Review by TwilitLeviathan
I am ashamed for having ever doubted Retro.
After accomplishing the impossibly difficult task of single-handedly reviving the Metroid franchise into a first-person shooter (and two successful sequels), Retro decided to take on the immense challenge of reviving another forgotten franchise... one even more fragile than the last. Retro has certainly proved themselves capable, but how does their latest excursion into the classic franchise of Donkey Kong Country fair up to the 15-year-old originals?
It would be an understatement to say that Nintendo dominated E3 this year. I wasn't there of course, but even from the internet you could hear which of those many awesome games revealed got the loudest and most excited reaction. Not Zelda, not Goldeneye, but Donkey Kong. Why? Because Zelda, while still exciting, gets a new title pumped out every two or three years. When was the last (decent) Donkey Kong sidescroller? 1996. Those three games left so much of an impact and hold such a special place in so many gamers' hearts, that even now, fourteen years later, people are still totally stoked to see a new one.
Let me tell you right now, there was no one who was more nervous about this game than I was. I grew up with the originals; they were some of the first video games I ever played and I absolutely love them to this day (I even have the boss theme from 3 stuck in my head right now). But, even from the trailer, you could tell, things would be different than they were 14 years ago. In the trailer, there were no Kremlings, no Kongs, no tag team gameplay, no underwater levels, and no animal buddies. Instead, Tikis. And as more information surfaced, all of these were confirmed. You would be playing as Donkey Kong and only Donkey Kong, playing on land and only on land, riding Rambi and only Rambi, and talking to Cranky and only Cranky. And Kaptain K. Rool and his Kremling cronies were nowhere to be found. Did this not seem positively criminal?
This may sound a little harsh (okay, maybe a lot), but this is sort of what I was thinking at the time: Who does Retro think they are? They've produced only three games, only one an enormous success, and now they think they can get conceited and recreate a game from my childhood and take out everything that made it so wonderful?!
Don't worry, though. I'm not one to judge games before I play them; obviously I can create an opinion about them and have high or low expectations, but not abusively judge. My expectations for this game were low. I expected disappointment, plain and simple. I mean, really... how can you make a new Donkey Kong Country game without all those lovable staples, and expect it to turn out good?
But now I feel incredibly stupid for having ever doubted Retro. In my nostalgic rage I had forgotten what actually made the Donkey Kong Country series so great. The gameplay. The level design. The fun. Not K. Rool. Retro hit a home run where it really counted... the level design. And although I still don't understand a great deal of the decisions they made (I was still hoping for a surprise underwater battle with K. Rool at the end), I commend them for the extreme thought and detail they actually put into these levels. Retro went the way of level design first, everything else on the back burner. That explains the lack of Kongs, tag team, animal buddies, etc. As for the Kremlings, we can get over it. Did they really have that much personality anyway? The Tikis don't either, but hey, they have hypnotic powers. And a cool theme song to go with it.
Usually I'll start with story or graphics or something first, but hey, this is important stuff. Donkey Kong Country Returns (doesn't exactly roll off the tongue) is an extremely well-designed platformer. I loved New Super Mario Bros. Wii (that really doesn't roll off the tongue either), but its platforming seems positively amateurish in comparison. Yes, Mario, THE Mario, holy epitome of platforming gods, gets beat out by Retro's first ever foray into platforming goodness. ...How? Retro, you never cease to amaze me. No experience whatsoever and they still pump out these epic masterpieces. First Metroid, now Donkey Kong... hey Retro, why don't you take a crack at Zelda next?
Anyways, your basic gameplay doesn't remain unchanged from its 1994 ancestor. The most obvious change of course is the removal of Diddy Kong as your second playable character, being able to switch to at any time or there for backup when you die. Instead, Diddy has been reduced to a power-up. Diddy Kong. A power-up. It's insulting to the poor kid. Not to mention, would anyone deny that Diddy Kong was funner to play as in the original? He could do cartwheels!
I always have questioned Retro's removal of water levels. They said they were fans of the originals, but that the water levels felt "too slow" and wouldn't fit into this game. Oh, but auto-scrolling levels aren't too slow? I just can't for the life of me understand Retro's reasoning here. I loved the underwater levels, and with the way they designed and perfected all the other levels, there was some serious potential for awesome underwater levels! But no, replace them with 5 more minecart stages, and maybe a few more rocket stages. I just don't get it.
Speaking of which, it is well worth pointing out that Retro went wayyyy overboard with the minecart stages. They were a fun little diversion in two or three levels in the originals, but they get really tiring when you're doing one after another, after another. It got to the point where I was thinking, "holy crap, another minecart stage?!" I can't think of any other reason for having so many other than this is Retro's childish side coming out, wanting to do the fast-paced minecart stages over the peaceful underwater levels. Rare did this right, they knew that more than two or three minecart stages would get to be a little annoying and shouldn't be used to replace the classic heartfelt platforming, but Retro's attitude was clearly "MOAR MINECART STAGES!!"
And to compliment these lovely minecart stages are the new rocket stages. These are pretty intuitive in that they only require one button, press it to make the rocket go up. Let go to make it go down. Use this concept to doge all sorts of debris. It was really fun the first time and I was hoping for one or two more, but then what should happen... "Another damn rocket stage!!
As for the normal stages, they are a mixed bag. A bag mixed with 90% perfect and extremely fun platforming and 10% boring-as-hell yawnfests. Some levels are just a chore to play through, but most of the levels are absolutely great.
See, I really don't understand Retro sometimes. They never striked me as particularly strange in the past, creating a very careful FPS rendition of Super Metroid, then branching ever so slightly with its two sequels, seems pretty standard of a rookie development company looking to make its mark on the video game society. But then with this game, Retro makes some very strange and totally inexplicable design choices. You see, while playing, one minute I'm thinking, "wow, Retro really doesn't get it," and the next minute I'm thinking, "wow, Retro really gets it." It seems like there were two completely different sides of Retro working on this game... one totally mature branch crafting completely sublime levels, and then another side that just wanted to make Donkey Kong's Minecart & Rocket Adventures.
Obviously the first side prevailed, because the vast, vast majority of the levels are absolutely superb. I was in absolute awe constantly throughout this game. So many levels are just so incredibly detailed, so masterfully crafted, that no review can ever do it justice. Platforms are spaced out just perfectly from each other and move with the utmost precision, enemies were placed with the utmost of care, hidden items and collectibles are tucked away in the most perfect of spots. Everything, absolutely everything has rhyme and reason. You can just tell, just by playing the game, how much care Retro put into this entry in the beloved franchise. They clearly wanted to do the originals justice.
...But then, how can they possibly have made such petty and boneheaded mistakes as take out animal buddies? You can just tell that Retro really didn't even want to include Rambi. They threw him into three or four levels just for fan satisfaction. I say they should have gone all or nothing... give us all of them, or leave them all out so we aren't reminded of what's not there. Same with the underwater levels, they didn't give us one, and yet they included Aquatic Ambiance in one level. That's just mean, Retro. That song belongs with a peaceful underwater level, not a level where you're riding a whale that crashes into things and takes down everything in its sight in a big explosion. It just doesn't work, and it certainly isn't doing the originals justice.
Actually, I shouldn't say the "originals," plural... this game simply forgets the existence of Donkey Kong Country 2 or 3. There are extremely clear homages to the first one (you can see Treetop Town in the background of one of the stages), but not even a music track from one of the sequels. This game is obviously meant to be a sort of remake of the first one. I hate when sequels do that... don't try to replace the original, compliment it. It's almost unanimously agreed that Donkey Kong Country 2 is better than the first... why completely forsake the second one like that?
The bosses are sort of disappointing as well. They are much, much harder and longer fights than in the originals, typical of Retro there. The problem is, none of them are really all that fun. They aren't terribly innovative, and just tend to drag on.
I know I've mostly ranted in this section, but that's because there is little good that can be simply said... it must be played. I can't and won't even begin to attempt to describe the intensely unique and sublime, absolutely sublime level design. This is definitely a game that you must experience for yourself. If there was ever a sidescrolling platformer worth 50 dollars, this is it. Just make sure to pick up the originals first, because no one deserves to have not played those three perfect games.
Retro, why did you have to go and mess it all up like this? Rolling was such a useful and fluid move in the originals, executed simply by tapping Y (which is convenient since you're already holding Y). But here, no. Shake to roll, making precision roll jumping a thing of the past. Not to mention, rolling sends you flying forward, and good luck trying to handle a land onto a narrow platform with a roll jump, especially considering you're still recovering from shaking the wiimote. It's cumbersome as hell, and makes speedrunning levels one of the most frustrating things you could ever do in any video game, ever. And the game actually gives you incentive to speedrun... beat the developer's insanely fast time and get a gold medal for the stage. You have to roll, and make precise landings... which would be hard enough, but should not be so insanely frustrating just because of unreliable motion controls!
You also shake to pound the ground, which is the only motion control that should have been added. But when you use the same motion for three different actions, it just becomes frustrating as hell. I can't count the number of times I've died because I rolled off a cliff instead of pounding the ground. Or the number of times I've mean to roll and catch a moving platform during a speedrun, only to pound the ground and have to start over for losing 3 seconds. It's just unbelievably frustrating at times. You also have to shake to blow, which doesn't make sense. I question the inclusion of blowing in the first place; it doesn't really add a whole lot to the game, and just looks silly.
Also with rolling, you can't roll through a chain of enemies like in the originals, Instead, you'll stop dead after your normal roll length and get hit by whatever's in front of you. It's a shame, because rolling through those 5 Kremlings as Diddy straight into a pit on Jungle Hijinxs in the original was one of the funnest things ever to do in a video game.
You can play with the Wiimote sideways or with the Nunchuk. The Nunchuk feels more comfortable, while the Wiimote feels more classic. Usually in games with this option it is much easier to use motion controls when you're using the Nunchuk, but no. You have to really flail your arms if you're using the Nunchuk, whereas with the Wiimote you can just give a quick jolt. Neither control scheme is particularly effective, however.
I can't remember if this was present in the original trilogy, but if so it should have been fixed anyway. In Mario, if you're holding A (or 2 in this case) while jumping off an enemy, you'll do a higher jump off of it. That's just standard fare, you never have to think about it and it is crucial in platforming success. But here, you have to release and press 2 again between jumping and landing on an enemy, and again for landing on each subsequent enemy. This took me almost the whole game for me to figure out that it even worked that way, and it killed me more times than I can count. It's not a big problem, but it's just yet another control issue that detracts from the otherwise incredible platforming experience.
Retro doesn't take easy assignments, and they don't make easy games either. Donkey Kong Country Returns is one of the hardest platformers you will ever play. The original Donkey Kong Country was fairly easy, the two sequels were harder, but this is just ruthless. And about time too! I was getting sick of games that hold your hand and guide you gracefully to the finish line. What is the point of playing games if you don't have to do anything? Thankfully, Retro met the perfect balance, as they had with the Metroid Primes, between casual and hardcore. Not just the Super Guide (which wasn't even their idea), but in the little efforts they took to make the game difficult, but fun. There are extra life balloons tucked away in hard-to-reach areas to reward you for your efforts. There's a checkpoint after completing a particularly grueling segment. You'll get tons of coins that you can choose to spend on extra life balloons if you so wish.
The difficulty curve is phenomenal. You may rarely die in the beginning, but after a few worlds the difficulty just kicks in full-force. Not all at once, of course, but still noticeable. It reaches a point where it becomes a hell of an accomplishment simply not to have the Super Guide even show up. There's a feeling of shame when you see that little pig show up, taunting you with the notion of having someone do the level for you. It just makes you want to play harder. Or you may be tempted to accept, I don't know.
Even if you do accept the Super Guide, Retro doesn't reward you. Not only will you hang your head in shame, but you won't get any puzzle pieces, coins, bananas, or KONG letters, and the level will show up red, for "unfinished." If you use the Super Guide for a boss (shame on you!) you won't unlock the music gallery either. Thankfully, you can't use the Super Guide for the last boss. Sorry to all you who had coasted through the game, only to get stuck alone at the most difficult part! Retro has no sympathy for you.
For the most part the difficulty is genuine and fair. But not the time trials. The developers really placed some absolutely insane times to beat. This game isn't even a classic yet, and already getting a shiny gold medal on Tippin' Totems is one of the proudest things I've ever done in a video game. Whereas the main game is less about knowing what to do and more about having the skill to do it, Time Trials is about figuring out a path, and also having the skill to take that path. It's all trial and error, but is rewarding in the end. There's just one problem... the motion controls! These ruined the time trials. You have to roll to go faster, plain and simple. You have to make dangerous, extremely precise roll jumps. It doesn't help when the controls barely ever work right! These time trials should be extremely difficult because of precision jumping, quick reflexes, and vast knowledge of the level, not because of bad motion controls!
Sound / Music
While the game barely has an OST to speak for, the classic songs compliment the experience very nicely. Donkey Kong Country had a legendary soundtrack, might as well reuse it for the remake. I was very happy to see my favorite song, Fear Factory, make a comeback (now rechristened Factory Friction). The sound effects are spot-on, and the effects coming from the TV and the Wiimote have perfect synergy.
Unfortunately, not one song from Donkey Kong Country 2 or 3 makes the cut. Like I said, it's as if Retro forgot those games existed. Which is a shame, because 2 had far better music than the first. Arguably, of course. I am hoping for a sequel (Donkey Kong Country Returns Again!) that follows DKC 2, if nothing else other than to hear a reimagining of Stickerbrush Symphony, often hailed as the greatest video game song of all time, and not exactly done justice by its Brawl remix.
A horde of hypnotic Tikis have infiltrated Donkey Kong's island and made off with his bananas. Well... whatever.
Graphics / Atmosphere
Wow. Donkey Kong Country Returns looks great. The environments are picture perfect, the locales are incredibly detailed. The game is more zoomed out in comparison to the original so you can see more of what's going on at the cost of smaller character sprites. Everything just looks great, although I question the removal of the faces on the extra life balloons.
Atmosphere-wise, each world definitely gives a unique, distinguished feel. There are eight worlds, each with their own respective themes, much similar to a Mario title. I didn't really like those stages where you play as just a silhouette, as seen in the trailer. I sort of prefer to know what's going on in the stage instead of the sort of blindness in those three or four levels.
Extremely impressive, especially compared to most games as of late. Retro actually gives incentive to replay the game, unlike in most good games where the incentive to replay is, it's just good enough a game to be worth playing again. But Donkey Kong Country Returns offers an incredible amount of content that will keep you busy long after game's end. It took me well over 5 hours to get a shiny gold medal on just one level... imagine accomplishing that feat on all 70 or however many levels there are. Collecting the letters of KONG actually will net you a reward, other than simply an extra life like in the originals. Collecting all the KONG letters in a world will unlock a bonus stage for that world. The bonus stage is extremely difficult (read: 6-K). Complete all of them, and all the other stages to access a new area, with a completely Mario Kart-esque surprise waiting for you. Afterwards, try collecting all the puzzle pieces in each stage. It all adds up to enough content to keep you playing for literally months on end, and enough replayablility to rival a Super Smash Bros. game. Okay, maybe not, but still impressive.
To say I underestimated Retro is, well, an understatement. It may sound like I skidded back and forth between love and hate toward Retro during this review, but that's how I felt playing the game, too. They showed their mastercraft at level design and graphics, but little else. They removed a great deal of what made the originals so wonderful, and added little to compensate. I truly, honestly do not know what Retro was thinking with some of their choices, but in the end you get what truly turned out to be a great game, despite a great deal of glaring flaws. Donkey Kong Country Returns lacks almost all of the charm of the originals but features just as much, if not more fun, and I simply cannot condemn Retro for that reason. And for that reason, Donkey Kong Country Returns gets a solid 8/10.
+ Sublime level design
+ Excellent amount of content and replayability
+ Extremely difficult, but a challenge everyone can enjoy
+ Great graphics, atmosphere, sound, and music
+ Large amount of levels and great variety in the levels
+ Fun. This game is fun, no doubt about it. No game since Castlevania SotN has kept me glued to the TV like this. This game is so hard to put down that it made me late for work for the first time in my life... twice. And that is the sign of a good game right there.
The Bad - Took points off score
- Every once in a while you'll encounter a level that is just absolutely boring, a chore to play through
- Annoying and frustrating motion controls
- Overabundance of minecart and rocket stages
The Ugly - Did not subtract from score (this is more like my personal rant, and most of it is obvious stuff)
- Diddy Kong has been reduced to a powerup!
- Only one animal buddy, and not even used that great
- No underwater levels. Am I the only one who liked these?
- Bosses are somewhat boring
- Serious lack of Kongs
- K. Rool and the Kremling are gone... oh, well.
- Definitely lacks the charm of the original trilogy, albeit this may just be nostalgia talking.
- What's up with the name? Why not just, Donkey Kong Country 4? I hate when series do this. "New Super Mario. Bros. Wii," "Donkey Kong Country Returns," it just doesn't sound natural.
Should you dish out 50 dollars for this game? You can get all three of the originals for under half that price on Virtual Console, so I'm not sure how I can recommend it. Let's just say, this game is a good buy, and those games are an absolute steal. Get all 4.
Rating: 4.0 - Great
Product Release: Donkey Kong Country Returns (US, 11/21/10)
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