Saturday, 13 August 2011

REVIEW: Donkey Kong Country Returns

Donkey Kong Country Returns
[Wii] [Retro Studios]
Today I'll be reviewing one of last year's greatest hits on the Wii - An amazing platformer that I shockingly missed out on when it was released many, many moons ago. A classic game that I finally picked up (or borrowed off my friend, rather) about a month ago, and what is quite possibly one of the greatest games on the Wii and of its genre. I'm talking of course, about Super Mario Ga... Wait, Donkey Kong Country Returns! Phew, that was a close one. Anyway, I'm pretty ashamed to admit that I didn't even get this game when I should have back when it was released late 2010, because it's one brilliant title that any Wii owner shouldn't miss out on. Donkey Kong's fantastic return was revealed back at Nintendo's E3 2010 conference just over a year ago as a part of the biggest name in gaming's stunning range of retro revivals, which also included GoldenEye's Wii iteration and Kirby's Epic Yarn among many others. Of course, out of all the revived Nintendo heroes that came out of last year's big E3 conference, Donkey Kong was one that hadn't been in the glorious spotlight for quite a long amount of time. Sure, we've seen plenty of re-released DK classics over the past few years and we've also seen a number of spin-offs, yet the big ape just hasn't starred in a truly excellent game since Donkey Kong 64 and the original Donkey Kong Country trilogy on the SNES. Thanks to one of Nintendo's number one developers however, Donkey Kong Country made a spectacular 'Return' on Wii last year and the game still stands as one of the very best titles you can pick up on the platform, and I really can't see that statement changing anytime soon.

Retro Studios, the same lovely folks who developed the epic Metroid Prime trilogy and are currently working on Mario Kart 7 for 3DS took charge of the Donkey Kong Country Returns project. It wasn't long before E3 2010 where the game was first revealed to the shock of hundreds of gamers when Retro stated that Nintendo asked them to work on a new Donkey Kong title. Well, all I can say is it seems that the big N picked the perfect developer to work on the hairy ape's retro revival. They don't call them 'Retro' Studios for nothing, you know - These guys did revive the potentially dead Metroid franchise with Prime, of course. As I mentioned, Donkey Kong hadn't really seen a true full-on adventure since the original Donkey Kong Country trilogy which was developed by the now Microsoft-owned and long dead Rare for the SNES. This trilogy was received extremely well by fans back in the day, offering the first true experience that starred Donkey Kong as the main ape in a full-on platformer after doing very little other than trying to stop Mario by chucking barrels all over the place in his previous arcade games. Not only were these games critically acclaimed for their excellent platforming antics, but they were also some of the first games to make use of a polygon rendering technique that made sprites appear 3D, somewhat of a revolutionary breakthrough in graphics. Back then Donkey Kong Country was actually in some ways a revival for Nintendo's number one hairy ape, just as the Retro-developed Donkey Kong Country Returns is today. Returns borrows many ideas from the previous three titles, only with the addition of Retro Studios' charm and excellent game development skills mixed in which in fact make the Wii title the very best of the lot, in my opinion at least. Why is this you ask? Well, read on and I'll explain...

A load of stuff happens in the foreground and background to the extent where I reckon this was originally a 3DS game. Just some ridiculous speculation!
When you first start up Donkey Kong Country Returns you'll be treated to a full CGI animation which serves it's purpose as an opener to the game's slightly ridiculous plot. A meteor hits the Volcano located in the centre of DK Island, Donkey Kong and co's tropical home and the setting of the game. Suddenly, a bunch of Tiki guys burst out of the Volcano and steal Donkey Kong's gargantuan banana stash by using hypnotic powers on the animals of the island. When a Tiki dude reaches Donkey Kong's hut, he tries to hypnotise the big ape but unfortunately for the little wooden menace (here's my theory anyway) Donkey Kong is far too stupid to be hyponotised. I don't know. Anyway, after the protagonist's perpetrator gets battered to death and flung out of the ape's hut, Donkey and Diddy Kong set out to retrieve their stolen banana stash and take an awesome platforming trip around DK Island in the process. Of course, the plot doesn't really matter in this sort of game, it's all about the gameplay. Luckily, Donkey Kong Country Returns offers an awesome experience and then some thanks to Retro Studios. The basic premise of Donkey Kong Country Returns is similar to that of the 2D Mario platformers, which would mean you have to get from one side of a stage to another, taking down enemies and avoiding nasty falls and other traps along the way. What makes Donkey Kong Country Returns different however is the huge amount of collectibles that can be found in each stage, in a nod to the original trilogy. The KONG letters are four objects that are almost always in plain sight, but you'll need to take some tricky risks in order to reach them. The Puzzle Pieces however are always hidden away in secret areas and are very tricky to find. Find all of these collectibles and... Well, that would be telling. Let's just say if you're an OCD collectible maniac you'll love this game if only for this aspect. Other secrets and stuff can be unlocked throughout this adventure, such as secret levels, extra modes that mix things up a bit and loads of other stuff.

The Sunset Shore stage is beautiful and original, as are various other stages later on that make use of the same clever effects.
What sets Donkey Kong Country Returns aside from other 2D platformers is just how charming it is. Character and enemy models are beautifully designed and fluidly animated, and the great art style seen in each and every part of the game just leaks colour and originality. Where the art style really shines however is in the few levels where everything is a sillouette (see above) in the foreground moving around beneath a setting sun in the background. It's lovely, and it shows that you don't need fancy graphics to make a good looking game. The music is also superb, and is strangely similar to the Metroid Prime sountracks at times. Donkey Kong Country Returns' various compositions are made up of re-hashed mixes of classic tunes and some brand new tracks that are just as atmospheric and jazzy as all the old stuff. So far so good with the music and art design, but what about the actual gameplay? Quite frankly, Donkey Kong's Wii outing is one of the best modern platformers around. Unlike a certain New Super Mario Bros. Wii, DK's 2D revival doesn't make use of lazy tile-based levels and instead is built from the ground up, offering something brand new in almost every single level, much like what Super Mario Galaxy 2 did to 3D platformers in the same year. In some levels you'll be avoiding traps to the beat of the background music, and in others you'll avoiding nasty gunk that slows down movement when touched. It's safe to say that the game never really gets boring throughout its eight worlds. Each of the worlds located around DK Island takes place in a vastly different area; From DK's lush jungle home all the way through the likes of a crab-pirate infested beach and a mineshaft filled cave to a ridiculously mechanical factory and the extremely deadly Volcano world. This varied selection is another thing that makes DKCR so special.

There are a ton of easter eggs in Donkey Kong Country Returns. Just check out the tie on this statue - It's the same one that an ex-Donkey Kong Arcade record holder wore.
Oh, and speaking of extremely deadly stuff, Donkey Kong's Wii outing dishes out some very extreme difficulty from as early as the second world. Trust me, however skillful you are a 2D platformers, you will die an uncountable number of times throughout this game. If you want an idea of how hard this game really is, then imagine if age ratings were based on difficulty. If they were then this would have a much higher rating than the measly 3+ it has been given. In fact, the Australian age rating for this game is a freaking zero! That's certainly something I've never seen before... Not to say that Donkey Kong Country Returns is unfairly hard at all. In fact, every time you die will be because of your own faults - Because you shouldn't have jumped onto a fast moving platform at that point or because you should've blown the flames off an enemy before bouncing off it for example. And however hard this game is, it's still very accessible thanks to the various forms of help that are available to you. After completing a few levels in each world you'll unlock Cranky Kong's shop, home to DK's slightly bonkers pops. If you wish, you can buy various helpful items using the coins you've collected throughout your adventure here, such as an item that will boost the amount of hits it takes to take down the big ape or a potion that grants temporary invincibility from enemy attacks. And if you simply can't finish a level even with these beneficial items then the next step is to activate the Super Guide, which basically finishes a level for you. Naturally, gamers like myself would stray away from using this option but for more casual players it's certainly a welcome extra, and it helps make a potentially brutal game accessible to the sort of people you'll see on the disgusting Nintendo of Europe adverts. You get the idea.

The Mine Cart sections from the original titles return in DKCR and are somehow more brutal than ever.
Donkey Kong Country Returns overall is the perfect modern-day example of a 2D platformer. The environments are lush, the character and enemy designs (not to mention the brilliant bosses) are brimming with character and the gameplay is just super charming and awesome in general. The short set-pieces in levels where you blast through barrels and other antics make levels fresh and exciting, and the fact that each level isn't made up of recycled tiles like in most other platformers simply adds to the charm factor. While it doesn't take a massive amount of time to beat the game, you'll discover that when you reach the 100% mark you've actually got another 100% worth of gameplay in the form of the extra challenges in each level, such as the Time Trials and other stuff. With this in mind, Donkey Kong Country Returns offers a solid experience, one which many other modern 2D platformers fail to grasp (and yes, I've had a go at New Super Mario Bros. quite a lot in this review, but that doesn't mean I don't like it). Oh, and I found it very difficult to point out flaws in this review, but for good reason - There really isn't anything majorly wrong with this title. Sure, it's extremely difficult and that can get annoying but help is always on your side in the form of the Super Guide and Cranky Kong's Shop. And to be honest I think the game stretches it a bit in length - After you finish every level and collect everything you've still got to go through each one again in two other modes, which to be perfectly honest aren't all that fun. Apart from these two things however, I really couldn't find any issues with Donkey Kong's excellent revival. There's a lot of things I missed out on throughout this review for the sake of getting it posted quickly such as the co-op mode, so just buy the game and discover the joys of it yourself or with a friend. Until next time, I'm out!



Anonymous said...

"offering something brand new in almost every single level, much like what Super Mario Galaxy 2 did to 3D platformers in the same year."

You say this but surely Donkey Kong Country Returns has nowhere near the level of creativity as the Mario Galaxy games (Or EAD Tokyo's Jungle Beat), with most of its ideas being rehashes from previous games in the series, with few new ideas of substance introduced throughout the entire game (the most significant one is probably the ability to move between a level's foreground and background, and even then that doesn't add anything to the gameplay, merely being a visual addition)?

Sure, it does add new concepts in every level, but that's just the Nintendo way of game design. Whether those new concepts are genuinely exciting and new/fresh is a different story, and compared with the likes of Mario Galaxy 2 and Super Meat Boy - both 2010 platfomers - Donkey Kong Country Returns is mostly reintroducing concepts, rather than introducing concepts. If that makes sense!

Anonymous said...

Hello again!

I forgot to add that I was somewhat missing the point with my post (I'm such a cynic) - the game's all about a retro revival for the series, especially from its title!

Though I still reckon it does the game no favours on the grand scheme of things - as while the DKC games offered solid, decent platforming in their day, they were no Mario World or Yoshi's Island, and if we look to 2010 where little of substance has changed with this Wii release - the game's enjoyable due to nostalgia for this type of solid 2D gameplay more than anything else, rather than said gameplay being outstanding.

After all, even Shigeru Miyamoto already expressed the following about Donkey Kong Country: “Donkey Kong Country proves that players will put up with mediocre gameplay as long as the art is good."

Noodle said...

I'm going to have to disagree. What I meant by it offering something new in each level is the concept of each level. For example, in one you'll be running away from deathly bugs that fill up the screen as you desperately dash away from them, in another you'll be manuvering through a maze that shifts around to the beat of the background music. And while I'd have to agree with the points in your second comment when it comes to the original trilogy, think of it this way: What would you rather have, New Super Mario Bros. Wii or Donkey Kong Country Returns? If you picked the former there's something seriously wrong with you, not that NSMBWii is a bad game. I found the gameplay in DKCR to be completely solid, the superb art style and retro charm just boosts how much you enjoy this stunning game.

Anonymous said...

Cheers for the reply, Noodle!

I got you there, what I meant was said concepts aren't up to the sorts of things you'd do in Yoshi's Island or Mario World. Still good, mind, but it does seem to lack the creativity of Jungle Beat, which was amazing.

And yes - New Super Mario Bros. Wii was a disappointment, as you said. At least with this title Nintendo haven't run the previous games' concepts to the ground before (NSMB was very self-referential to the point of feeling a bit tired, lacking variety too considering it ignored many of Mario World's gameplay elements), and old nostalgia always helps in this case!