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 classicAquatic Ambiance (opens in new tab)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.