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The original Donkey Kong Country came around just as the Super NES was beginning to show its age, and through clever graphical trickery, it was able to make 16-bit technology seem more advanced and exciting than it actually was. The hoopla surrounding DKC’s release led to eight million copies sold worldwide, and a string of sequels that raked in crazy numbers for several years afterward. In other words, Donkey Kong Country was a pretty big deal for Nintendo.
Above: And who could forget the 12-minute VHS tape shipped to Nintendo Power subscribers?
But since the early 2000s, Donkey Kong hasn’t mattered much. It’s been nothing but Mario cameos and weird spin-offs like Konga and King of Swing, leading many of us to wonder if we’d ever see a return to the bounce-heavy, bonus room-filled splendor of the game that kick-started DK’s career. We’re happy to say after years of waiting, DKC Returns ticks most of the boxes you’d expect and stands as a strong, recommendable lesson in classic game design – with a few issues that irked us enough to take notice.
Above: Easy you two, you’re in a mostly great game
Before we go into what doesn’t work, let’s start with what developer Retro Studios (known for Metroid Prime) got right. First off, the general formula of a solid side-scroller is intact, complete with themed worlds, demanding jumps and pattern-based, increasingly challenging boss battles. Unlike Epic Yarn, which made it impossible to die, DKCR really makes you work for each level and will tax even the most skilled SNES-era gamers.
But we expect that. If you’re going to make a new DK side-scroller, it better get the side-scrolling part down pat. It’s the attention to detail that Retro brings from its work on Metroid Prime that really sells the experience – trees sway in the breeze, birds hurriedly flap away from loud noises, chunks of the level crack and shift as you run by… it all makes for a thoroughly vibrant world, much more fetching than the lifeless CG backgrounds of the SNES games.
Above: Lots going on, lots to look at, lots to avoid
It’s not just for show though. Every level has multiple ways to interact with the foreground and background, be it pounding the ground to fire a canon, blowing petals off flowers to reveal health or smashing crumbly towers down with Rambi the Rhino. With all the aforementioned vibrancy plus all these ways to alter the environment, DKC Returns does an excellent job of keeping things interesting, even though you’re technically just moving to the right. It also plays with your expectations every few levels, switching things up so you never quite have a chance to get bored with the presentation.
Above: The sun-soaked beach level has a distinct look – plus those scurrying ants are another example of Retro’s attention to small details
Above: Later you’ll see a very Limbo-like level, with stark machinery and smoky air
Above: This beach level sends waves crashing down your throat, which can only be avoided by hiding behind these rock formations
Above: There are rocket-powered levels that require constant acceleration/deceleration, and are full of one-hit-kills
Above: Here you’ll scream across the ocean on top of a whale, as the classic Aquatic Ambiance track plays. A bit too hectic of a level for that song, but it’s a nice inclusion
Above: As with prior DKC games, there are tons of hidden bonus rooms to find in each level. They tend to repeat, though
Above: The camera zooms in and out a lot too. This camera pulls out the farther away you get from the worm boss
With such visual diversity between the levels and all that swanky stuff going on in the environment, plus the expected intense platforming, what’s not to like? Do we sound like giant babies if we say the game is actually too hard? We’ll explain why on the next page.
Yes, we think DKC Returns is hard. However, not in a fun, challenging, “one more time” kind of way, but in a frustrating, unclear and often misleading way that is unlike any prior Donkey Kong adventure. Why Retro filled the game with death-laden trial and error sections that break up the typical, bouncy DKC momentum is beyond us. The original games were tough at times, but never like this.
So, that flawless mine cart run up there – pretty slick, huh? Yeah it looks cool when you see it all laid out, but keep in mind you cannot make one single mistake. Any hit, any missed jump is a death, and you’ve got to do it again. These cart levels in DKCR approach Battletoads speed tunnel levels of annoyance, as they repeatedly fail to give you any clues as to what the correct action should be. Jump? Duck? Dodge that or land on it? The only way you’ll know for sure is to try, and probably die in the process.
This extends to other levels too – there are several points in the game that never clearly illustrate what you can and can’t jump on, or which crumbling pillars you should bother standing on and so forth. Initially we took these unavoidable deaths as part of the old-school design, and figured the game just plain ol' tough. But when we'd rack up 20-30 lives in a couple of levels, then lose them all in the next, it was clear Retro expected us to die over and over again, and that’s not something DKC (or similar Mario-type games) are known for. It’s fun to die in Super Meat Boy – that’s part of the experience. But Nintendo platformers? Since when are they crushingly hard because of level design?
Above: Oh, right. That’s probably not helping
Yes, waggle. It’s here in a big way and there’s no getting around it. Jumping and grabbing are still button presses, but to bust out a long jump (which you’ll constantly need), you have to waggle the remote to send DK into a roll, then jump out of the roll for an increased leap. Delegating such an important platformer staple – the long jump – to waggle is a huge mistake, and leads to numerous “WHY DIDN’T I EFFING LONG JUMP?” moments. You should never, ever question the controls in a platformer, and with all the waggle going on, you can never be sure if that sixth death was because of the controls or your own poorly timed jump. Introducing that possibility of mechanical error makes the already tough levels even more annoying when you lose.
Above: There’s a second option, and it’s just as bad
This sounds like damning stuff, but we came to a weird middle ground by the end of the game. For every crappy checkpoint, undeserved death and tortuously repetitive boss, there was an equally excellent counterpart, some legitimately cool or tough section that made us feel like atomic supermen for overcoming. There’s also an interesting quest to take up after the ending has wrapped up, so those still obsessed with collecting every KONG letter and puzzle piece will have plenty to do.
The original DKC marked the first appearance of Diddy and Cranky Kong (among other, more forgettable characters). Both are present in DKC Returns, but in an oddly diminished capacity. Diddy, for instance, is always on DK’s back. When you’re hit, he leaves, and you play as DK solo. Originally you’d actually switch to Diddy, but now it’s all DK. We’re not torn up about it, as Diddy is extremely useful on DK’s back, thanks to his hovering jet pack ability that lets you alter jumps in mid-air for a last-second save. However, this ability is so useful and ultimately crucial to certain areas, that it makes playing as solo DK twice as hard and half as fun.
Above: Who would’ve thought Diddy would be so indispensible?
The other option is to grab a friend and play some co-op, in which case player two handles Diddy directly. The catch is that you’ll really want to use that hover jump, which means Diddy will sit on DK, immobile and only able to fire a peanut gun at enemies. Not how we’d want to spend our two-player time.
Then there’s Cranky, who used to complain about how good games used to be “in his day,” and how today’s newfangled 16-bit machines were no good. He’s still here, still in a rocking chair and still full of complaints, but they’re extremely lame, groan worth jokes that never elicit a laugh.
Above: The living end
On the other hand, Retro did a fantastic job paying homage to the brilliant soundtrack first created by David Wise in 1994. There are tons of retro tracks taken from the first DKC, so if you remember that OST well (and so many of us do), then you’re in for a treat.
New Super Mario Bros Wii? Yes. Even though we’ve spent a good deal of time complaining about the difficulty, we still prefer having a hard time to the training-wheels gameplay of New SMB Wii. Other than a few levels near the end, we never once felt challenged. Furthermore, the vibrant world of DKC Returns completely outclasses the comparatively sparse NSMBW, and at least the bosses of DKCR aren't complete wastes of time.
Kirby’s Epic Yarn? No, though this is kind of a toss-up. Epic Yarn definitely holds your hand (you can’t even die), but the amount of creativity, infectious charm and easygoing gameplay outweighs the lack of a hardcore angle. Conversely, DKCR will hand you your ass and then follow it up with a pain in the ass boss, so which one is "better" is probably dependent on your mood.
Sonic 4: Episode I? Yes, in this reviewer’s eyes. Both are valiant throwbacks to classic ‘90s titles, yet both suffer from misremembering what made their originals such mainstream successes. If I personally had to pick a favorite, it’d be DKCR for having a few fewer cheap deaths and (comparatively) much better boss fights. And even though Sonic 4 isn’t “done,” we can assume Episode II won’t be drastically different. This also depends on your childhood allegiances - did you go Sega or Nintendo?
Donkey Kong Country Returns is a lush, vibrant re-imagining of the DKC franchise, but a barrage of cheap deaths, uneven difficulty and iffy motion controls keep it from matching Retro Studios' previous amazing work with Metroid
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