Back in 1994, when the Super NES was growing stale a bit, Rare introduced a new franchise to the console. In the leading role there was Donkey Kong, once Mario’s adversary in that classic arcade game we all know, but Nintendo deemed him ready for his own adventure. Hailed for its graphics at the time, Donkey Kong Country showed off the power of pre-rendered 3D graphics converted to regular sprites. The resulting style gave the game a look that wowed both players and press at the time despite being nothing more than a standard platforming affair underneath that lovely coat of paint.
Still, years later, DKC is considered a true SNES classic and rightfully so. It spawned two excellent sequels, portable Game Boy (Advance) renditions and now, some 15+ years later, Nintendo has given responsibility to Retro Studios – of Metroid Prime fame – to create a new DKC game: Donkey Kong Country Returns. Can they follow in Rare’s footsteps and deliver a worthy new entry in the series and please the fans of the original Donkey Kong Country trilogy?
In Returns, Kong’s banana hoard has yet again been stolen. This time however, it is not King K. Rool who’s behind it, but a band of mysterious Tiki creatures who need the bananas to complete their evil schemes. By using their hypnotising powers, the Tikis have taken various animals from DK Island under their control. These animals are subsequently used to steal the precious yellow fruit and to generally oppose DK in his quest.
Our tie-wearing ape is once again joined by the red capped Diddy as they team up to conquer dozens of levels across 8 different worlds. Much like New Super Mario Bros. Wii, the levels are accessed via a map screen. Supporting characters are scarce, when compared to the original DKC. Rambi is back and you can ride him just like in the original, but other animal friends such as Espresso the ostrich and Winky the frog did not return. Squawks is back as a bonus item – by equipping him he will help you find hidden puzzle pieces throughout a single level.
Gameplay-wise, not much has changed. At its core, DKCR is a platformer much like the original DKC. You jump from treetop to treetop, collect bananas, stomp on enemies and do your best to find secret bonus rounds in which your can rack up extra bananas and lives. Donkey’s moves include his familiar rolling attack and ground pound, but he also has the ability to... blow. Yes, you can now blow at all kinds of background objects like flowers and candles and by doing so, items may appear. Also, certain enemies can be affected by blowing into them – especially flaming enemies are vulnerable to DK’s breath. This certainly is an interesting addition to DK’s arsenal of moves, but it’s not always easy to pull off.
Moves such as blowing or performing a roll attack require you to shake the WiiMote and it takes a while to get used to this form of control. In some situations you are required to precisely time your moves and unfortunately the controls do not always respond as you would like to. It would have been nice if these actions were mapped to a button press but alas, no such control option exists. DKCR can be controlled by either a Nunchuk + WiiMote combo or a single WiiMote held sideways like in New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Both control types make us of WiiMote shaking, better known as waggle.
While playing a level, you will regularly find DK barrels which contain your captured buddy Diddy. Free him and he will join you, opening up extra moves and allowing the use of his jetpack so you can hover a little bit during or after a jump.
As mentioned before, you can collect bananas, which act the same as coins from the Mario games – collect a hundred and you will be granted a balloon, which serves as an extra life. Banana coins are a new addition. They are the valuta with which you can buy items from Cranky’s shop. The KONG letters are back, but with a different purpose. If you collect them all in a single world a secret level will appear. Complete all the secret levels and the ultimate bonus level will appear. You need to finish this to get a 100% score on everything. And getting a perfect score takes a while, too. You will find yourself repeating levels over and over again just to get that last letter you need to spell KONG or that last puzzle piece. By collecting puzzle pieces you can unlock galleries that contain images, art, music and dioramas.
One thing that’s obvious from the very first level is the difficulty. This is no walk in the park. The bar is set relatively high at the beginning and will keep increasing as you traverse new worlds until it becomes punishing near the end. If you’re looking for a casual game to comfortably play on your couch, this may not be for you. If you’re familiar with the original DKC, you will probably recognise the ideas behind most levels and will cringe at the foresight of doing another minecart level, let alone the new and tough Barrel Rocket levels. Boss fights are intense and diverse and some of the boss characters are truly charming and funny.
Twenty-first century DKC isn’t about pre-rendered sprites any more. Retro have created an impressive 3D engine which is used to create some fantastic and detailed environments and lively character models. The animation on Donkey and Diddy is great and the environments are not just gorgeous to look at, you can also interact with them. There are instances where you are shot into the background via a barrel cannon and have to overtake a few obstacles before you are being shot back into the foreground. And sometimes the ground beneath your feet crumbles as you walk by or the entire background is destroyed. It’s a stunning game to look at and proves how suitable the Wii is for these kinds of games.
Also in the music department we can make a comparison to the original DKC, as a lot of tunes in Returns are remixes and varations of compositions from the original. And it has to be said, the composers have done a great job arranging these pieces. They are slick and fit the action very well, even if the remixed tracks aren’t really as memorable or breathtaking as the originals. Sound effects are fitting and of the highest standard.
A welcome addition is the cooperative mode. While in DKC, players had to take turns and basically had to wait until the other player died, Returns offers true simultaneous gameplay with one player taking on the role of Donkey and the other playing as Diddy. In multiplayer, Diddy even has extra moves. He can use his peanut gun to shoot at enemies and, as opposed to Donkey’s ground pound, Diddy shoots at the ground with his gun to create little shockwaves. The only downside to multiplayer is that it makes the game even harder than it already is. In single player mode, you get four life hearts to spend before dying (2 hearts for each Kong) while in the multiplayer each player gets a max of two hearts. Nevertheless, taking on the baddies with your buddy can be exhilarating, especially when taking on the fantastic bosses throughout the game.