Review by Malorkus
"The beautiful countryside."
The new millennium meant dark times for Donkey Kong. He was subject to second or third fiddle as a Nintendo platform franchise, perpetual punching bag in arcade throwback titles, and occasionally gets invited to a sports shindig that's about Mario and not him. The Donkey Kong Country trilogy on Super Nintendo are among the finest platform games ever created. Not only did they advance sound and visuals for gaming in general, but the stages were also masterfully designed, and completing them required mastery on behalf of the player. Unfortunately, after that, the Kong family had to partake in a mediocre Banjo-Kazooie rip-off, and then things only got worse after Rare left Nintendo, with laughable bongo drum titles and other assorted spin-offs nobody bought. Flash forward after nearly 15 years of darkness, and Retro has not only revived the Country name, but restored dignity to Donkey Kong in general. It's not quite the same Country you visited in the 90's, but it is every bit as good.
The Kremlings have been chased off DK Island for good. Sucks, but deal with it. A new threat has arisen, though the objective remains the same as the original Donkey Kong Country the Kong family's banana hoard has been stolen. To be fair, it was probably selfish as hell of them to hog all the bananas since they can't possibly be the only banana-consuming species on the island, but the new villain cast, the Tiki Tak Tribe, are clearly up to no good anyway. These beings have hypnotized all the non-Kong animals into aiding their theft cause. Donkey and Diddy set out for adventure, while Cranky pretends to be helpful while insulting you in the process, just like 1994 all over again. Donkey Kong Country Returns spans eight worlds and supports both single-player and co-op play. The game specifically pays tribute to the original Donkey Kong Country title, so expect familiar environments and music remixes.
The Super Nintendo trilogy was all about a dual character system, and though the single-player mode in Returns again supports two Kongs in tandem, it plays a little differently. Each Kong can take two hits, but Diddy rides piggyback on Donkey, so you will only be controlling DK. Keeping Diddy around has its advantages, though, not just because he gives you some extra hits, but his jet-pack ability lets you hover briefly in mid-air. Classic DK moves return too, such as rolling, slapping the ground, and picking up barrels. Donkey and Diddy can also blow on suspicious objects with a light flick of the Wii Remote, uncovering hidden items. Returns' genius lies in its stage design. Every stage is packed with personality and creative ideas, with no two stages being remotely similar. Retro's talent was forced to study the stages of the original games, and they studied well, because it paid off. Carnivorous jungles, booby-trapped ruins, desolate and hopeless cliff tops, and the zaniest mine cart stages Donkey Kong has ever seen.
Not everything thrives on nostalgia, fortunately, as Returns still brings plenty new to the table too. A stage with giant tidal waves barreling toward the screen makes you play a game of perspective, a fossil-themed world filled with tar traps tests your platform skills, and stages riding rocket barrels will test your patience as the slightest hit will instantly kill you. But it's satisfying challenge instead of frustration. Obstacles allow no room for error, but it rarely feels unfair in the non-optional stages. Just as much effort has been put into the visual flair of each stage as the obstacles themselves. Plenty of foreground and background interaction occurs, such as moles on another plane bombing parts of your mine cart track, or toppling rock formations in the distance collapsing columns beneath your feet. After dying 50 times outrunning bats, you think you are in the clear, until an element from the background affects the foreground and kills you. But it's a great pain because you realize the thing that just killed you was so freaking cool.
While too many so-called difficult games are more akin to fan-made ROM hacks where the entire idea is to kill you at every possible turn, Returns throws you into the fire from the get-go but also enables you to purchase extra lives or temporary hearts if you need a helping hand. But it still manages to be merciless in a good way. While plowing through the stages at a normal pace is demanding enough, each one is jam-packed with secrets and collectibles. Similar to the original trilogy, the letters K-O-N-G are available to collect, although this time, they are necessary to unlock excruciatingly challenging secret stages. Most of these letters are in plain sight, while the far trickier puzzle pieces can be deviously hidden behind walls or require you to clear old-fashioned bonus rooms. While the puzzle pieces do not count toward your completion percentage, they unlock beautiful concept art and dioramas for the obsessive collector and explorer. This split of required and optional collectibles helps Returns only be a so-called collectathon if you wish it to be, and helps the game cater to both general platform game enthusiasts and the hardcore ones who insist on playing through stages repeatedly to uncover every secret.
Some may be disappointed with the inability to play as Diddy solo, but the co-op mode remedies at least some of this. Diddy does not have the big ape's bulk, but he can shoot peanuts to stun enemies. For the most part, the co-op is a blast, and depending on the stage, it can make things easier or harder. Boss battles, for instance, are much more manageable with a second player. But in a stage that requires full cooperation, such as a mine cart stage or one where you are outrunning thousands of spiders or giant flaming boulders, keeping pace with one another is a challenge in itself. There are few imperfections with the co-op, such as the warping mechanic when one player gets too far behind taking way longer than it should, but for the most part, it's great as a challenging co-op experience that never gets too chaotic for its own good. The original trilogy was largely about pushing the system's visual and audio capabilities, and Returns does the same with the Wii. Donkey Kong Country Returns is one of the best-looking games on the system, with every stage and character brimming with personality. The soundtrack is largely remixed from the original title, which remains one of the most revered video game soundtracks and will satisfy fans.
Donkey Kong Country Returns is easily the Wii's finest 2D platform game to emerge from the recent revival of the side-scrolling genre. Not only is it a mighty fine tribute to the Super Nintendo titles, but it gives experienced fans of platform games something that will keep them occupied for dozens of hours trying to unlock everything. The game never babies you unless you beg it to, being an extremely challenging game that also stops itself short of being overly frustrating. The environments explode with the type of personality that puts side-scrolling Mario games to shame. There are some slight issues and the controls take a while to get used to, but once you learn them, they will not hamper you throughout the game. Plus, the game is equally fun whether you're playing alone or with another player. Donkey Kong is finally king of the jungle again, and hopefully his reign can continue.
Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 03/31/14, Updated 01/23/15
Game Release: Donkey Kong Country Returns (US, 11/21/10)
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