Donkey Kong Country Returns – first look

Donkey Kong Country: timeless platforming classic that set Rare on the road to super-stardom, or wildly overrated plod-’em-up which only got the attention it did thanks to some pretty, pseudo-3D graphics? It’s a debate that has raged inconclusively for the last 15 years, and this rebirth will give another generation a crack at answering it.

Above: If one of the apes runs out of hearts, he’s whisked away and crammed into a DK barrel farther down the level. Or maybe they do actually die, but there’s an infinite number of Diddy Kongs waiting to be de-barrelled at any given moment. What a ghastly thought

The truth? It’s probably somewhere in the middle. All the 96% scores Donkey Kong Country sucked up upon release look a little ‘enthusiastic’ in the cold light of 2010, but going back to the SNES original now, it’s clear that as a game it still holds up today. So much so that Retro Studios (the same team that turned Samus inside-out for its Metroid Prime Trilogy, remember) has decided to leave the DKC template largely intact. Ironically, given the amount of attention it garnered the first time out, the only thing that’s been drastically overhauled is the visual style. It’s out with the dated wireframe models and in with a softer, more traditional cartoon style.

Above: Diddy Kong’s got a jetpack that allows him to hover in mid-air. Donkey Kong can take advantage of this during a two-player game by latching on and taking control of both characters. What does the player controlling Diddy do during these moments? Have a good cry, probably

Although Donkey Kong Country Returns isn’t the head-turner the original was back in the day, there’s still plenty of visual trickery to tickle your eyes pink – such as swarms of butterflies that swoop in and out of the screen, or a sunset level shot entirely in silhouette. In another section, a barrel launches DK into the background, but this barely fazes the hairy-knuckled one. He simply dusts himself off and continues his quest by running along the distant curvature of the backdrop. A continuation of the SNES series? Yes. But you try asking a Super Nintendo to replicate these aesthetics – it’ll be reaching for its eject button in seconds.

Above: A textbook example of DKC Returns’ difficulty. This pirate ship lobs bombs at your doorstep with chilling accuracy. Roll, DK, roll!

Above: Ah, where would DKC be without the mine cart levels? The name ‘Rickity Rails’ suggests that the mines’ maintenance budgets are still a bit stingy

Get past Donkey Kong Country’s shiny new face and you’ll find another more familiar one smiling back at you. The original outing was never the world’s most complicated game - the bits where you had to predict your trajectory of flight from one floating barrel to another were about as taxing as it got. Donkey Kong Country Returns keeps things as simple as they always were – aside from the odd bonus room and a scattering of collectables, there’s nothing to distract you from the monkey work of running from left to right, hopping and bopping everything that crosses your path.

Above: Barrels come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Expect the full gamut of Wii motion gestures to be explored

Above: Lovely sunset. Not only are the silhouetted graphics pretty neat, it’s also kinda romantic, don’t you think? No? Oh

The only functionality change of note – and we’re not sure it’s a good one – is the addition of a few motion controls. DK’s rolling motion is now activated by shunting the remote to the side, and certain platforms can be beaten into submission with your ape-hands by shaking the controllers up and down like some kind of enraged primate. These gestures are a little too indulgent and counter-intuitive for our tastes. Shaking to roll in particular was a real pain – it wasn’t quite precise enough for the pixel-perfect platforming that DKC demands of you, and on a few occasions we cartwheeled our way right into a pit o’ spikes. And believe us, we’d never intentionally hurt Diddy Kong…

Above: Looks like Diddy’s left land-lubber DK high and dry here. Maybe there’s a switch up ahead that’ll let the Donkster re-join the party…?

Speaking of Diddy Kong, he’s the reward for whoever picks up the dreaded second controller (surely remote roulette is the only fair way to decide which of the players suffers this dire fate?). That’s right – it’s another 2D platform game on Wii with a co-operative mode shoehorned into it. Which leads us to wonder exactly where Donkey Kong Country Returns is going to slot into the Wii’s games library. New Super Mario Bros Wii comes from a more distinguished lineage, Wario Land: Shake it! is prettier, and Kirby’s Epic Yarn is fresher and more stimulating. Heck, it might not even be the best 2D Donkey Kong game on the Wii – Jungle Beat is a pretty hard act to follow.

Above: What does DK need that many bananas for, anyway? In our experience, if you buy more than three bananas at any one time, at least one of them’s going brown

Donkey Kong Country Returns is a modest offering with the admirable if unoriginal aim of capturing the magic of a bygone era. And while we’re still a little unsure as to how well it will stand out on the Wii, we must admit we’re looking forward to revisiting the series, if only to settle that 15-year-old debate…

Aug 4, 2010