Review by 94067

"Not just a quick cash-in on the 2D platformer and retro series craze, this game has some of the best level design in any platformer"

At first glance, Donkey Kong Country Returns might appear to be another cash-in on the 2D platformer craze that has gone into full steam in the past year, especially since it's also a "retro" franchise (unintended pun count: 1), which seem especially apt for remakes and upgrades: see Rocket Knight, Splatterhouse, Bionic Commando Rearmed, New Super Mario Bros., Contra, Gradius, and Castlevania Rebirth, and Megaman 9 and 10. This game, however, proves that it's not a simple cash-in on a popular craze and isn't just playing up to the nostalgia of older players. Donkey Kong Country Returns has some of, if not the best, visual and mechanical level design I have ever seen in a platformer. However, it suffers from some loose controls and lazy audio design. Its kid-friendly art direction is not to be taken at face value, though, as DKCR offers, even in its main game, some of the hardest levels I've played. Those looking to complete the game (all 200 percents of it) will gain the right to determine themselves as masters of the genre.

While DKCR's predecessors were adequately crafted games, they were not masters of level design. The original Donkey Kong Country had fairly basic levels, but had a bad habit of hiding secrets at the bottom of what looked to be endless pits. Donkey Kong Country 2 improved the level design and secret placement to what I thought was among the pinnacle of 2D design, but DKCR has proved me wrong. The additions to the traditional mechanics DKCR adds make the SNES games look positively pedestrian in contrast. This is a good thing; we wouldn't want a game that comes out over 15 years later to only be a marginal improvement over the originals. Recall the mine cart levels from the SNES games; these were pretty simple affairs, punctuated only by the occasional enemy or gap in tracks. One of the cart levels in DKCR features a circular loop of track that rolls along the path, rather like a gerbil wheel. There are three gaps in the loop that must be jumped over with proper timing, lest you fall down a pit. A traditional Kongs-only level has two sets of platforms that materialize when switches are hit. The switches are positioned such that very careful maneuvering is required to avoid hitting them and causing the platform you're standing on to disappear. Another level features a massive tidal wave that wipes out the screen every few seconds, forcing you to choose whether or not to take cover or to make a break for it. The barrels, whose use in the original games always felt lazy and like self-playing segments, have a much more formative role in DKCR, being used to rush the Kongs away from collapsing structures. A new type of barrel that can only be used once adds a new depth to barrel segments which was absent in the originals. A new type of level introduces the horrors of an auto-scrolling screen, a rocket barrel, and a ridiculously catchy song. The rocket barrel is controlled not by the D-pad or analog stick, but by pressing and releasing the A button to increase or lower its altitude. These levels are incredibly difficult because of the limited control you have over the craft, but they are also incredibly rewarding to complete. All of DKCR's levels and mechanics are designed with the mentality that repetition and memorization will allow the player to complete the level. This can seem unfair at first when the level pulls some new mechanic out of nowhere and wipes the floor with you (the big bat at the end of Crowded Cavern immediately comes to mind), but DKCR's use of checkpoints works to minimize this frustration. I felt that DKC2 too often placed its checkpoints more toward the beginning of a level, forcing you to go through easy segments multiple times before reaching the challenging parts, allowing for stupid mistakes to take their toll on you. DKCR affords multiple checkpoints over the level, and it is always a relief when you reach one. Because there are multiple points to continue, you can more easily learn the intricacies of a level's design without having to worry about trudging back through the simple stuff. There is a strong emphasis on trial and error here that wasn't present in the original games, which may turn some off. However, I feel that the improved level design more than makes up for it.

Despite the fantastic level design, most bonuses are simply hidden. The KONG letters return, as do bonus rooms, but bonus rooms now reward puzzle pieces, used to view the original concept art. KONG letters are usually in plain sight but require skill to get; most importantly, the G is never found at the end of the level as a possible reward for completing the level, something I loathed about DKC2. While DKC2's bonuses corresponded with their levels, DKCR's disappointingly, only come in a handful of varieties that never change throughout the game. There are two variants with barrels, and three or so with some very simple platforming. As far as I could tell, the time allowed for to collect all the bananas and other items never decreased, so a bonus in the first world is more or less as difficult as one found in the last. Most bonuses are also barely hidden, often behind view-obstructing scenery. Perhaps this was intended, though, as many bonuses will contain a extra life and usually enough bananas to gain another life. Combined with the checkpoints, it may have been intended to exploit these bonuses to maintain your lives so you could keep trying the level. Coins reappear in this game in the hundreds, but are only necessary to unlock extra levels in each world, something I think could have been done better by including multiple exits. You can also buy extra lives and Squawks, who will help you find puzzle pieces. Unfortunately, you cannot access the shop by quitting from a level's checkpoint and expect to have your progress saved; you also must use the item before entering the level, so if there's a tricky part of a level at the end, you better hope that you haven't used up the item's effect. Donkey Kong Country Returns follows suit with its predecessors in that it's boss battles are merely adequate. While much improved from the original, DKCR's bosses never feel at all memorable and feel more like obligations than necessary elements of the game. One boss is even repeated, which feels cheap in a game with only eight bosses.

While its extraordinary level design creates some difficult and genuinely challenging levels, I can't help but feel that DKCR can sometimes be difficult for the wrong reasons. The rocket levels are a blast to play and rewarding once you clear them, but it seems a mechanic thrown in for the sake of having a rocket level. I only bring this up because the rocket's controls are not so intuitive to grasp and imprecise by design. Rolling can only be done by shaking the Wiimote and nunchuk, which wasn't as much a problem as I thought it would be, but it has a different effect than in the originals. While in the originals, a row of enemies was an invitation to roll on them, DKCR's rolling seems to have a much more strict timing, discouraging you from wantonly rolling about. However, DKCR also rewards you for jumping on at least three enemies in a row by giving you a coin, so it seems that Retro wanted the player to save rolling for a platforming mechanic. Pounding and the newly-introduced blowing mechanic are both down by flailing around your arms like a lunatic (but it's fun). Pounding like this isn't too bad (and it makes you feel like a monkey!) but I question the need to shake the controller to blow, an extremely unintuitive method of control. The C button isn't used at all in the game, so it's not as though they were limited by the amount of buttons. Luckily, blowing is only used to importance in one world, but it remains an aspect that needs improvement. Moving Donkey Kong by precise amounts (as is required on at least two occasions) is more difficult than it needs to be, since he seems to shuffle about in response to moving the stick forward only a little. By and large, this game's difficulty is genuine, rather than manufactured. Its level design creates scenarios where player skill is a requirement and rarely feels cheap.

The SNES games never felt to me that they took place in a jungle. It seemed an artifice created only because it seemed to fit a monkey's natural habitat. While DKCR has attracted criticism for its lack of familiar faces such as the Kremlings and every animal buddy except Rambi, these are only superficial features that have no bearing on the actual game, which is vastly improved from the originals. In addition to being excellently designed from a gameplay perspective, DKCR's levels are also quite visually appealing. Set pieces like massive waterfalls and towering ruins create the illusion that you actually are in a jungle with a set of extremely contrived barrel contraptions. The background is so well characterized in some levels that it feels like some parts of the game should be in 3D. This comes at a price when, at times, a level will shift farther into the background while the camera remains in the same place, making your enemies and obstacles appear smaller than they are. At other times, the camera will pull up close to the action, deliberately making collectables hard to find. For better or for worse, DKCR's music is more or less a barebones embellishment of the original's. There are a few new tracks, but only one (the rocket level's music) sticks out to me. The older songs are feature different instrumentation, but aren't reworked in a way that makes you think they belong on the Wii. The music is never bad though, and always fits the level, especially the Lava world's compelling chanting. The music is the only area of the game that feels like it's been done out of nostalgia and fan-service; everything else is absolutely original and motivated.

It would be a mistake to dismiss Donkey Kong Country Returns as an ill-conceived revival of a older series because of market trends. This game has genuinely original level design that is both difficult and satisfying though at times frustrating because of imprecise controls. While bosses and bonus rooms are disappointingly simple, fully completing the game by rushing through levels and finding all the bonus items requires an incredible amount of skill. Although greatly improved aesthetically, the music suffers from being uninspired and overly atmospheric. It's too bad Cranky doesn't make an appearance as the Super Guide and insult you while masterfully completing the level, otherwise this game would have pretty much been perfect.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 12/06/10

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


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