Review by horror_spooky

Reviewed: 03/31/11

He's finally back, performing for you...

Retro Studios brought Nintendo’s dormant Metroid franchise back from the dead after Samus didn’t make an appearance on the Nintendo 64 with the critically acclaimed Metroid Prime series. After finishing off their Prime trilogy on the Wii, it was time for Retro to step in and truly become Nintendo’s new “Rare”. Nintendo entrusted the fate of the Donkey Kong series with Retro, and the result was Donkey Kong Country Returns on Nintendo’s seventh generation home console.

Donkey Kong Country Returns, as the title suggests, is an attempt at returning the series to its 2D side-scrolling roots on the Super Nintendo. Rare launched the Donkey Kong Country games in the fourth generation, and the real question is, can Retro take the reigns and be successful, or will fans of the series become jaded?

Players take control of Donkey Kong, and Diddy Kong can be recruited by chucking a barrel at the ground. The game is a side-scrolling platformer, and players run through the stages spelling K-O-N-G, grabbing bananas, and popping 1-up balloons. Yes, a lot of the classic elements and gameplay mechanics from the older games are intact in Donkey Kong Country Returns, and it’s for the better. Animals can be ridden again as well, and there is a slew of returning characters. Donkey Kong Country Returns is fan service wrapped in an excellent platformer.

The platforming in the game is more than solid. By having Diddy Kong with him, Donkey can improve his gap jumping chances with the aid of Diddy’s jetpack. Many of the levels are expertly designed, and returning gimmick stages like mine cart levels return in expert form. It’s really thrilling riding the rails in this game, pulling off ridiculous jumps and avoiding enemies and obstacles. A fair but challenging checkpoint system keeps the game challenging, but most importantly, fun and rarely frustrating.

A new gimmick level in Donkey Kong Country Returns is the use of a barrel that uses jet propulsion. These segments are just annoying. The barrel, a concept seemingly pulled from Donkey Kong Barrel Blast, is wily and difficult to control. By tapping A repeatedly, players can make more precise movements, but holding A will allow quicker navigation. Anyone familiar with the flash game where you have to left-click and hold and release to navigate a helicopter through small tunnels will have a good idea about what this is like. Suddenly the fair checkpoints, the balanced and challenging gameplay, it all takes a turn for the worst. These hard to control barrel segments are unnecessarily frustrating and lengthy, though thankfully not frequent.

One of the ways that the original games were so replayable was all the secrets in the levels and stuff to collect. Donkey Kong Country Returns retains elements that I have previously touched on, but also throws in new ways to tackle levels and new items to collect to increase the replayability even more. Extremely challenging Time Attack modes, multiple hidden paths in the levels, and puzzle pieces to collect all help the replayability factor. Golden coins emblazoned with bananas can be collected and spent at Cranky’s shop for 1-up balloons and items that increase Donkey’s health for that level, among other things.

Essentially, Donkey Kong Country Returns is a return to form platforming adventure that brings plenty of elements from the past games onto the Wii, and adds plenty for it to feel like a fresh experience. It’s almost absurdly challenging, and is brimming with style and charm. So, why didn’t it receive a higher score? An 8/10 isn’t bad, but the way I have been hyping the game throughout this entire review makes it sound like the game deserves at least a 9, if not a 10. So, obviously, Donkey Kong Country Returns isn’t quite as amazing as it should be and sounds like on paper.

When I finished Donkey Kong Country Returns, I realized that I didn’t have all that much fun with the game. I had to force myself to play through it, and I realized what one of the problems of the game was: the balancing. Almost every level is very challenging and expertly designed, but the lack of any real variety, stemming from replaying the same sections over and over again due to the high challenge, kills the game. It’s hard to explain. I knew that I was playing a quality game, but it simply didn’t entertain me like it should. It’s a good game, but it failed to entertain me on a level that Super Mario Galaxy did, or that The Legend of Zelda did. There’s like a glass ceiling that separates the “good” games from the timeless classics, and Donkey Kong Country Returns fails to break through that barrier.

A minor flaw in the game is the graphical presentation. For the most part, Donkey Kong Country Returns looks pretty damn good. The character models are nice, the framerate is excellent, and the art style is wonderful. Smoke effects look amazing, and there is a nice amount of detail in the game. Donkey Kong Country Returns is a very good looking game, so what’s the problem? It’s the strangest thing. There were moments that almost made it look like Donkey Kong Country Returns had dead pixels or something like on the DS. Weird graphical glitches like this don’t pop up frequently, but they do occur, and it’s strange for a game from a studio like Retro, and a first-party Nintendo title in general, to have a problem like this. Overall, Donkey Kong Country Returns is eye-pleasing, but its graphical quality isn’t perfect by any means.

The soundtrack, on the other hand, is more or less gaming nirvana. The background music is upbeat, mixing the usual jungle tunes with newer musical numbers. Between the graphics and the audio, Donkey Kong Country Returns is quite the impressive presentation package.

All this time and I haven’t even talked about the motion controls. The Nintendo Wii’s unique capabilities allow for games to incorporate motion controls into their gameplay. There really isn’t much point to create a game for the Wii without using these features in some way, shape, or form, so it’s good that Donkey Kong Country Returns actually makes an attempt, but the motion controls aren’t that clever. Basically, all players have to do is shake the remote and the nunchuk (or just the remote, depending on the control scheme selected) to make Donkey Kong or Diddy Kong pound on the ground to find hidden items, aid in combat, or reach a new area of exploration. I wish that the motion controls were implemented in a more clever way, perhaps in a Donkey Kong-centric set of mini-games. Oh well, it’s only a small missed opportunity, and at least the speaker in the Wii remote is used to great effect.

That’s right; it’s also possible to control Diddy Kong. One of the most popular features in the older games was the co-op and competitive gameplay, and they make a return for this Wii outing as well. The second player takes control of Diddy Kong, but instead of having to take turns, players can control both apes simultaneously. The action is never overwhelmingly hectic like it sometimes gets in games like New Super Mario Bros. Wii, and the co-op is solid. Not only that, but the co-op also significantly increases the replayability, along with all the collectables I mentioned earlier in the review.

Donkey Kong Country Returns is a great game. There really is no denying that. It’s just built well. It is a solid platformer with a lot to do and a steep, exciting challenge waiting for any gamer looking for a good game on the Wii. Unfortunately, there is just something missing from the game that keeps it from reaching that upper echelon of gaming. Donkey Kong Country Returns just lacks a certain spark present in most first-party Nintendo titles. I hope Retro gives the Kongs another go, so I can see if they can find this spark and deliver the best Donkey Kong game yet.

Rating:   4.0 - Great

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

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