The announcement of Donkey Kong Country Returns ignited the imaginations of many gamers who grew up in the 16-bit era. Sure, Donkey Kong himself has been around since the 80s, and has continued to appear in games since, but the Country series held a special place in the hearts of gamers and in the history of the industry. The original Donkey Kong Country revived the Super Nintendo as the 16-bit wars wore on with its rich colours and pre-rendered 3D graphics.
As it turns out, that excitement was well deserved, as Donkey Kong Country Returns successfully blends the nostalgic appeal of a return to DK’s 2D vine swinging era with smart modern game design choices.
As is to be expected, there isn’t much to say about the story in this one. Donkey Kong Island has been invaded by the Tiki Tak Tribe, a group of evil Tikis. Many of the island’s animal inhabitants have been hypnotized to work with the Tikis, but DK shakes off their hypnotic spell. The Tiki Taks manage to make off with Donkey Kong’s banana horde, and the great ape must once again hit the paths of his environmentally diverse island to get them back.
DKCR smartly strips away the layers of unnecessary grime the series collected as it was sequel-ized. Most of DK’s furry friends and extended family are gone. We’re left with Donkey, Diddy, and Cranky on the Kong side. A few, and only a few, of the animal buddies are back (including, most importantly, Rambi). Even the Kremlings are gone, replaced by more natural animals, and the Tiki Taks.
Donkey Kong Country Returns is a near perfect game. Unfortunately, I do have a couple of issues that gnaw at my enjoyment of the title. The fact that without these we would be dealing with a perfect game makes these problems all the more glaring and frustrating.
One such problem is the controls. Nintendo and Retro Studios have unfortunately limited players to two control options, neither of which makes a ton of sense. Option one is a Wii-mote and nunchuk approach in which DK and his partner in platforming, Diddy, are controlled with the joystick while other moves are performed with combinations of button presses and Wiimote waggle. It works well enough if you can get used to it, but this is a 2D platformer, and using a joystick to control characters on a flat plane can be tough.
The other option is Wiimote only, where you turn the Wiimote sideways and play NES style. The issue here is that DK’s got a lot of moves, and you’re left with only a few buttons to pull them off with. Shaking the remote to ground pound is fine, but you’re also expected to shake while running in order to roll and shake while ducking to blow.
Frankly, this is a game with too many moves to limit players to these options. What makes the design decision even more confusing is that Donkey Kong Country Returns isn’t an homage to an NES game, but an SNES game. Why Nintendo opted not to include Classic Controller support, an accessory which perfectly mimics the look, feel, and functionality of the SNES’s controller, I have no idea.
Donkey Kong Country Returns plays as a Country sequel should. The action is fast, intense, and controller-throwing hard. If you’re going to get past the first couple worlds of this game, you’re going to need to learn to play. Jumps require not only precision and timing, but also a cool head. The richly designed levels often contain many moving parts and collapsing structures which keep you occupied, and keep you distracted if you’re not careful. This design choice also often means a large number of levels are, in a sense, “auto-scrolling.” You’ll need to keep moving to keep ahead of the crumbling stepping stones you tread upon. The game also includes many auto-scrolling vehicle levels, where you’re stuck in a mine cart or rocket barrel and expected to navigate whatever you’re thrown into.
My other leading issue with DKCR are those many moves mentioned above. This is a Country game, so it makes sense that running, jumping, rolling, and ground pounding would be included. The blowing, on the other hand, simply does not fit. It’s used in essentially the same way as ground pounding: to interact with objects in the stages to uncover secrets and open up paths forward. That is to say, it is entirely extraneous. The fact that the move is a frustration to pull off with the NES-styled controls compounds the issue. The story goes that Miyamoto himself dictated to developer Retro Studios the inclusion of the “breath” mechanic, so it would seem we must chalk this issue up to the man himself.
DKCR is a sequel, homage, and return to form. That is not to say, however, that it lacks innovation. The developers smartly took what worked in the original Country games, what nostalgia players were left with, and added a large helping of modern design.
Graphics and Sound
The original Donkey Kong Country games broke new ground in the realm of console graphics. DKCR isn’t quite as revolutionary, but there is no doubt that this is a beautiful game. Environments appear crisp, and astoundingly rich in detail. Numerous small “Easter egg” touches have been found in the environments of Returns since its release, including everything from Mr. Game and Watch to Billy Mitchell’s tie.
This game plays on a 2-dimensional plane, but the environments are very much 3D. You’ll often find yourself barrel-blasting into the foregrounds and backgrounds of levels. All the while, the camera never loses a beat, following your characters around and keeping you apprized of all the wild things going on around you.
The sound here is similarly refined. The game boasts numerous melodies that should be familiar to original Country fans remixed and remade for the modern era.
A smaller gripe of mine is the way Diddy Kong is used. Just as with the old games, you start off with Donkey, and can then “collect” Diddy from barrels you find in the levels. Unlike the old games, you can’t switch between the two. Instead, Diddy automatically attaches to DK’s back and gives him rocket boosting to help lengthen and better time jumps. As the game progresses, Diddy’s help can feel mandatory to progress. Losing him, or simply being unable to find him, can make doom feel inevitable. This is a hard game, and while that difficult is a strength overall, a more fair-feeling balance may have been struck had Diddy been permanently fixed to DK’s back.
As I’ve said, Donkey Kong Country Returns is a near perfect game, with just a couple of nagging issues. Learning to live with the controls will give you an immense and furiously intense 2D platformer which truly deserves a place among, if not atop, its lineage.