Donkey Kong Country Returns

[13 January 2011]

By Arun Subramanian

Donkey Kong, Nintendo’s iconic ape, was originally a villain, and he occupies a strange space in Nintendo’s cast of bad guys.  As Mario’s first antagonist, Donkey Kong wasn’t designed to be a particularly likeable character.  Rather, he was just a big animal that tried to kidnap a girl.  In Donkey Kong Jr., Mario served as Donkey Kong’s captor, and the titular protagonist tried to free him, but it would be difficult to say that either Mario or Donkey Kong served as the villain.   What sets Donkey Kong apart from other Nintendo baddies are his motivations.  Bowser’s role as a villain stems from his desire to conquer an entire kingdom.  Wario’s is born of enormous greed. Donkey Kong started out as a bad guy simply because he gives into raw, primitive instincts.  In other words, he behaves like a gorilla.

Nintendo does a good job, however, of making their villains likeable on the basis of their oversized personality traits—if not humanizing them, then at least making them adorable comic foils.  Indeed, it is exactly his base urges that turned Kong into a hero in Donkey Kong Country, his first foray into legitimate protagonist territory. He wasn’t attempting to save a princess, much less an entire kingdom. But as his stash of food was stolen, he would do anything to get it back.

Released in 1994, Donkey Kong Country seemed an effort to prove that the 16-bit SNES could compete with the up and coming 32-bit systems.  Indeed, Rare turned many heads with their groundbreaking graphics technique that used sprites originally modeled in full 3D. Donkey Kong Country was a bona fide hit and spawned two well regarded sequels.

Retro Studios made its name with Metroid Prime, an unheralded studio entrusted with reinventing one of Nintendo’s core properties. Indeed, with the entire Metroid Prime trilogy, Retro demonstrated its ability to work hand in hand with Nintendo as its “go to” second party developer, a role left vacant with the departure of Rare.  It seems fitting, then, that after thoroughly exploring the Metroid universe in the Prime trilogy and with the Metroid reins (most recently at least_ in the capable hands of Team Ninja, Retro should be tasked with revisiting the Donkey Kong Country trilogy made famous by Rare so long ago.

Unlike their approach on Metroid Prime, Retro chose not to introduce a new presentational style to Donkey Kong Country Returns.  Like its predecessors, this is a solid, old-school platformer through and through.  DKCR is legitimately difficult, noticeably more so than New Super Mario Bros Wii, and later levels will absolutely test even the most seasoned platforming veterans, particularly if 100 percent completion is a goal.

Donkey Kong Country Returns is chock full of secrets from puzzle pieces to the familiar “K”, “O”, “N”, and “G” letters, and finding all these items is no easy task.  In terms of presentation, the title impresses both visually and aurally.  Returns doesn’t have the same jawdropping effect that Donkey Kong Country did in its day, but it is able to take advantage of vastly improved hardware to present an all around great looking game.  The soundtrack of Donkey Kong Country remains fairly iconic, and Returns does a fantastic job of evoking the original.

However, DKCR contains both positive and negative changes from previous entries in the series.  Likely in an effort to make the aforementioned difficulty more palatable, Retro has introduced both health bars and checkpoints to the series.  These additions are welcome, as they make the game far less frustrating than it might otherwise be.  However, the removal of Diddy Kong as a playable character in single player is unfortunate.  While Diddy maintains a presence in the game as a mechanism for Donkey Kong’s hover jump, it would have been much more satisfying to be able to play as him either in levels specifically designed for Diddy or via the ability to freely switch between the characters.

The other problem with the game is the controls, and it may be a deal breaker for some.  While both sideways Wiimote and nunchuck controls are supported, motion controls are required for some of Donkey Kong’s moves, and no matter how you slice it, pulling these moves off in the context of a demanding platformer is awkward at best. Indeed there are instances where it’s downright infuriating.  The lack of support for either the classic and Gamecube controllers is extraordinarily puzzling, and I sincerely hope a sequel (should it appear) makes those options available.

Overall, though, it’s impossible to deny the care that went into creating Donkey Kong Country Returns and the overall level of quality of the final product.  This is just a fun, great looking game with hardcore and crossover appeal.  I don’t feel the criticisms I have of it are nitpicky, but they certainly do not detract from the overall experience.  Donkey Kong Country Returns is highly recommended for fans of the original series and newcomers to Donkey Kong platformers alike.  This is a true sequel and a worthy update to bring the Donkey Kong Country franchise to the current console generation.

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