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.
Above: This level ate up 15 lives and caused no shortage of horrible grunting noises
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.
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