When Donkey Kong Country hit the Super Nintendo, it changed the face of the video game industry forever. With its 2.5D graphics and its platforming perfection, there was no doubt in our minds that DK had much more up his sleeve than simply hurling barrels at Mario. The game also presented a significant challenge to gamers of all backgrounds and experience level. All of these traditions from the original Donkey Kong Country have been carried through with the latest release, Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Nintendo Wii.
The game is, much like New Super Mario Bros. Wii, a huge nod to nostalgia-seeking gamers in their 20's and 30's. From the enhanced graphics and the new game mechanics, however, the title definitely brings enough new to the table that it doesn't feel like a simple rehash of the successes of a game that came out three generations ago.
When you begin playing, you'll notice that Donkey Kong Country Returns features some amazingly well-done updated versions of the original Donkey Kong Country tunes. The familiarity will be enough to draw in fans of the original from square one, which is something that Nintendo really needs to capitalize on if they hope to keep up with the improved motion sensing of the other consoles in this generation.
The concept of the game has remained largely similar as well. You run from left to right, simply trying to make it to the end of each level. If that's not enough for you, another well-known concept from the series has been carried into this title as well. Throughout the game, there are unlockables and hidden items galore. You have the original K-O-N-G letters to find, then you also have puzzle pieces, secret passages, and a whole lot more to worry about as you make your way through each individual levels. It's because of this that completionists will find a lot to like in way of replayability.
Even if you aren't a completionist to that level, the level design will certainly leave you satisfied with just making it through the levels alive. There is no way around it, this game is tough. You will die a lot throughout the course of the game and you will definitely be engulfed in a severe fit of rage more than a few times.
The fine line that Nintendo always seems to tread in its first-party titles is the line of whether your in-game deaths are fair or not. Sure, some of the New Super Mario Bros. Wii levels were frustrating, but none of them were unfair. That same notion applies to Donkey Kong Country Returns. While most of the platforming levels are manageable and rather fair, there is a pretty sizeable amount of vehicle-based levels that feel downright unfair and will have you throwing your Wii Remote across the room. While the old adage of "practice makes perfect" certainly applies to these, it feels like many of them are trial-and-error, which is fine to an extent.
Even though the game may sound like an outright winner from the synopsis of taking the winning formula behind the Super Nintendo series Donkey Kong Country and giving it the New Super Mario Bros. Wii treatment, it is far from perfect. Aside from the frustration you will feel from the vehicle levels, the biggest issue is definitely the control scheme. The developers, for whatever reason, felt it so incredibly important to force the player to utilize the Wii Remote's tilt and shake functionality, that they didn't include the ability to use the Gamecube controller or even the Wii Classic Controllers.
This definitely steals away from the retro experience and the forced use of the motion controls feel just that way. The way the motion/shake controls work in normal gameplay is that if you shake the controller when you're standing still, Donkey Kong will slam the ground, which will destroy things on the ground or stun nearby enemies. If you are pushing the D-Pad in one direction, Donkey Kong will rolls in that direction if you shake the controller, which will knock some enemies off the stage, or at least off their feet. The final variation is if you're pushing down and you shake the controller, Donkey Kong will blow in that direction, which is useful for unveiling hidden bonuses and defeating fire-engulfed enemies. The issue is that the D-Pad will sometimes be finicky, which will cause a lot of unnecessary harm to Donkey Kong. The issue certainly could have been remedied had the developer allowed for the use of those aforementioned controllers.
A big different between this incarnation of Donkey Kong Country and the original series is the health aspect of the game. in the original title, each player was able to be hit once and they were dead. It worked fine for that title, but with new challenges presented in Donkey Kong Country Returns, the developers felt it necessary to implement a two-hit health system, which allows for more mistakes at the cost of a more difficult game.
The highlight and purpose of this game, for many, will be the co-op multiplayer. The mode operates very much the same as the co-op for New Super Mario Bros Wii, but with only two players at a time. In Donkey Kong Country Returns, player one controls Donkey Kong and player two controls Diddy Kong, much like the co-op in the original Donkey Kong Country. While co-op experiences generally tend to keep characters fairly equal in terms of base skills, Donkey Kong Country Returns actually makes Diddy Kong, and thus player two, the much more useful character. Not only can he shoot peanuts (which ends up not doing a whole lot), he can also utilize a jetpack, which comes very much in handy in the more difficult platforming stages.
In single player mode, this is also utilized. You can only control Donkey Kong in single player, but as you bust out Diddy Kong, he jumps on your back and you gain all of his abilities as well. It works like a power up for doing well, much like the laser sword in the original Legend of Zelda titles. It is weird always controlling Donkey Kong, even after unlocking Diddy, however.
Donkey Kong Country Returns represents a load of nostalgia, a ton of platforming challenge and a world of unfulfilled potential. The game may be one of the top titles of the year for the Wii, but the controls can be frustrating. With a little bit less reliance on the Wii gimmick, Donkey Kong Country Returns could have been the best title on the Wii, but instead, it may just have to settle for the year's best. It fails in comparison to New Super Mario Bros. Wii, but almost any update will. When all is factored in, Donkey Kong Country Returns is well worth the price of admission for all 2D platforming fans and a great pickup for fans of the original Donkey Kong Country.