God bless Retro Studios. The Texas-based developer made Metroid’s transition from 2D to 3D absolutely unforgetable with Metroid Prime, a game they expanded into a quite outstanding trilogy. Since passing the Metroid baton onto Team Ninja they have turned their attentions to another classic Nintendo frnachise, Donkey Kong. The Donkey Kong Country series graced the SNES with some of the best graphics and sound design of their era not to mention some fiendishly addictive and massively challenging 2D gameplay. DK achieved great success in the capable hands of British dev Rare who went on to take the franchise into the third dimension with Donkey Kong 64, which, while packed with content was plagued by tiresome backtracking and a collect-em-up mentality. After Rare departed to Microsoft (and forgot how to make good games) the future of Donkey Kong became a little murky. The Gamecube saw him star in two rhythm games, Donkey Konga and Donkey Konga 2 as well as one more side-scrolling platformer controlled by the same bongo-drum peripheral as the aforemntioned music titles, the excellent and too-oft-forgotten Donkey Kong – Jungle Beat. Since then all good ol’ DK has had is the mediocre Donkey Kong Jet Race. Now, though it’s time for a truly triumphant comeback.
Retro decided not to attempt to recreate their 3D success with this title sticking to the tried and true 2D formula. There’s been a 2D Renaissance recently and Donkey Kong Country Returns joins the party as the guest of honour. The premise is no more complex than ever. DK’s banana horde has been pinched again, though King K. Rool and the Kremlins aren’t behind it this time. Instead our villains are a tribe of hypnotic musical instruments and DK and Diddy set off around their island to dish out some rough justice. There are eight themed worlds (jungle, coast, temple etc.) each containing a number of stages to breeze through. You can visit Cranky Kong’s shop in each world to spend coins (which are gathered in the levels) on various items including life balloons and keys to unlock branching paths through the world.
The gameplay is very familiar but Retro have added to it. Strangely the only method of control is to hold the Wii Remote is on its side. You use the D-Pad to move, hold 1 to run, tap 2 to jump and defeat enemies by bouncing on them. The roll attack returns but it’s been mapped to the motion controls. You shake whilst running to roll, whilst standing to pund the ground, which serves a number of purposes and whilst crouching to blow air. The motion controls here don’t give you anything that couldn’t be achieved with a button press and it’s a bit of a shame to see Retro resorting to that approach. The roll in particular is difficult to control and the preferred method of defeating baddies is to jump on them. DK now has two hearts for health, which doubles to four when he has Diddy in tow. It’s not possible to swap the two any more but with Diddy riding on DK’s back you can use his jetbarrels to hover briefly.
The level design is superb, filled with variety and gimmicks, from the dreaded, beloved minecart levels of old to new ideas such as surfaces DK can cling to. Every level feels different from the last and each world throws up one or two that take one device and run with it making. There’s not as much scope for depth in this simple 2D world as the devs discovered in Metroid Prime but its difficult to see how they could have handled the design any better short of ramming it with even more ideas.
The whole game is filled with highly-polished nostalgia. Many familair tunes make a welcome return mingling with all new ones. The graphics are terrific, colourful and vibrant. A few levels show DK in silhouette with only his red tie visible. It’s strangely beautiful. The scenery rattles along at a breakneack pace and it’s a blast to take it all in. There’s plenty of content too with the four KONG letters returning to be sought out in each level alongside a number of puzzle pieces to track down. Even after the game is over there are time attacks and other challenges to get stuck into. It’s good value for money.
One thing the fans will be pleased about is that the humungous difficulty level is very much intact. After the first few worlds the challenge really sets in. A lot of levels will prove fiendish enough to kill you many times. Fortunately there’s no shortage of extra lives to gain either by snagging red balloons or gathering hundreds of bananas. Of course if a level seems to be defeating you the game will pipe up with a super guide. I managaed to complete the game without using it but no doubt some gamers will welcome the option.
Donkey Kong Country Returns is a refined and consistently brilliant platformer that never grows dull. Fans of the series can be happy because DK has never been this good.
Presentation – 8
Story is minimal but everything the fans were expecting is here and it’s very crisp and a satisfying mix of old-school and new shine.
Gameplay – 8
Despite some clunky motion controls it’s a balanced, refined affair filled with variety.
Graphics – 9
Gorgeously colourful and full of the quirky Donkey Kong style Rare started. All the effects look lovely.
Sound – 7
With many of the classic tunes joined by plenty of new ones and all the right funny sound effects it’s a good audio package.
Difficulty – 10
It’s an undeniably tough challenge to finish and that’s just the start with all sorts of devastatingly difficulty content still to get through. It’s a true gamer’s game.
Longevity – 7
The length of the main quest is about right and with the evtra content there’s reason for the masochistic to keep going. Decent replay value.
Taking a good formula Retro have brought the series into the present day with aplomb. It’s a confident, wonderfully enjoyable advertisement for the modern platformer and the perfect love-letter the DK faithful. Here’s hoping Retron Studios do Starfox next.
out of 10