Review by MTLH
"A few unfortunate flaws makes this return a slightly disappointing one, even if the game remains great nonetheless."
When the nineties where about to reach their halfway point, it became obvious that the 16-bit generation was coming to an end. The Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation where rapidly approaching and the Nintendo 64 was looming on the horizon. Facing this situation, Nintendo needed something to keep the SNES relevant in order to bridge the gap till it's 64-bit machine could be launched.
The solution to this problem was a character that had been important for Nintendo but had nevertheless faded somewhat into obscurity: Donkey Kong. Joining forces with Rare, Nintendo released Donkey Kong Country in 1994 with it's main attraction being pre-rendered visuals. That such visuals where possible on the SNES was hard to believe at the time. Not surprisingly, Donkey Kong Country became a huge success. What followed where two sequels on the SNES, three Game Boy iterations and a Super Mario 64 inspired 3D platformer for the Nintendo 64. Donkey would star in several other games since but it wouldn't be until 2010 that the big ape returned with a proper new instalment, the aptly named Donkey Kong Country Returns. Does it do the series justice?
The original trilogy on the SNES was best known for it's visuals and rightly so. In that regard, Donkey Kong Country Returns does them proud. The visuals are sharp, colourful and vibrant. Animation and detailing on both the Kongs and their adversaries are great with Donkey, Diddy and the guardians being the best looking characters in the game. The way Diddy holds on to Donkey during even the most intense situations is certainly a highlight as is the sheer expressiveness of the final guardian. The environments are brimming with little details like birds that shatter into the sky, thundering waterfalls and swirling lava pools. The best looking levels are the few which are situated at sunset, with a low hanging sun turning everything and everyone into silhouettes. Coupled with the character's animation, these levels are just beautiful. Another highlight are the minecart sections where the carts and trains dive, circle and corkscrew back and forth across, and into, the screen. All in all the game looks incredibly lively. In a rose tinted bespectacled sense, the game looks just as you remember the original Donkey Kong Country to look like. Only better, naturally. A special mention should also go to the sparse yet great cut scenes which usually accompany the boss battles. Especially the one preceding the final confrontation sets the scene perfectly.
Despite the praise mentioned above, there is still a minor issue that probably will only resonate with those who have played the original games. There simply isn't much variation in the worlds themselves. The jungle world contains jungle themed levels for example while the cave world only provides caverns. There is a fair degree of variation between such levels but it remains within the confines of the overall theme. This may seem quite logical. However, the original games also had such a structure but managed to incorporate more variety into the mix where in a single themed world, the Kongs could go from the deepest ocean to the highest mountain. Again, this is not a criticism per se but, to me at least, came across as a little cheap.
The soundtrack is simply great. It incorporates a lot of the old, familiar tunes while still giving them a new spin. I especially liked the way how the map is accompanied by the same tune that accompanied the map from the first Donkey Kong Country and how that same piece of music is altered ever so slightly when zooming in to a world. The new tracks aren't bad either, ranging from a laid back jazzy sound to something more energetic. Sound effects are spot on, providing the right amount of power and weight to the numerous actions, situations and explosions in the game.
Donkey Kong Country Returns wouldn't be a Donkey Kong Country game if there wasn't a banana hoard that has disappeared. This time the culprits aren't the Kremlings however but the Tiki Tak Tribe, a group of Tikis that have hypnotised the local fauna and turned them into aggressive thugs. Naturally Donkey wants his bananas back and together with Diddy he sets out to do just that.
The game more or less follows the basic structure of the old trilogy. The island consists of several worlds which contain a few levels each. There are numerous items to find, a few of which open up extra levels while others unlock bonus material like the soundtrack. Each world ends with a boss battle and it wouldn't be a Donkey Kong Country game if the developers didn't place the Kongs in a vehicle on a track somewhere in the game.
In the original trilogy on the SNES, the player actually controls two characters per game. Both are be present onscreen with one following the other. This acts as a kind of health indication because each primate can only take one hit, so having just one Kong onscreen means that the next failure will lose you a life. From the second game onwards, the character's abilities are also differentiated a bit and they can hold and throw each other. Donkey Kong Country Returns also has two characters onscreen, Donkey and Diddy, but this time Diddy's role is unfortunately more akin to that of an accessory. He adds two extra hearts to Donkey's own and Diddy furthermore has a jetpack allowing the pair to hover for a short distance. This can come in handy when avoiding enemies and crossing platforms. The downside is that when things become hectic, for example when Donkey has to quickly jump and run his way across a few crumbling platforms, the jetpack can actually become a hindrance. The jetpack is activated by keeping the jump button pressed and this happens fairly quickly. That means that when you must make a few quick jumps in succession the jetpack can easily be activated, slowing Donkey down with often fatal consequences.
The level design is varied, at times even quite clever, and always spectacular. Hammers coming down to the beat of the score. Donkey jumping between different layers in the background. Rocketing through a cave in a barrel while being chased by a giant bat, a bat that at the start of the level was soundly asleep until Donkey jumped in said barrel and made a ruckus. Pursuing a train through a mine while being bombarded by moles. Platforms and walls that can be activated or turned off by touching a switch while blasting from one barrel to another. These are just a few examples amongst many, with almost every level offering a surprise or two. The relative downside to this is that the game rarely pauses long enough for the player to catch his breath. This almost aggressive kind of variation also means that a lot of the concepts and mechanics used aren't being developed as much or as deep as they could have been.
One such an aspect that could have been deepened a bit are the animal buddies. The original trilogy has several per game, each with their own abilities. Although not all of them are equally useful, their inclusion added a lot of variation. It is strange then, that Donkey Kong Country Returns only contains two of them with only one of them actually being controllable. Rambi the Rhinoceros is still a joy to control but is unfortunately underused while the services of Squawks the Parrot can be bought from Cranky and points secrets within the levels, turning him like Diddy into an accessory.
Controls are generally sharp but do have a few quirks. The game can be controlled either solely with the remote or in combination with the nun chuck. The latter option works fine but can also be a bit fiddly so the first option worked best for me. The main problem here is the need to shake the remote. Just shaking makes Donkey pound the ground, doing this while ducking makes him blow and shaking while moving makes Donkey roll. Especially that last move can be crucial when enemies are coming close. Having to shake the remote just isn't as direct as the press of a button would have been. Furthermore, it is too easy to make mistakes with this set-up. It happened too often that I intended to make Kong blow away some flower petals and instead he rolled of a cliff. Or that I actually wanted him to roll over a few enemies only to see the big ape stop in the middle of this manoeuvre and thus get hit. This doesn't break the game but it does make the controls feel less comfortable then they should have been while forcing the player to be more careful. This is a pity because when everything works as it should, controlling Donkey can be glorious with the ape thundering across the ground, clambering onto a moss covered wall, leaping from one spinning wheel to another before finally jumping and ducking across crumbling platforms.
The difficulty level is quite high but it comes with a peculiar paradox. Compared with the older games, Donkey Kong Country Returns tends to be very lenient with regard to lives, coins and it's save system. The amount of lives and coins is stored and not reset to respectively five and zero when continuing a game and progress is saved automatically after each level. Because the number of coins isn't reset, Donkey will amass a small fortune so it also becomes easier to buy extra lives at Cranky's shop. On the other hand, the game also tends to be very hard to the point where eventually even the slightest, most silly mistake will result in losing a life. More than once it crosses the fine line between being pleasantly challenging and just plain annoying. The problem isn't the high difficulty in itself, it's that the game can occasionally be quite unfair. Being assaulted from all sides can be tremendous fun as is thundering along in a rocket barrel but when the controls become a hindrance or when a particular obstacle requires a fair degree of prescience, that sense of fun dissipates. The original trilogy also has it's frustrating moments but in those games they form the exception. With Donkey Kong Country Returns it happens too often. Of course there still is the Super Guide, which lets the game complete a level by itself, but letting the game do that isn't exactly an ideal situation, is it?
Judged on it's own merits, Donkey Kong Country Returns is a great game. The presentation is vibrant and energetic, with the audio and visuals staying faithful to the style of the old games while at the same time also modernising it. The relative lack of variation with the environments will probably only mean something to oldies like me. The level design is wonderful and spectacular, offering plenty of variation and many challenging obstacles to overcome. It is also good to see how well Donkey's heaviness as a character is realised in his controls.
Said difficulty level is at the same time also perhaps the game's greatest flaw. Donkey Kong Country Returns can be excessively difficult at times, crossing the line where a challenge goes from being fun to being frustrating. The sheer amount of variety in the level design can also be a mixed blessing with numerous elements not being as fully developed as they could have been. Finally, the need to incorporate shaking into the control scheme also forms a problem. This can lead to some unfair situations where, for example, Donkey accidentally stops the middle of a continued rolling attack, taking damage in the process. These faults are too severe to ignore but don't hold the game back all that much. What remains is just too good for that to happen.
That leaves the question how Donkey Kong Country Returns stacks up against it's forebears. It's surprising to discover just how literal that last word in the title should be taken. This game truly is a return of, and to, the Donkey Kong Country series, not only in name but also when it comes to style and content. As pointed out in the review, there are some differences. The role of the sidekick, the extended Kong clan and the animal buddies has been downgraded to a degree. The Kremlings have furthermore disappeared as have almost all of the other familiar foes. But what remains is so faithful to the older games that Retro could just as well have named this game Donkey Kong Country 4. Unfortunately, the faults mentioned above do hurt this iteration when compared with the original trilogy and the updated presentation and level design, however spectacular newer technology has allowed them to be, only go so far in compensating for that.
Donkey Kong Country Returns thus turns out to be a great but slightly disappointing game which suffers from a few flaws and holds it's own against the first two SNES titles but falls short of the standard set by Dixie Kong's Double Trouble. Still, there is no shame in that.
OVERALL: a 9,4.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 05/31/11
Game Release: Donkey Kong Country Returns (EU, 12/03/10)
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