When Retro Studios wrapped up production on the Metroid Prime trilogy of games for Nintendo, many people were wondering what the talented studio would move onto next. After all, with the original Metroid Prime on GameCube, they arguably created one of the most influential games of the last decade. So would their new venture be an original IP, taking what they’ve learned in the first-person adventure space, and in the process match or even exceed the brilliance of what they achieved with the Metroid franchise? Imaginations, especially for Nintendo fans, ran wild.
However, when it was announced that they were working on a new entry in the Donkey Kong Country series, with similar 2D platforming gameplay from the Super Nintendo (SNES) classic in tow, most people didn’t seem overly enthused. Where was the epic scope, the sense of isolation, the shooting, the adventure, the science fiction setting? Without a doubt big action spectacles usually impress more than vine swinging, brightly coloured side-scrolling romps through the jungle. That is of course to older gamers, who ironically grew up playing games like Donkey Kong Country. But in the wake of the recent success of Nintendo’s other foray back into the side-scrolling space, New Super Mario Bros, it seems that the Big N are once again one step ahead of consumer expectation. And as it turns out, a new Donkey Kong Country is exactly what we needed.
There is a distinct difference to the way both Mario and Donkey Kong move, Mario moves with the grace, precision and athleticism of an Eastern European gymnast. Donkey Kong on the other hand is a bit slower, more prone to fumble, whilst featuring the upper body strength of an Eastern European weightlifter. This means that although they sit firmly in the same genre (and analogical continent) and may seem virtually identical in their consumer appeal, Donkey Kong Country Returns is very much a different beast to New Super Mario Bros. Playing it rekindles a different kind of nostalgia as well as a different set of gaming skills. From the split second precision timing and button presses required to get through the mine cart stages to the specific gravitational accommodations players are required to make in order to manoeuvre Donkey Kong from vine to barrel to moving platform in a matter of seconds, this is a quest for bananas and not a buxom Princess – and hence just a little bit more primal.
How you viewed the original Donkey Kong Country (DKC) on SNES will definitely inform your initial views on this new entry. And although the original DKC is undoubtedly best-remembered for its groundbreaking visuals, beneath the surface many gamers of the time found a great platformer that differentiated itself from Mario in interesting ways, and in the process elevated developer Rare to new heights. The series is not without its critics, but thanks to some truly classic visuals and music on Rare’s part, its charm is undeniable. Retro Studios have captured this look and feel unquestionably, even though this new entry foregoes many of the enemies and Kong siblings seen in the original. Yes, that means no Funky Kong spouting words and catch phrases at least a decade or two out of date.
It’s actually quite amazing that the feeling of playing this new DKC for the first time is somewhat similar to the one felt back in the mid-90s. First impressions are not the measure of a game’s worth and the Wii itself is not known for competing with the big boys in the graphics department – but despite all this, initial impressions will far exceed your expectations. Once the classic musical themes play, and the screen is filled with brightly coloured and impressively animated and detailed jungle environments, a smile will immediately follow. This is due to the game literally brimming with character and charm, and a set of simplistic controls that although complement the relatively easy early levels, quickly become deceptive once the gameplay transforms into an inspiring and quite difficult set of escalating platforming challenges.
The best side-scrolling games are built around a sense of hidden repetition, with the design between levels changing enough to make each level feel fresh but still utilise the same moves and skills to complete. A natural difficulty curve is also important and the original DKC games were built on these same principles, created and evolved by Nintendo. This began with the very first Super Mario Bros on the NES that saw the outdoor environment of the first level followed by a trip underground in the second, each feeling fresh but each containing gameplay centred on the same mechanics. Nintendo have always been at the forefront of keeping their games feeling fresh all the way through, but to some people this design methodology felt a little too forced in the original DKC, where an outdoor level would be followed by a barrel level, a mine cart level, and so forth.
Donkey Kong Country Returns thankfully falls into the former category whilst still retaining the classic and distinct level variety found in the original, boss levels included. The difference, however, comes in the execution, which is handled so well you’d think Retro Studios were an old hat in the platformer department. Each level brings with it new and fun concepts, as well as making previously introduced elements just that little bit harder. It also changes up the gameplay to suit the visual style of each world, and keeps alternating the pace to test both player reflexes and skill. This drastic difference in pace is one of the hallmarks of the DKC series, and is executed flawlessly here.
Some of the best elements of the older games are also brought back and executed perfectly, from the timed vine swinging sections to the canon style shooting of Donkey Kong between different types of stationary, spinning and swerving barrels. But there’s also a whole slew of great new additions, including rocket barrel sections that feature a polished and slightly off-kilter physics model that once mastered could have very well been a major part of the game. There’s also the new ‘cling’ mechanic that allows Donkey Kong to grab onto greenery adorned walls and ceilings which opens the door to countless gameplay possibilities – including large spinning structures that have to be traversed in an almost 360-degree space. Although this is very much a 2D game, the 3D engine does wonders in making all these elements feel just a little bit grander.
But there is one aspect that unfortunately hasn’t been brought forward and that is the sense of humour. Although present in a very cartoonish manner, the wit and charm of Rare’s original outing seems to have been side-stepped in what probably is the biggest change. Sure Cranky Kong makes a return and dispenses some text-based jokes when you visit his store, but the fact is that apart from this rare occurrence there is very little in terms of character interaction outside of the wonderful gameplay, which is such a shame. The story of animals on Kong Island being hypnotised by a gang of animated tiki statues, who then steal all the bananas, serves as a mere catalyst to kick start Donkey Kong on his quest from world to world. It doesn’t really work at all, and instead gives the game a sense that it’s simply a string of levels to complete one after another. It also doesn’t help that each world is titled in the most uninspired way possible, with ‘Jungle’, ‘Cave’, and ‘Forest’ the actual names.
In any other game this would be a catastrophe, but the levels themselves are the real reason to play Donkey Kong Country Returns, as they containsmore charm and challenge than most any other title released this year. It may look like a game clearly aimed at young kids, and in a way it is, but the genius was tailoring the difficulty around the solid set of mechanics and providing a challenge that even the biggest fans of the series (whom would be well into adulthood by now) would have a tough time with. And by giving the player, once they’re stuck on a particular section after losing a number of lives, the option to watch and have the level completed for them, is a great modern tool implemented as a countermeasure to the relative simplicity of most modern games.
It feels strange that a new entry in what is seen as an archaic genre proves to be one of the freshest gaming experiences of the year. But the end result it exactly that, and Donkey Kong Country Returns is an essential purchase for fans of the series and all Wii-owners. In a market overly saturated with gritty shooters, and complex 3D worlds, leave it to Nintendo to literally brighten up your gaming experience with another stellar update to a classic formula.