Review by AK_the_Twilight

"Leave it to Retro Studios to make another great Nintendo re-imagining."

Though he's appeared in sports titles, music games, and handheld puzzle games versus Mario, Donkey Kong hasn't had much time in the spotlight since his days in the jungle of Donkey Kong Country. Still regarded as one of the kings of the Super Nintendo platforming circuit, DK sadly began to fade into side-character status post-N64. With the departure of Rareware from Nintendo's team, many thought a new Donkey Kong Country would never see the light of day. Enter Retro Studios, the critically-acclaimed development house behind the absolutely superb Metroid Prime series, picking up the reins that Rare left behind and rebooting the famed SNES platformer series. Donkey Kong Country Returns is DK's first original starring role on a home console since 2004's Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat. Though some control issues and occasionally frustrating challenges bring the game down a few notches, Donkey Kong Country Returns is a great comeback for Nintendo's simian hero.

Donkey Kong Country Returns begins when ancient Tiki idols appear from the depths of Donkey Kong's island home, hypnotizing the local animals and using them to steal DK's Golden Banana Hoard. Donkey Kong's buddy Diddy Kong notices the danger, but not before DK is confronted by the hypnotic Tiki instruments. Fortunately, DK is unaffected by the mesmeric tones of the idols, and after meeting up with Diddy, Donkey Kong travels the island to beat the crap out of the different Tiki instruments and reclaim his banana hoard. As you can tell, the story pretty much throws the Kremling Krew out the window, instead focusing on new enemies who (despite not having much depth) feel charming. The story feels more Jungle Beat than DK64, keeping the humor universally approachable instead of being filled with the odd referential kind that Rare originally showed off.

Controlling DK and Diddy is relatively by-the-book. The player can use either the Wii Remote and Nunchuck or the Wii Remote alone, held horizontally. I personally preferred the lone Wii Remote, but either way, you'll find a good share of motion in the controls. Movement, jumping, and interacting with environmental objects are used with the buttons and either the control stick or D-pad. It's when the motion controls move into the picture that things get a little tougher to contend with. DK can ground pound when the player shakes the controller, but the controller shaking is also required when DK needs to roll (shaking when holding right or left) or blow to reveal hidden objects (shaking when holding down). While the inclusion of these abilities is important to the gameplay, having them all assigned to similar inputs can add a bit of frustration. Accidentally rolling off a platform into a bottomless pit when you intended to ground pound isn't fun. It frequently reminds me of Wario Land: Shake It! where the motion controls generally felt unneeded. Though these odd control decisions are a tad frustrating, the game doesn't suffer too much from them, and the core gameplay is kept intact.

At its heart, Donkey Kong Country Returns is a side-scrolling platformer, so a majority of your time involves running, swinging, and jumping to the right. Along the way, DK and Diddy can collect bananas, coins to buy power-ups and items at Cranky Kong's shop, or more important objects to earn hidden secrets. Gaming concepts like swinging on vines and blasting through barrels is commonplace. Extremely dynamic level design contributes to some set-piece happenings, like DK and Diddy skyrocketing through a giant tree trunk or dodging projectiles from a colossal bat. Donkey Kong Country Returns' true strength lies in its level design, which always manages to stun visually, but challenge gameplay-wise. One minor issue is that the hidden bonus stages don't have much variety; you'll be seeing the same bonus stage design frequently as you explore the island. Donkey Kong Country Returns may feel a bit too straightforward at first, but that couldn't be further from the truth. This is a challenging and intense game, but it's also a very intricately designed one.

The game definitely will satisfy nostalgic gamers, but for those just diving into DK's world, Retro Studios has made some lighter, but effective features. The return of New Super Mario Bros. Wii's Super Guide makes progressing through the game a bit easier, but all collectibles earned during the Super Guide's use aren't saved. The inclusion of cooperative play also changes things up a bit. Two players can progress through the levels together, each one commanding a Kong. Unlike New Super Mario Bros. Wii's cooperative mode, Donkey Kong Country Returns' co-op play feels tight and doesn't demand flawless coordination to progress. It's a great improvement.

But for determined gamers looking for reasons to replay through the levels, be assured that there are plenty. Among each world are the famed KONG letters, and collecting all four in each stage rewards the player with a medal. Even more challenging are expertly hidden puzzle pieces, which also reward the player a medal when all are collected in a stage. Finally, a Time Attack mode is a gift for those with speed run fanaticism. Exploring each level thoroughly and taking on some of the more daring challenges is extremely rewarding. If you remember the remarkable difficulty of the original Donkey Kong Country, you'll instantly find Donkey Kong Country Returns to step it up a considerably large notch. If you've been waiting for a demanding game, one that pushes your Wii Remote-wielding skills to the test, Donkey Kong Country Returns will shove your face in the dirt, and you'll love every second of it.

Donkey Kong Country Returns is one of the best looking Wii games released this year. While it doesn't push the creative aesthetic the way Kirby's Epic Yarn did, the game makes for some colorfully illustrated environments and smooth animations. The game's cartoony world construction offers ample room for expression. The sunset stage for example is extremely creative, as a sunset creates a silhouette environment to explore. It's just plain impressive. The sound offers enough familiar DK tunes to satisfy even the stingiest of purists. The famed Donkey Kong Country theme has never sounded better. The omission of voice acting proves beneficial for the game, as it shows a quirky and universally enjoyable presentation. Though it may fall behind compared to other Wii games released in 2010, Donkey Kong Country Returns made considerable graphical and sound-based strides, resulting in a gorgeously expressive world that feels purely inviting.

Pros
+ Exceptionally dynamic level design is stunning
+ Huge amount of challenges and items to hunt for
+ Fun boss fights with plenty of cleverness
+ Co-op and Super Guide help newcomers dive into the action without worry

Cons
- Motion controls feel distracting
- Bonus stages repeat too much
- Occasionally frustrating sequences

Donkey Kong Country Returns brings DK back into the forefront of Nintendo's arsenal of mascots with enough unique design elements and tough-as-nails challenges to be one of the best Wii games this year. The share of motion control issues is a disappointment, as they rob the game of some of its tight and focused gameplay. The repetitive bonus stages and slight difficulty spikes in the minecart and rocketbarrel levels are small dents in an otherwise sublime package. The gameplay is nostalgic in all the right ways, while also adding some clever and creative level construction throughout each stage. With so many items to collect and medals to earn, you're bound to revisit DK's world over and over again. It has a few missteps, but when the level design is so refreshing and the stages so ripe with challenge, these issues are easy to ignore. Donkey Kong Country Returns is another fantastic revitalization for another of Nintendo's most treasured characters, one that will hopefully kick-start another golden age for the titular hero.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 12/22/10

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


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