Review by WebEffect

Reviewed: 11/30/10

Donkey Kong is back...but not to the same "Country"

Donkey Kong Country Returns can be a frustrating and disappointing experience, not because it's a bad game, but precisely because it does so many things well. If taken as a stand-alone 2D platformer, it is immensely fun and satisfying, and to someone who has never played Rare’s original Donkey Kong Country trilogy on the Super Nintendo, not many flaws would be readily apparent. But the game does see itself as the return of Donkey Kong Country, and just as an unintentionally funny horror movie needs to have points deducted for not being scary, no matter the overall quality, so should this game be judged for what it intends to be, and fails at being.

For those who have experienced the previous games and know how they played, felt, and looked, this game falls short of that standard. This is puzzling, because Retro, the game’s developer, has expressed their love for the original games and claimed to have studied them closely. It is inexplicable how they missed so much of what made those games great.

The original Donkey Kong Country was released in 1994, developed by Rare, and it was revolutionary in terms of graphics. Nothing else looked as good. The look of this game, however, is not exactly something you'll write home about. The graphics simply do their job. What is most troubling is that they do not reflect the artistic style of the original games, which had a darker, more intricate design, making for a more immersive experience. This game, however, has a paler, more pastel-coloured, almost cel-shaded look. It looks similar to many other Wii games. (Why Nintendo began insisting on this look is puzzling. Do Japanese televisions made after 2006 produce ridiculously over-saturated colors?) So this would not be so bad, except, again, we are judging this game according to what it says that it is.

Likewise, the designs of characters, objects, and even the trees are much more cartoony, with stylistically exaggerated shapes. To put it simply, the look does not feel like "Donkey Kong Country." While some areas of the game look more lush and visually impressive than others, it is a far cry from the passion and love given to the presentation of the originals, even despite Wii’s greater capabilities. Fans of the trilogy will also fondly recall the little touches. Sometimes the day would turn to night when you neared the end of a stage. A clear day in the mountains would slowly turn into a gorgeous dusk: the mountains in the background turning a violet hue while snow would slowly begin to fall, before turning into a full-fledged snowstorm. Such moments of atmosphere and majesty are missing from this game.

The level design is for the most part fun and satisfying. In fact, it is brilliant in many parts, employing inventive traps and events that would have never been possible on the SNES. It is also deviously challenging. You will die many times, yet it never really feels frustrating because you somehow never stop having fun. Yet, again, fans will be frustrated by Retro's inexplicable missing out on an aspect that made the trilogy great. While the mechanics within the levels often vary, the overall look of the levels does not. Almost every level in a particularly themed world is not readily identifiable from its peers in that world. For some bizarre reason, the designers believed that just because the theme of a world is Jungle (or one of the many other traditional platforming themes in the game), that the levels within that world should all look highly similar to each other. Case in point, the original game also featured a Jungle world, but the second jungle level you entered was a jungle at night, and in the rain. The one following it, was a cave area. In this game, this sense of variety has been completely lost. Because of this, the player also feels less intrigue for what is to come. Particular levels are less instantly memorable. On the subject of level variety, gone are also the water levels and snow levels from the original games.

Inexplicable changes have also been made to the cast of characters. Among the supporting members of the Kong family only Cranky Kong returns. His dialogue sounds like it was written by someone else, which, unfortunately in this case, it was. Diddy returns...kind of. Actually, you don’t play as Diddy. The revolutionary tag-team mechanic of the original game is gone. He is basically reduced to a power-up, sitting on DK’s back, helping him cross gaps. If you previously enjoyed controlling the nimbler, faster Diddy more than the heavy, lumbering Donkey Kong (who didn’t?), then you’re out of luck unless you play the multiplayer. Only one Animal Buddy returns: Rambi the rhino. He appears so rarely, however, that you will hardly remember him. This may be a good thing, because he bears little resemblance to the original Rambi. For some inexplicable reason he has none of the weight and size of the original, even when performing his classic charge move. How Retro failed to pinpoint the key things that make Rambi, Rambi, is puzzling.

The enemies from the original games have also not returned. They have been replaced by generic- looking animals and...well, walking drums. Also, by flightless, bright-coloured birds that wander dejectedly along the ground. If reading this does not make you tremble in fear at the threat that these “baddies” pose, then I don’t know what will. Fans of the original games will find themselves missing the Kremlings, each one looking genuinely evil. Each one having a shape, dress style, and way of walking that gave them a genuine believability. Or the creepy-looking snakes. Or Zingers (the classic wasp enemies) buzzing around with that stately evil beauty. Unfortunately, in this game, their job of aerial menace has been replaced by round, grey balls with spikes.

The irony is that Retro has remained loyal to the things that most players do not miss, while removing elements crucial to the franchise that players do miss. For instance the Bonus Stages are completely loyal to their style in DKC. They are as repetitive and monotonous as they always have been. But the improvements that Rare had made to these stages in DKC 2, giving them far greater variety and creativity, are ignored in this game. It seems that where Retro can take a step backwards in the evolution of the franchise, they have no trouble staying loyal to it.

This brings us to the issue of controls. Again, Retro has decided to omit the obvious things that would make this game feel more like the originals. Rather than pressing a button to roll, you have to shake the Nunchuk and the Wiimote. This shaking mechanic is not as precise as it should be, and there are times when you will accidentally roll into a pit and to your death, but this is rare. For a newcomer to the series, this will be only a mild nuisance, if any. But to someone looking forward to relive their experience with the original games, it’s an immense distraction. You also have to shake your controller to blow at the scenery to uncover secrets. This feels completely out of place and unnecessary.

The music and sound effects are very loyal to those found in the original games. David Wise’s serene, beautiful music has no trouble working its magic across the space of time. Some remixes sound almost identical. The game’s few original tunes are quite forgettable, although they do fit the atmosphere of the levels.

All in all, the game can probably best be summed up as frustrating. It is frustrating to see it do so many things right, to be so insanely fun and addicting, only to be reminded that this is supposed to be a Donkey Kong Country game. And by its own standard, the game is not a success. Yet at the same time, one cannot dismiss the greatness of it as a stand-alone 2D platformer. How do you score a game like this? The only thing to do is to aim for the middle.

Rating:   2.5 - Playable

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

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