Developed by Retro Studios and Nintendo
Published by Nintendo
Can you believe that there hasn’t been a Donkey Kong Country game since 1996? Even after that, the last traditional Donkey Kong platformer (as in, not a gimmick game like King of Swing or Jungle Beat) was 1999’s Donkey Kong 64. One of Nintendo’s most recognizable figures, a huge fan favorite series, and pretty much the reason I got an SNES, and it’s been dormant for over a decade. Which means that right from the start, Donkey Kong Country Returns is one of the most welcome franchise revivals in a while.
The fairly loose story involves a new set of villains, evil Tikis, who rise from the island’s volcano, hypnotize the island’s animals, and yes, perform that most heinous of crimes: they steal Donkey Kong’s banana hoard. Needless to say, it is on.
The game itself is very much a back-to-basics for the series. It’s a 2-and-a-half-D platformer that has you running, jumping, and rolling across the stages, defeating Tikis and animals along the way, and fighting a big boss at the end of each world. Gone are most of the more frivolous Kongs and the Kong switching mechanic. This game is just Donkey and Diddy, and if you have Diddy, he rides on Donkey’s back (unless you’re in co-op, which we’ll get to later). Not only does this provide Donkey with 2 extra hearts, but it also gives him a jetpack to navigate the stages.
And you’ll need all the help you can get. At some point that’s as early as the second world, the game switches the difficulty up fast. I think I’ve made it pretty obvious from my reviews of Ms. Splosion Man and Rayman Origins that I’m a pretty big fan of more difficult platformers, and while this game doesn’t quite match up to the former’s hardest moments, it definitely is not afraid to kill you. Tricky mine cart tracks, crumbling platforms, rolling boulders, and a wall of spiders are all ways that Donkey can, and probably will, meet his end to. Strangely for a platformer of this difficulty, it still has a life mechanic. Then again, it’s quite easy to stay around 50+ lives, which seems to say that they knew people wouldn’t really be getting too low.
The game’s real strength is its level design. Now, the worlds themselves are pretty standard, especially for a Donkey Kong game. It’s what you do in them, and in particular, how they connect. Most platformers just have each level in a space of their own, while here, they lead into each other. The beach world starts calmly, then ends up in a storm which continues through several levels. As you enter the ruins world afterwards, the first level starts on a beach before going into the ruins. Inside the levels, there’s plenty of playing with events in the foreground and background as they affect you. One mine cart level has a mole in the foreground throwing bombs at you. A level based around collapsing platforms has the entire background collapsing. You may enter a barrel and end up shot into the background, or around a tower, or straight through a column which then threatens to fall on you. Each level ends up with its own style so that I can clearly browse through the levels and go “Oh yeah, this one’s pretty cool”.
For the general high quality of the game, though, it does have some very significant problems. The biggest is easily the co-op. When I heard it was going to have simultaneous co-op, I was hoping for a New Super Mario Bros vibe to it. Sadly, this won’t be the new go-to game. For one, both players share a life pool, meaning that if both people die, you’ve lost two lives. This becomes especially painful on mine cart or rocket barrel levels, where the two players are forced together. So not only are you losing two lives when you should be losing one, but only one player ends up doing something, so the other player just sits there holding a controller. It’s almost like they expect you to pick and choose which levels you play in co-op for the ones that are actually fun that way. Speaking of rocket barrel levels, they’re the other big problem. They’re horizontal auto-scrolling levels where pressing A boosts you up. It’s a very finicky control scheme, and I never felt like I got it. Too often, I would try to dodge over an obstacle and then just boost up into the ceiling. There’s two vertical versions where you use the control stick, and these work out much better. And finally, there’s the use of waggling to roll. This feels forced, especially if you’re playing using the nunchuk and both B and Z are doing the same thing when one of them could’ve been rolling. It almost makes me wonder if Nintendo forced the waggling on to Retro.
Despite these issues, Donkey Kong Country Returns is a gold standard for platformers. Simple to learn, hard to master, and an amazing journey all the way through. A must-have for every Wii owner.