Donkey Kong Country Returns review

It’s been 14 long years since the last DKC sidescrolling platformer on a console. Those of us who were fortunate enough to enjoy gaming during Rare’s heyday witnessed their successful resurrection of a dwindling franchise, breathing new life into the Donkey Kong series. Retro Studios, a second-party developer that achieved uncannily similar success with their modern take on the Metroid series, has now been entrusted with DK’s future. Does Retro’s new offering stand up under the unforgiving glare of nostalgia goggles, or will it leave you pulling a Cranky Kong, grouchily reminiscing about how great things were “back in my day”?

If you’re like me, there are a few questions that immediately sprang to mind when you caught wind of a new DKC game in the works. “Will the music and graphics blow my socks clean off like the originals?” “Can I still perform trademark moves like the rolling mid-air jump?” “Will it be an overwhelming collection-fest like Donkey Kong 64?” “Can Retro really capture the feel of the old DKC games?” Being a seasoned veteran of the DKC series (I got everything in DKC1/2/3 and DK64 and lived to tell the tale), I felt pretty qualified to tackle these questions with an informed opinion. And now that I’ve finally conquered all of the main levels of Donkey Kong Country Returns and beaten the game, I hope to answer those questions for any DKC fans still on the fence about whether or not to give it a shot.

“Does Donkey Kong Country Returns successfully build on the DKC formula? Is Retro the new Rare?”

Let me start by assuring you, first and foremost: If it’s high quality platforming you’re after, DKCR delivers. Almost all of your favorite hallmarks of the DKC series are here in spades – animal buddies, mine cart levels, barrel blast levels, ground-pounding, mid-air jumping, and collectibles galore. There are also many new additions, such as the ability to blow on fans and dandelions, riding rocket barrels that are guided up with successive button presses, and levels that will send you flying between the background and foreground repeatedly. Granted, there aren’t any water levels, the only animal buddy you can ride in the game is Rambi (Squawks makes a cameo as an item), and of the millions of Kongs we’ve seen throughout the series, the only other one you’ll see here besides DK and Diddy themselves is Cranky Kong, who is on hand with his trusty inventory of items, wisecracks and insults. Also, I think the biggest change from the standard formula is that you can no longer switch between DK and Diddy at will; you always control DK, and if you have Diddy then you can use his jet pack for an incredibly helpful hover while jumping, but you can never control just Diddy and keep DK waiting in the wings.  I’m not sure what the reasoning was behind this; I always preferred to play as the lighter, more nimble Diddy instead of the big lumbering hulk, but it’s not that bad. And I felt like the game might have benefited from a few more barrel blast levels and vine-swinging aspects because they’re such recognizable staples of the series, but that’s just my personal preference. Psyche, it’s the gospel truth and Retro should unquestionably take heed!

As for the difficulty level, this game presents some serious challenge, and plenty of it. Naturally, the game starts you off with a gentle learning curve in the earlier worlds (and you can use some brand new items such as the extra heart, banana juice, and Super Guide to help you out), but it won’t be long before the punishment begins. Once the game really kicks up the pace, expect to lose a solid 20 – 25 lives before finally completing some of the more maddening levels. In the later worlds, it won’t be a rare occurrence to burn through one life after another, getting a little bit further each time only to be taken off-guard and die again. Some critics are going so far as to consider the difficulty unfair, and while I think this game easily surpasses all of its predecessors in difficulty, it is by no means impossible. I refused to use the Super Guide, and with enough persistence, my stubbornness always paid off. Surprisingly, the bosses aren’t too terrifying compared to some of the levels leading up to them, and you can even use your special items from Cranky Kong while fighting them. Overall, I believe long-time fans and newcomers to DKC alike will enjoy Retro’s first foray into the big gorilla’s jungle. Just make sure you’re ready to die like a man. Repeatedly.

“How good are the graphics? Will I achieve a higher plane of consciousness when I look upon their glory?”
While I’ll be the last person to ever place graphics over gameplay on the importance scale, the immediate visceral impact of Donkey Kong Country’s incredible pre-rendered graphics on the SNES cannot be overstated. It easily surpassed anything I had ever seen on a console at that point, and the sequels kept this new standard going – even after DKC had claimed countless hours of my life, when DKC2 came out my jaw dropped again and I found myself running around levels just to take in the striking scenery. So how does Donkey Kong Country Returns match up in the eye candy department? Coming from Retro, who created some of the most realistic and truly beautiful visuals on the GameCube and Wii with the Metroid Prime trilogy, I came in with very high expectations. Having traversed all of the game’s environments, there is definitely none of the slowdown that occasionally plagued the SNES iterations. The game is fluid, colorful, and shows off a unique and charming art style (especially in the silhouette levels), there are a few amusing and very pretty cinemas scattered throughout, and the scrolling backgrounds are much more dynamic and interactive than ever before. Vivid and pleasing? Absolutely. Face-meltingly awesome? I don’t know if I’d go that far. I’m not sure DKCR really pushes the limits of the Wii’s hardware the way its predecessors did, but they say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so check out the trailers and gameplay vids and you can be the judge.

“How about the music? Does it meet the incredible standard set by the previous DKC soundtracks?”
I’m delighted to report that many of the game’s tunes consist of remixed revisits to David Wise’s outstanding compositions for DKC 1, 2 and 3. Hearing those familiar songs really sets the mood and brings me back to some of my most enjoyable gaming memories. Unfortunately, it’s when the game strays from Wise’s contributions that the soundtrack starts to suffer. While none of the music is blatantly irritating, I didn’t find DKCR’s original music especially memorable. It definitely fits for each environment (everything sounds quite industrial in the Factory levels, for instance) and is very upbeat, but will I still be humming along with songs like Platform Panic the way I can with a classic such as DK Island Swing 16 years later? DKCR’s soundtrack wasn’t overflowing with earworm-quality melodies for me, and at times I found the repetition of music between levels in the same world a little excessive, but it’s still pretty solid and doesn’t detract from the gameplay experience.

“How long is the game and does it have good replay value?”
To give you a rough idea, I beat all of the main levels and beat the game in 15.5 hours. That included a small amount of backtracking through previously beaten levels to hunt for collectible KONG letters and jigsaw pieces, and I still haven’t unlocked all the extra levels, let alone beaten them. Also, I never used the Super Guide (though I was sorely tempted on a couple of occasions), so that’s how long it took me to buckle down and power through. Donkey Kong Country games have always included plenty of hidden treasures like bonus levels and DK coins, and DKCR keeps that tradition alive and then some. Not only can you collect four KONG letters and a variable amount of jigsaw pieces (usually between 5-8) per level, but you can also play through levels you’ve beaten again and collect medals for speed in the Time Attack mode. And all these trinkets aren’t just for show; collect enough KONG letters in a given world, and you’ll open up a new level. Beating all of these extra levels grants you access to yet more unlockable secrets. To make these tasks somewhat less daunting, Cranky Kong can sell you a Squawks item which will help you locate jigsaw pieces as you make your way through a level by, well, squawking noisily when you’re close to one. But even using Squawks I simply couldn’t figure out how to find or get to many of the jigsaw pieces! In addition, I ran all the way through the first level in Time Attack mode and barely qualified for a bronze medal. This game could be a completionist’s dream or nightmare, depending on how you look at it. I will say that it’s a very challenging game and has more than enough in store to keep you busy for a very long time if you’re up to the task.

“How are the controls? Does the Wii remote work well for DKCR?”
Yes and no. If I have any major gripe about Donkey Kong Country Returns, which is otherwise an absolutely excellent and worthy addition to the series, it would be the forced, tacked-on feel of the waggle element. You can choose between playing with or without the nunchuk, but both styles force you to shake the remote to roll (or to charge with Rambi). This has been a hotly contested issue on forums around the intarwebz, but if you’ll indulge me as I climb atop the soap box for a moment, I must get this off my chest: There is simply no practical reason I can think of that a modern game should not allow us to customize our controls the way we want. We were allowed to assign different moves to different buttons (and even use a GameCube controller!) in Smash Bros. Brawl, and Retro’s Metroid games at least allowed us to toggle settings such as inverse aim in Metroid Prime and lock-on in Metroid Prime 3. More options are always better, and potentially could have saved me a lot of unnecessary annoyance. Shaking the controller to make Donkey Kong roll simply doesn’t feel intuitive and definitely didn’t make the game more fun for me. Perhaps I could see shaking the remote and nunchuk to pound the ground… but rolling? It’s like an executive at a board meeting said “Hey, this is a Wii game. It needs more motion controls. Make one of the moves require that you flail around.”

The good news is that normal gameplay in DKCR doesn’t require that you roll often, but when it does, the frustrating waggle mechanic can cause you to go plummeting to your doom if the controller decides not to detect the shake during your mid-air jump attempt. And with a game that’s already as challenging as DKCR, the last thing we need is the obstacle of cumbersome controls. I welcome challenge in a game, but it should be the result of clever game design, not poor control choices. Imprecision and Donkey Kong Country just don’t mix. Furthermore, from what I understand, the Time Attack mode all but requires that you constantly roll throughout the levels to increase your speed if you hope to stand a chance at a gold medal, ensuring you’ll be spending several minutes straight waving your controller up and down like a madman. If it tells you anything, I’ve never used the Homebrew Channel on my Wii but am now looking into it because I read about a way to use Gecko codes to reassign rolling to the B button. I am saddened that I feel forced to resort to such extreme measures just to get the tight, accurate and responsive customized controls that should’ve been an option in the first place. Please, Nintendo… I’m begging you. In the event that you ever read this: Smash Bros. Brawl was the gold standard in flexible control schemes. Don’t make us go backwards! I’m all for utilizing the capabilities of the remote and nunchuk when it makes sense, but this shake-to-roll concept feels so unnatural and awkward, and no game ever suffered by allowing us to control it just the way we wanted.

“How’s the multi-player mode? Are two apes better than one?”

I never really spent much time with the multi-player modes of the original DKC games, and after giving it a spin for a few levels in DKCR, I imagine that tradition will continue. This is the first game where two players can play a level simultaneously in co-op, which actually sounds pretty fun in theory. Also, unlike New Super Mario Bros. Wii, you cannot run into your friend and therefore will not be inadvertently (or intentionally, as the case may be) causing their untimely demise by running into them, nor will their death create a distracting “hiccup” or interrupt the other person’s gameplay. However, just a few levels in I already noticed some problems. First of all, DK will never be able to use Diddy’s jet pack to hover anymore, which automatically makes the game harder for player 1 than if you were just playing by yourself. Second, there are many situations where only player 1 will have control of the on-screen action, such as mine cart levels, barrel blast levels, and while riding Rambi. During those times, player 2 will just kinda have to sit there and be bored. Also, while playing with friends I found that it was very common for one person to lag behind and have a hard time catching up. The game does automatically advance player 2 to player 1’s position if they’re off-screen long enough, but it happened so frequently that it felt like more of a hindrance than a help to constantly have to wait for player 2 to catch up. But it all depends on how you play – this could just be an opportunity for someone who isn’t a huge gamer to participate without taking a leading role, much in the same way that Super Mario Galaxy allowed a second player to assist with Star Bit collecting and bashing enemies with the pointer.

“So what’s the verdict? Pros/Cons? Buy/Don’t buy? Is DK still the thrilla gorilla? Is it cool for me to say that?”
– Classic, enjoyable DKC gameplay is satisfying and fun
– Nostalgic treats abound for veteran gamers with retro tunes and the return of fan favorites such as Rambi
– The collectible KONG letters, jigsaw pieces, Time Attack medals and extra levels will keep you busy long after you’ve beaten the main game
– Brand new co-op multi-player mode and Time Attack mode
– Far and away the prettiest sidescrolling adventure in recent memory
– Choose between the horizontal Wii remote play style, or remote + nunchuk style

– The shake-to-roll control scheme is severely limiting and frustrating at times
– Numerous levels may claim upwards of 20 lives before you either beat the level or beat your Wii into a fine powder
– The graphics and soundtrack might not live up to the euphoric dazzling glory of the original DKC games
– Can’t swap between DK and Diddy in single player, even though you can play as them separately in multi-player
– I miss Expresso; he was hella fast, and Rambi only runs that fast if I constantly swing my remote around like a baboon

Verdict: BUY. This game belongs in your Wii collection. Like most games, it has its flaws, but those are safely outweighed by the high quality gorilla warfare gameplay.
Is it cool for me to say “thrilla gorilla”: Probably not.

Will you be picking up Donkey Kong Country Returns? Are you going for all the KONG letters, jigsaws, and medals? Where do you stand in Wagglegate 2010? Let us know in the comments!

Web developer living in Olympia, WA.