Donkey Kong Country Returns

Side-scrolling action game Donkey Kong Country Returns on Nintendo Wii has a superb stage design, but it's not without its flaws

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Nintendo Donkey Kong Country Returns
  • Nintendo Donkey Kong Country Returns
  • Nintendo Donkey Kong Country Returns
  • Nintendo Donkey Kong Country Returns

Pros

  • Inspired level design, fun and creative challenges, cleverly hidden secrets and surprises add replay value

Cons

  • Poorly thought out controls cause needless accidents and deaths, frustrating "vehicle" stages will make you feel the burning fury of a thousand suns

Bottom Line

Nintendo's superstar simian swings back into the spotlight with this highly anticipated and expertly executed platforming adventure.

Would you buy this?

Donkey Kong Country is a title whose historical impact in the industry can't be denied. Besides helping popularise the idea of pre-rendered 3D visuals in 2D games (and eventually inspiring the development of today's "2.5D" games), its popularity is credited to helping Nintendo's Super NES overtake the Sega Genesis in the North American 16-bit console wars. Now, after years of odd cross-genre attempts with the Kong characters (with mixed results), it makes sense that Nintendo would want to rekindle Donkey Kong nostalgia in a pure side-scrolling action game. But with original DKC developers Rare now busy at Microsoft, can Metroid Prime producers Retro Studios make Kong a king again? Donkey Kong Country Returns is a strong affirmation — but there are a couple of stumbles along the way.

The story here is minimal: The scheming Tik Tak Tikis are controlling the critters on DK's island to raid his banana billions, and Donkey and Diddy Kong must take back their tasty golden horde. But a simple plot doesn't matter when it serves to set you out on a grand platforming adventure, which DCKR expertly delivers. You'll run, jump, roll, smash, and huff and puff your way through a multitude of themed worlds, with an alluring Golden Temple of challenges waiting past the end for players to unlock. Classic level motifs and music will recall memories of the earlier games, but make no mistake — Donkey Kong Country Returns is a bigger, better beast than the 16-bit outings.

The game's greatest strength is the superb stage design. Enemies, obstacles, and platforms are cleverly placed to provide each level with a great sense of pace, atmosphere, and challenge. There are several tough spots throughout, but the ability to change the game into a two-player cooperative tag-team effort (complete with individual abilities for both Donkey and Diddy) helps with many tricky areas considerably. In addition, every single stage is unique and memorable in its own way with unique "gimmicks" that change up the way you utilise the game's mechanics. One of my favourite stages has the Kongs as shadowy silhouettes running through a factory in a fluctuating foggy haze that obscures hidden secrets. Another has the pair accidentally hatching hundreds of hungry spiderlings that give chase through the level in a creepy, crawly black mass. Boss battles are equally inventive, often changing up patterns, vulnerabilities, and attacks to keep you on your toes. DKC Returns is full of great set pieces like these, and they make almost every level into a fun and challenging platforming experience.

Note I said "almost", however; the "vehicle" levels are the game's low points, favouring frustrating rote memorisation and repeated trial-and-error over genuine challenge. No matter how strong your platforming prowess is, you'll be very tempted to call in the Super Guide player assist feature when you die for the fifteenth time on the mine cart stage. At least you can trade in the coins you collect for extra lives from Cranky Kong, but prepare to get snarked at by the crotchety curmudgeon when you do.

Rare was notorious for packing its games with as many collectibles as possible, and DKC Returns continues in this tradition. A multitude of hidden bonuses in each level — ranging from bananas, coins, and KONG letters to valuable puzzle pieces — can be found with a keen eye and a sense of exploration and experimentation. Unlike the original DKC games, bonus stages and items are rarely placed in arbitrary, out-of-the-way locales like random pits — careful players will see clues to help them find the hidden stuff. And if you're ever really stuck on your treasure hunt, old man Cranky Kong will sell you the services of puzzle piece-finding Squawks the Parrot. The goodie grab aspect is a lot of fun, and will keep perfectionists occupied for quite some time.

Sadly, the platforming pleasure is often held back by DKC Returns's biggest fumble: Ill-conceived controls. You can play the game using the Wii Remote held sideways or a combination of the Wii Remote and Nunchuck attachments — no Gamecube or Classic Controller support here. Why? Because the game assigns multiple actions to a "waggle" movement of either the main controller or the Nunchuck — pounding the ground, rolling, and blowing air are all accomplished by shaking the controller. It sounds novel in theory, but it's downright infuriating in practice. Since several functions are assigned to the same motion, you will inevitably encounter situations where you meant to do one thing and do something else entirely — like rolling off a cliff to your death when you meant to ground-pound. The sensitivity of the waggle is off, too. I encountered several situations where Kong would do a waggle-related action when I didn't think I had shaken the controller at all, leading to rolls off of ledges and accidentally pounding — and destroying — platforms I was standing on. Yet sometimes, I'd shake the controller and nothing would happen. Many areas where I died repeatedly weren't due to unfair design or my lack of ability — it was the imprecise waggle controls that were the impediment. The most annoying thing is that these control issues could have easily been solved with the ability to map separate functions onto different buttons of the Classic Controller. As it stands, the game's forced motion controls reek of a misinformed design decision by higher-ups that spoils an otherwise stellar product.

In an earlier preview, I mentioned that I didn't care for original 16-bit Donkey Kong Country titles at all. In spite of my dislike for these games, I really enjoyed Donkey Kong Country Returns. Where the original sold itself at least partially on the "wow" factor of its then-impressive pre-rendered visuals, Donkey Kong Country Returns is all about what matters most in a high-quality platformer: Inspired, challenging, and inventive level design, backed up by a delightful, cartoon-like atmosphere. Were it not for the control issues and occasional screaming-rage-inducing level, DKC Returns would be the best 2D platformer on the Wii. While it's still undeniably a fantastic title, it seems to me like Donkey Kong's gaming outings might eternally play second banana to arch-nemesis Mario's classic adventures.

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