The iconic mascot makes a triumphant return.
As the third major 2D platformer published by Nintendo in two years, Donkey Kong Country Returns from Retro Studios is a wonderful rejuvenation of a 16-year-old franchise, capping off a larger span of time between its entries than the original Donkey Kong Country shares with its 1981 arcade progenitor.
From the very beginning, DKCR stands out as an imaginative platformer, absolutely crammed to the brim with creative level design and classic Kong imagery. The game shares a similar jungle setting to the previous Donkey Kong Country titles, but the set pieces that Retro Studios has strung together are among the best seen in any 2D platformer to date. Moving platforms fall into each other as the foreground and backgrounds come together, with Donkey and Diddy Kong moving among them with stunning fluidity. While some of the levels have gimmicks like mine carts or rocket ships, most of the levels rely on rock-solid platforming skills and a mix of patience and fast reflexes.
Retro Studios has used a wide palette in making the art for the game, with a predictable but very well-executed art style. A few stages really stand out, showing our heroes and villains as silhouetted figures against a cloud of smoke or a blazing sunset. Retro shows an uncanny ability to create a living, breathing world without creating too much distraction from the task at hand. Likewise, the music feels largely reminiscent of the previous games in the franchise, with some new remixes of classic songs. Although nothing in the soundscape particularly stands out, the music lends to the exceptional atmosphere the game presents to players.
The game offers two control options: NES-style or Wii Remote and Nunchuk. Although NES-style seems like the obvious choice for a side-scrolling platformer, the Remote and Nunchuk controls work just as well and are in some cases actually preferable. The analog stick provides ample precision for the slightly slippery Kong. Unlike in the first Donkey Kong Country, where it sometimes feel as if you hover over the scenery as you navigate the stages, in DKCR, Donkey Kong feels very much a part of what is around him, especially in sections where you climb on grassy surfaces and leap vertically from wall to wall. For the first time I can remember, Donkey Kong really feels like an ape.
The motion controls, required for the frequently-used ground pound and roll moves, are easily the game's weakest element. A rolling jump requires both a shake of the Remote and a button press, a combination that requires some getting used to. There were enough buttons on the controller to cover another control mechanic, so it seems as if the motion control was tacked on. It doesn't add much to the general appeal of the game, except when you are required to pound away for five to ten seconds on an enemy or obstacle. Even then, it only feels fun when using the Remote and Nunchuk option. Shaking the controller while holding it NES-style is just plain awkward.
The basic game has eight worlds, each with around seven to eight stages. Each of these stages has several collectables, including K-O-N-G letters, which make their return from the original Donkey Kong Country. After collecting all of the letters from each stage in each world, an additional stage will unlock. Completing all of these bonus stages and the main eight worlds reveals a new ninth world called The Golden Temple. In addition, players can unlock art and music galleries by collecting hidden puzzle pieces. Representing the letters, puzzle pieces, and a time-attack mode, each stage in the game has three separate medals that can be earned. All of these are optional, meaning that there is a wealth of content to explore even after finishing up the initial campaign. The time-attack mode, which will award you either a bronze, silver, or gold medal depending on your fastest time per stage, will definitely have players pulling their hair out trying to shave another few seconds off their best time.
The challenge in the game is worth noting; at its peak difficulty it is among the hardest 2D platformers I've ever played. The bonus unlockable stages in particular are very difficult, but do a good job of not making players feel cheated. The difficulty really begins to ramp up in the sixth world, and the final Volcano world is a real challenge in the best possible way.
Diddy Kong acts as more of a power-up than an actual companion during the single-player game, giving the player an additional two pieces of health and a slight hover ability. When the game is played in two-player mode, Diddy finally finds his feet. Diddy gets to use his peanut popgun and hover pack, while Donkey Kong plays the same as in single-player mode. The two players normally won't interact with each other, but Diddy can hop on Donkey's back and ride him as in the single-player game, and the two players share the same pool of lives. Keeping track of two players is a bit more difficult, but it's a lot of fun to navigate the beautiful landscapes with a friend.
Retro Studios has shown an uncanny ability to reinvent Nintendo franchises and adapt to a challenge. In this case, they've shown real talent in the arena of the 2D platformer. Donkey Kong Country Returns is hands-down one of the best Nintendo titles this year, and a real delight to fans of the Donkey Kong Country franchise.