Review by HailToTheGun

"Masterful level design and classic platforming make this return one to last a lifetime."

Return of the Kong

The land of the Kongs is once again under siege, this time by a mysterious group of hypnosis-inducing Tikis of the Tiki Tak Tribe. With their precious golden banana hoard abducted from right under their noses, the Kong duo venture out into the jungles of their homeland to retrieve that which is rightfully theirs. Old friends are all but excluded from the ape's latest outing, as the only other member of the Kong family you'll meet is Crank Kong. Few of the animal friends find their return to the jungle, namely Rambi the Rhino who reprises his smashing role, and a bit of a cameo by Squawks the Parrot.

16 years after the original Donkey Kong Country landed on the Super NES, Nintendo's beloved primates return in quite possibly their greatest outing yet. The Rare-developed classic featured a timeless style and charm to it and a wonderful blend of traditional side scrolling platforming and an unabashed challenge. While the inspired latest entry in the series lacks the novelty of Kong's nemesis the Kremlins, it more than makes up for it with an absolutely flawless design. This is not a sequel in name only; this is a rightfully-called successor to the legacy that is Donkey Kong, and dare I set it, deservedly set to become one of the greatest platformers of the last three generations.

No Monkeying Around

The game doesn't deviate too far from its predecessors to be ridiculed as a disgrace to the name, but the few changes it does make are for the better. Most of what you know and love from the original has been retained: barrel blasting, mine carts, and tons of collectibles. But the addition of some new gameplay mechanics and extraordinarily brilliant level design make this a far-and-away superior outing for the Kong duo.

The Country is broken up into nine sections, all with a distinct feel to them yet never abandoning the sentiment that it all exists within the confines of a jungle. In each section or world are more than a handful of stages to play through, sometimes in branching paths, as well as Cranky Kong's shop which offers you some aid in what is sure to be a perilous journey: extra lives, an extra heart container, and Squawks the Parrot, who helps find the hidden collectibles in each stage. Cranky also allows you to purchase keys from him - one for each section of the island - that unlock previously inaccessible areas.

As far as collectibles go, there are literally hundreds of them across the breadth of the game. The expected ones are the bananas littered across the environment which grant an extra life after every 99 you collect, balloons which instantly grant another life, and a golden banana coin which is the currency used to purchase aid from Cranky's shop. Some collectibles, like the puzzle pieces, offer a more arbitrary reward: finding the assorted pieces in each stage grants access to a particular section of the game's Image Gallery. Others, like the “KONG” letters, are required if you want to unlock each area's hidden level (separate from the one unlocked with the key), and hidden for very good reason: these are some of the toughest challenges in the game and will rightfully cause some hair-pulling or controller-breaking. Gaining access to them is a privilege, but conquering them is a rite of passage.

The heart containers mentioned earlier serve as your health, a slight departure from the original game, but a necessary evolution. In many situations you'll gain the aid of Donkey Kong's self-proclaimed Nephew, Diddy, whose jetpack provides an invaluable boost to your jumping and rolling abilities. As further proof of Diddy's necessity, he also adds two more heart containers to Donkey's already-existing two, allowing you even greater chance of success. The one major downfall of this is that Diddy cannot be controlled in the single-player. Gameplay is relinquished entirely to the stubborn ape while Diddy simply rides along on his shoulders providing those few benefits. Once the first two hearts are lost, Diddy is removed until you find him again rumbling around in the specifically designated DK barrels. In the game's co-op feature, however, a second player can jump in and assume the role of the rambunctious monkey. Multiplayer is limited to this and nothing more, and though it's rather anemic in the content department, it still serves a useful purpose.

The controls are perhaps some of the most unique features of the game, simple in scope but surprisingly justified in practice. The two methods of play style are the Wii Remote and Nunchuck, or the NES style of Wii Remote held sideways. Both are roughly the same in concept, but relegate some of the controls to a different button. For the purpose of this review, let's go with the Wii Remote and Nunchuk. The game in part feels similarly inspired by another one of DK's adventures, Donkey Kong Jungle Beat.

Though simple actions like jumping are controlled by pressing the A button, the more involved abilities require flicks of either the Remote or Nunchuk. In a stationary position, gently swinging the remote up and down causes Donkey Kong to pound his fists into the earth a couple of times. With Diddy on his back, you can keep swinging the remote for a continued pound. Likewise, when in motion, swinging the remote causes Donkey Kong to do his signature rolling move for a short amount of time. With Diddy, you can keep swinging to extend the roll for as long as you like. Much of this adds to the charm of the game and involves the player more than he or she perhaps anticipated, but isn't always for the best. On more than one occasion an imprecise flick of the wrist when I wanted to ground pound caused me to go into a roll, and as a result, I rolled myself right off a cliff. This is a minor nuisance in an otherwise superb system, and more times than it fails, it works wonderfully to create a sense of immersion.

Don't let the charm of its simian heroes or its lush world fool you - Donkey Kong Country Returns is not a game suitable for those of lesser patience. It is a lesson in frustration in all the right ways. Not for the longest time has a platformer of any shape or form challenged you in such a way that required more than a trace amount of focus and skill. This is a game that punishes you as only the old school can. But that difficulty only lends itself better to the brilliant level design of every single world. For the most part, your death is the consequence of your own mistakes

A Country Fit For a Kong

The most striking similarity between Donkey Kong Country and this inspired sequel is in the way it looks. Beyond the traditional side scrolling platforming, both are trendsetters of style. While the former was the first game to use pre-rendered sprites to create a 3D effect in the world, Returns actually is a 3D adventure across a side scrolling plane that not only has visible depth to the environment, but often allows you to go back and forth into the background and sometimes even further. The vibrant colors of the jungle create a perfect juxtaposition to some of the game's darker areas such as the mines, and particularly a few of the silhouetted levels which feature gradient backgrounds and a foreground entirely blanketed in a dark shadow. The effects of this look absolutely stunning in motion.

You'd think a game with such a modest presentation would have an equally modest design, but Retro Studious never undermines the details. Some of the effects of the background environment react with your actions, whether its rolling passed a bed of flowers and seeing them wisp behind you in your direction, or pounding the ground and watching the trees shake. It is in the small things that help elevate the game's stunning visuals and make it feel like the total package it really is. Musically, the game also soars. Though it lacks the literal touch of the Kong's former composer David Wise, the soundtrack somehow retains that sense of excitement and freshness. Kenji Yamamoto, whose artistic reach extends most notably to the Metroid Prime trilogy (for which Retro was also responsible) and Super Metroid, understands that music is just as important as gameplay in making the player feel inspired. Some classic tracks return with enough polish to feel fresh yet invoke that sense of nostalgia, while new audio is just as invigorated as the rest of the game.

Summary

It was thought impossible, but Nintendo laughs in the face of adversity. The brilliant minds over at Retro Studios managed to make Rare's classic even better than Rare did, and if that isn't a testament to the pool of talent over at Retro (as if Metroid Prime wasn‘t already), then I don't know what is. If it's Nintendo's master plan to give Retro Studios access to all of their classis IPs and allow them the chance to reinvigorate them for a modern audience, then more power to them. I'd be more than willing to submit a list of possible franchises that more than deserve the Retro-treatment: Star Fox and F-Zero, anyone?

Graphics: 97
From the lush jungles to the dank caverns, Donkey Kong Country Returns oozes style and charm. The environments are brilliantly detailed and even the most insignificant effects appear impressive.

Gameplay: 94
Flawless level design make this one of the most challenging and engrossing platformers in a long time, and an inspired control scheme allows for a greater sense of involvement despite occasional hiccups.

Production: 100
Top to bottom this is in every way a masterpiece of a modern platformer, and rightfully a contender for one of the greatest games that Nintendo has ever produced.

Sound: 91
Charming sound effects and a brilliantly re-imagined soundtrack make Donkey Kong Country Returns feel fresh and familiar in all the right places.

Lasting Appeal: 90
A total completion of the game will take even the most diehard platformer junkies 10 to 15 hours to conquer, while those looking for casual enjoyment might find some of the latter challenges too oppressive. A fun, albeit modest co-op adds extends the life somewhat, but otherwise adds nothing in the form of further content.

Overall Score: 94
Masterful level design and classic platforming make this return one to last a lifetime.


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 11/30/10

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


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