Monday, December 6, 2010

The Monkey With The Tie Returns in a Big Way... The Donkey Kong Country Returns Review

The Donkey Kong Country games were the games I started with in my childhood, so they were the ones I most remember when I first started gaming seriously in the mid 1990s. From the breakthrough graphics that seem ahead of its time, the platforming, the collect-a-thons, and the challenge, they were the platformers in the later years of the Super Nintendo. Since those times, Donkey Kong has been through a lot with the "disappointing to some" N64 game and numerous spinoffs like the Konga games and Jungle Beat being the closest to being a return to form for the big ape with the red tie. It seemed like the classic DKC formula was dead and forever remembered in our memories till Nintendo decided to bring it back big since they have been on a roll with their iconic franchises. Even though the original developers of the trilogy Rare had moved on to Microsoft, the franchise is in good hands again with Metroid Prime developer Retro Studios. Donkey Kong Country Returns is what fans have been waiting for years as it is well, a return to the good times of the franchise. That means also a return to form for Donkey Kong to platforming greatness, which indeed is the case as Retro did an amazing job recapturing the glory days of those days to the Wii.

The premise of DKC Returns is simple, which is bring back the classic formula Rare made with the original trilogy and spice things here and there with the Retro touch. A rebooted franchise means a new story, right? Well, sort of as it is a different take of the original Donkey Kong Country as new enemies, known as the Tiki Tribe, steal Donkey Kong's hoard of bananas and of course its up to him and his pal Diddy to get them back. For those expecting some reference to all of the original games, you're not going to get it as Retro solely focused on the first game as the main influence. Donkey Kong's signature moves are still intact here in this new game, but with a Wii twist by shaking Wiimote to handslap, roll, and blow while crouching, a new move added to his disposal. Sure, you can still jump on enemies to kill them, but now you can time the press the jump button to get more height after jumping on an enemy Mario style. The control options consist of the Wiimote sideways and the Wiimote/Nunchuk combo, but I prefer the Wiimote sideways personally for the definitive old-school experience and I felt I'm doing things more precisely jumping and waggling than the Nunchuk. Also changed this time around for Returns is how Diddy is being used. Instead of being another playable character, he is pretty much being a true sidekick hanging on Donkey Kong as his primary purpose is his rocket jetpack as he can make Donkey Kong hover for a limited time. Diddy proves to very useful on that alone especially in the later and tougher levels. The exception to Diddy though is in two-player co-op when he does is fully playable, but the co-op requires more teamwork than what intended to be as both players have to in sync together flowing through a level. It is still fun though having another player join the fray as most cooperative games go.

The classic DKC formula remains mostly the same in Returns with different twists. Collecting bananas is pretty self-explanatory especially getting a 100 of them gets an extra life, banana coins from the later games are in, which allows to shop for stuff in Cranky's house from extra lives, Squawks the parrot, a stage key unlocking another path in the world map, and temporary invincibility with banana juice. The KONG letters make a return as they more of a purpose this time around than the original games as they also matter in completing the game 100% The collect-a-thon doesn't stop there as there are also puzzle pieces to collect in the numerous levels to unlock bonus art in the gallery. Squawks can be useful here as he will go crazy when a puzzle piece is nearby as these can easily be hidden or be found in bonus rooms reminiscent of the original game. The collecting aspect is not that bad in Returns, but at least its not as overblown like in Donkey Kong 64.

The Donkey Kong Country games have also known for its level design. The levels were filled with variety and challenge, but a fair challenge at best. Retro is no stranger to level design with their work on the Metroid Prime games and their knowledge has been applied in Returns exceptionally well. All the levels have that DKC flair of bottomless pits, obstacles that can ruin things, and so on. That challenge also applies here to being one of the toughest games of the series, but still a fair challenge that will push your platforming skills to the limit at any time. Even the non-platforming stages, the signature mine cart levels and the new rocket levels where Donkey Kong rides a rocket barrel to transverse through some areas as one hit equals one loss of a life. The Super Guide that is in in the recent Mario games is also here if you lose numerous lives in a certain level where a Silver Donkey Kong comes in and beats the level for you without anything you collected. Of course, there are also the boss fights as well, which are solid for the series as expected as most of them are not easy to defeat, but have a certain pattern it takes to take them out to move on. The lack of water levels seems surprising, but that is a minor nitpick and also the animal buddies other than Rambi the Rhino being useful in some of the levels where he can just go nuts running through spikes and thrashing anything in his way with his horn. The level design is top notch from beginning to end with some difficult levels to pass through to beat the game, but Retro has done a splendid job of keeping faithful to the series' roots as well as put their special touch to these levels that can't be done in the Super Nintendo.

Graphically, Donkey Kong Country Returns is one of the best looking games of the Wii's lifespan. There are lots to soak in every level as even the little details look amazing for the system. As with the level design, the variety is truly remarkable from the signature jungle, the tidal waves of the beach world, the cliff stages, the factory, and culminating at the volcano. The characters look great in action maintaining their signature animations we known for years. With the new enemies though, their design feels mixed as at times they just feel soulless and makes you want the Kremlings to come back because I feel this franchise should maintain something similar with the Mario franchise of having the signature enemy/rival throughout its history. As for the sound, the signature tunes are remixed and remastered for the current generation from the overworld map that is remixed for all eight worlds, the jungle BGM, the factory BGM from the first game, the mine cart music, and more. Personally, I like these remixed tunes as they did the originals justice. The other sound effects are also great as for once you're actually feel like Donkey Kong with its gorilla voice, thumping around at every jump, and so on.

Despite being one of the toughest yet fair in terms of challenging games of the year, Donkey Kong Country Returns is a fantastic return for the monkey we have been waiting for. Retro Studios has done it again bringing back an iconic Nintendo character from its glory days to modernizing for the new Wii audience. Even with its modern approach technically, it is still old-school 2D platforming at its finest just with more to be messed around with the power of the Wii. It also feels like a reminder to my childhood of how these games influenced my start of my gaming hobby. With the outstanding level design, perfect replay value for completionists getting all the KONG letters, puzzle pieces, getting gold medals in the time attack mode, and beat the bonus temple levels, and being purely faithful to such a successful franchise to the Super Nintendo, Donkey Kong Country Returns is another home run for Nintendo and Retro Studios and one of the best games of the year. Any Nintendo and platforming fan should not miss out on this amazing game.

Score = 9.5/10

  • Amazing level design, which is expected for the franchise
  • Retro has done a great job faithfully bringing back another iconic Nintendo character
  • Old-school 2D platforming at its finest and also challenging, but not impossibly difficult
  • One of the best looking Wii games ever
  • The remixed and remastered tunes sound great and did the originals justice
  • Some might be put down by the challenge especially in the later levels
  • Lack of water levels and only one animal buddy playable (Rambi) is a little disappointing, but pretty minor compared to what was in the game
  • I didn't have that much of a problem with the controls, especially the waggle ones, but I can see why people would have a tough time at first.

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