It's finally here! After years and years of bongo games, Donkey Kong has returned to the country in Donkey Kong Country Returns. Donkey Kong Country was a series that revolutionized gaming back on the Super Nintendo with its breathtaking graphics and incredibly addictive and fun gameplay. This new release is a return to the format of those classics, or at least that's what it claims.
The series has only seen three installments -- all developed by the formerly Nintendo-owned studio, Rare -- that were all released on the SNES. Since then, Donkey Kong Country has been nowhere to be seen for almost 15 years. Sure, Donkey Kong 64 was developed by Rare for the N64, but it was a 3D adventure that didn't play anything like the classic SNES Donkey Kong titles so we won't count that. Thank goodness Nintendo finally realized the error of their ways and allowed Retro Studios, the same team that reinvented Metroid as an FPS, to reinvent the long-dormant Donkey Kong Country for the Wii. Did they do it right?
The story of Donkey Kong Country Returns certainly doesn't tread any new ground, but the game does introduce a group of new enemies called the Tiki Tribe. The Tiki Tribe have replaced the likes of King K. Rool and his band of Kremlins, which some fans of the original games may find a little disappointing. The Tikis have popped out of the volcano on Kong Island and are hypnotizing all the animals in an attempt to horde the bananas on the island. When they show up to hypnotize Donkey Kong and his little buddy Diddy, they learn the hard way that both the ape and chimp are immune to their mystical powers. Donkey and Diddy then embark on a quest to put an end to the Tiki tyranny and to reunite themselves with their stolen bananas.
Donkey Kong Country Returns offers two different controller options: Wii Remote or Wii Remote with Nunchuck. Each method comes with its pros and cons, but the preferred method that will be easier for those who played the SNES games is to use just the Wii Remote turned sideways. Unlike previous Donkey Kong games, DK can now pound the ground by shaking the remote, or blow on plants to reveal treasures by holding down and shaking the remote. DK's signature roll attack comes back, but it's not nearly as easy to execute as it has been in previous games -- you must start moving in one direction and shake the controller to begin rolling. It's quite difficult to execute in a tight spot, and it's common enough to accidentally jump on or over enemies rather than roll.
Even with some hit or miss motion controls, the game feels like the classic Donkey Kong Country and that has its downside. Yes, many fans want to be reintroduced to the Donkey Kong games of old, but Retro has essentially used the exact same design that Rare left behind from the original Donkey Kong Country. Some will absolutely appreciate that, but others are going to feel a major dose of deja vu. That being said, Retro has added a few personal touches such as the flying rocket barrel, the ability to cling to grass on objects and mountain sides and Diddy's jet pack in an attempt to spice up the gameplay.
One major change to Donkey Kong Country Returns is that players now have a health system (hearts!) instead of the traditional one-hit KOs. In single player you won't be able to take control of Diddy because he's now more of an assist character who clings to DK's back in order to act like a jet pack. Of course, Diddy is still available in the 2-player co-op mode, but it would have been nice to play as DK's sidekick or have the option to switch between the characters during gameplay.
The multiplayer offered in DK Returns is fun, but at the same time is extremely challenging. In the event that both players die, two balloons (which act as lives) are used up, so anyone who spent a lot of time accumulating lives can lose them rather quickly. There are also a few points where the second player is going to have to forfeit their controls in order for Diddy to be used as a jetpack for DK. It's still a fun experience though and is much better than the multiplayer aspect of previous Donkey Kong installments.
The gameplay starts off fairly easy but Donkey Kong Country Returns is a love letter to the hardcore gamers who own a Wii. The game is brutally difficult and will sit as one of the most challenging platformers of all time, but the game's difficulty certainly adds some feeling of accomplishment with every level completed. If things get a little too tough then you can utilize the 'Super Guide' feature and it will play through the entire level for you, but this option is only available in single player and only after you've died at least 8 times on a single level.
The one shocking disappointment that must be called out is the lack of rideable animals or pets, a feature that has been a bit of a Donkey Kong Country trademark throughout the series. Rambi the Rhino does make a return, but its incredibly rare that DK will actually come across the fan-favorite rhino. Other than Rambi there are no other animals for DK and Diddy to ride -- no Expresso the Ostrich, no Winky the Frog, and no Enguarde the Swordfish. There aren't even any underwater levels for Enguarde to make an appearance.
Donkey Kong Country Returns becomes even more difficult when you try to get that hard-sought 100% completion target because now there are not only are the classic four letters that spell "KONG" laying around, but also puzzle pieces to hunt down. K-O-N-G must be collected in a single play-through of a level, while the puzzle pieces can be obtained by revisiting levels after grabbing a few. There are also time trials that are offered on each level, so hard levels become even harder as DK is forced to dash through stages as fast as he can. The massive amounts of collectables add some re-playability to DKCR, and who wouldn't want to play through the game again and again when the graphics are just so darn pretty.
Donkey Kong Country Returns offers some nice visuals and even though the graphics won't raise the bar quite like DK did in the mid-90s, it still represents some of the best graphics to be found in a Wii game. The graphics are similar to that of New Super Mario Bros. Wii, but the level design puts Donkey Kong Country Returns in a league of its own. The first few worlds are a little generic, though nostalgic, but that quickly changes and the game implements some very fun (and horrifically difficult) game mechanics that will keep most gamers more than satisfied. There are a total of eight worlds in the game and they'll keep players more than pre-occupied.
Something else that will likely excite gamers is the fantastic soundtrack the latest DKC uses. All of the songs from the original Donkey Kong Country have returned and are remastered for Returns, and that means literally every song. Everything from the Jungle World to DK's death animation have the exact same music, and words can't describe how frustrating/nostalgic it is to die riding a mine cart listening to the same tunes as you did 14 years ago. Luckily, the DK Rap has yet to make an appearance.
Even with a few control issues and the addition/removal of certain features, Donkey Kong Country Returns is a must-own title on the Wii. Everything from the creative level design to the vintage music helps to create one of the most familiar and thoroughly enjoyable experiences that can be found on consoles today. Donkey Kong Country Returns is what fans have been waiting for. It's good to see the big ape return to his old ways, and it makes you wonder why Nintendo ignored him for so long.