can invest in eight keys that each unlock a path in each world.

I love the boss battles – simply put. Some are ridiculously simple, and some boss battles are remarkably similar to one another, but the difficulty level from boss to boss ramps up considerably and fairly. It's all a matter of understanding their attack patterns, memorizing their movements, and striking when they've reached a vulnerable state. The bosses, though, are humorous, and the cutscenes to introduce them had my chuckling either at their crazy appearance or almost Tex Avery-like mannerisms.

A Sunset is Worth a Thousand Words

Face it: we're used to richly detailed polygonal environments now. The graphics in Donkey Kong Country Returns, therefore, didn't wow me very often. The graphics in the original trilogy are photorealistic to a fault; of course, the pre-rendered graphics of the original floored just about everyone in the industry. I can appreciate them just about as much as I can appreciate the much more cartoony setting of DKCR. Every animal and every tiki have large, bulbous eyes with gigantic black pupils, leaves bounce and bob instead of blow in the breeze, and some environments border on the unrealistic, even the surreal. I enjoy the aesthetic quite a bit at points. The style for this game works fine - it reminds me a lot of the computer-animated television show based on DKC from the mid-1990's - but that's not my qualm.

The graphics, from a strictly technical standpoint, simply don't wow me as much as DKC's graphics wowed me back in '94; granted, I was a kid then, but DKCR's graphics aren't really set apart from the standard. DKC's graphics lept from the screen and, like Dragon's Lair, represented a level of aesthetic detail so far above anything seen before in a video game that it blew any skeptics away. These days, though, any game developer with a considerable budget is able to fashion together a game with technologically superior graphics, or at the very least a unique graphical style - DKCR, while refined, lacks that specific touch.

What I am impressed with, though - and what I think evens out my jaded attitude - is the level of variety, diversity and effort put into the game's graphics with the engine that Retro Studios has used. That the developers clearly paid attention to the finer touches – the minute details – makes all the difference. For one, all of the environments truly do look very unique from one another - the vines sway lazily in the forest, giant fireballs loom in the background and foreground in the volcano levels, and the water moves with the tide at the beach.

Donkey and Diddy's facial expressions are remarkable and comical at once; the sunset levels evoke a feeling of true beauty – and see if you can spot Mr. Game & Watch or references to the original Donkey Kong arcade game sometime in your first playthrough!

The game is not ugly by any stretch of the imagination. The levels one hears about the most often - namely the levels played with silhouettes (only three) are truly quite unique and wonderful. I do not mean to call the game aesthetically displeasing, or even inferior; gamers and industry experts, however, are just able to accept graphics of this quality much more easily these days.

Jammin' to the Old-School Beat

As far as the music is concerned, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The game borrows so much from the original Donkey Kong Country that I'm appalled that David Wise, the composer of the original SNES game, isn't in DKCR's credits! The opening theme and several of the themes in the levels – from the bonus level to the jungle / forest themes and many, many more – are taken just about directly from the original title. Heck, two pieces of music are based on just one song in the original, namely the original “Jungle Hijinx” level.

The new music produced for this game is rather middle of the road. Nothing gets too distracting, except perhaps for the swingy, big band rocket barrel music, but there are no catchy tunes rounding out the title. The music complements the action appropriately, but I can't name or hum a song from Donkey Kong Country Returns that stuck with me – except for the ones from the original Donkey Kong Country. Scratch that: the music the tikis emit when hypnotizing the baddies and bosses is especially catchy, and the music becomes fuller and richer when each tiki, each based on a musical instrument, is freed and released, adding to the hypnotizing harmony.

I could generally care less about the sound effects; none are especially grating, at least. I've heard some comments about Donkey Kong sounding more like Scooby-Doo than an actual ape, and that may be true, but it works fine. I do enjoy the grunts and growls just the same, and I do like the sound effects the game contains, especially because most of them come from the well-implemented Wii Remote speakers.


Monkey Malaise

My only complaint – my only true gripe – would have to be with the controls. One has two options – either hold the Wii Remote sideways, NES-style, or play the game using the Wii Remote / Nunchuk combo. Both configurations require some Wii waggle. I don't mind the occasional Wii waggle – some of my favorite Wii games are built upon that movement – but consider this. Waggling the Remote based on three different positions does three different actions in this game. When DK is moving, he'll roll when you waggle. When he ducks, he'll blow out some air. While standing still, he'll pound the ground. Each of these serve their own important functions, but sometimes one's button presses won't be quick enough, and DK will roll when he should be blowing, or ground pound when he should be standing still if you shook it by mistake. The Wii Remote usually has to be held completely flat for the game to register these inputs, which has finicky results.

I lost many lives either because the game misinterpreted my inputs or, I could swear, missed my input entirely. This could be a classic gaming trope, but I found myself thinking, “… but I jumped! I pressed the ‘2' button! Why'd I just fall off that cliff?” one too many times for my liking.

The controls are serviceable overall. Forgive me for writing facetiously, but I found Diddy to be a great crutch - I mean, friend - in need. The odds of succeeding in the game rely a whole lot on effectively using Diddy's jet-pack to jump that extra few inches or to perfectly align your falls. Worried you might land in the fire or fall into a pit? Use your little Lunar Lander pal, Diddy, and float - albeit very briefly - to safety. DK on his own is burly and falls like a rock (as monkeys should, I suppose), so your tiny friend Diddy, who can propel as much as himself, Donkey Kong and their rhinoceros friend Rambi over chasms - comes in handy very often.

A Final Simian Soliloquy

The replay value is also evident. The single player campaign in itself is a brief six or seven hours tops, but there is so much to do when the game is done that one can hardly complain of this being a brief game. If you want to continue your adventures on Donkey Kong Island, feel free to go through a level in time attack mode, or scour each and every level to nab all of the elusive puzzle pieces. I can tell you now that, through the game's seventy or so levels, there were only eight or nine through which I found all the pieces and letters the first run through, and those were all with several lives lost. Collecting all the K-O-N-G letters also nets special rewards which ultimately extend the gameplay experience even longer.

The complaints I mentioned above have been no less apparent to me from start to finish of the game, but I find that, even with these problems notwithstanding - the lack of great new music, the occasionally ho-hum controls, the punishing difficulty for newcomers - Donkey Kong Country Returns is very easy to forgive. The amount of detail in this game borders on the meticulous, and it's astounding to me that Retro Studios, who has no official affiliation with the original developers and started off making first-person adventure games, shifted gears so quickly and abruptly to craft DKCR. My hats go off to the makers of this game, and it's been a long time since I've backed a game like this. If you're a fan of platformers, you owe yourself to play Donkey Kong Country Returns.


Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 11/24/10

Game Release: Donkey Kong Country Returns (US, 11/21/10)


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