Many games are improved with a second player by your side, but Donkey Kong Country Returns is not one of them. When difficulty is a factor, cooperative gaming fundamentally alters a gaming experience and not always for the better.
Seventeen years after Donkey Kong swung through the trees and into our hearts in Donkey Kong Country, the lovable ape and Diddy, his similarly simian sidekick, have indeed returned. Donkey Kong Country Returns brings back the Nintendo icons replete with the colorful textures and joyful score, recreating the charm DK’s and Diddy’s first jovial romp. PopMatters own Arun Subramanian reviewed DKCR, giving it a well deserved eight out of ten. Notably absent from Subramanian’s review, however, is mention of DKCR’s two-player mode, in which one player controls DK while the other flits about as Diddy.
I absolutely adore most attempts at couch co-op. Many games are improved with a second player by your side, but Donkey Kong Country Returns is not one of them. When difficulty is a factor, cooperative gaming fundamentally alters a gaming experience and not always for the better.
The single-player campaign of DKCR is unapologetically demanding. As Subramanian states: “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", PopMatters, 14 January 2011).
When playing alone, Donkey Kong can free Diddy and gain his assistance by finding and destroying DK barrels. Having Diddy along for the ride, perched atop DK’s back, allows players to temporarily sustain air time by using Diddy’s jetpack. Diddy also adds two hearts to the player’s total, representing Diddy’s personal life meter. Besides the two very helpful additions increasing the gorilla’s survivability, the game plays essentially the same. Both characters can roll, slam the ground, and make all the same mistakes.
When two players occupy the screen, each character becomes less than the sum of their parts. There are additions meant to ease play. The second player can still mount DK, allowing Diddy to shoot his peanut gun while giving the first player the ability to hover with the jetpack. It also helps to have an extra set of hands to snag puzzle pieces, combo into enemies, and snatch up stray banana coins. Unfortunately, Diddy and Kong each have only two hearts and share cumulative lives, decreasing their survivability while doubling the opportunities to die and earn yourself a game over.
Cooperative DKCR is nearly an entirely different and disheartening experience. A misfired barrel could hurl both players to their doom, and there are a lot of them. All the levels in the Cave world are on rails, literally, forcing both players into a single cart that either person can control. At these points, two players are essentially playing a single player game while putting two lives at risk. When two players are separate, the screen size is small enough to create some perilous blind jumps and mad dashes that will leave a slow monkey behind. The game’s difficulty ratchets up steeply, turning simple challenges into arduous tasks that could strain an otherwise healthy cooperative relationship.
Unsurprisingly, DKCR’s multiplayer is very similar to Nintendo’s other multiplayer platforming gem, New Super Mario Bros.. The game’s collision detection, causing players to knock each other off platforms and ledges, becomes incredibly infuriating in later levels, particulary those with automatic scrolling. DKCR does not have collision detection, likely to avoid inciting violence from frustrated players. However, it also lacks Mario‘s “bubbling” mechanic, which allows less skilled players to save their lives before facing certain doom.
During high difficulty spikes, both of Nintendo’s platformers fail as multiplayer experiences. Mario minimizes the suffering at least by allowing players to essentially “opt out” without sacrificing a life. Even when a player does die, the loss comes from their personal supply of 1ups, unlike the communally shared balloons of DKCR. Although NSMB multiplayer is far from perfect, DKCR takes a giant step backwards in developing entertaining maps for both single player and multiplayer gaming.
Interestingly, the far younger Media Molecule surpasses Nintendo in this regard. LittleBigPlanet (and its just released sequel) offer some truly difficult platforming. Tackling troublesome levels with two players does not make the level too easy. Timing still requires precision and the game’s collision detection can still pose a problem. Frequent checkpoints get sackboys back into the fray pretty quickly and the grab mechanic allows players to save each other’s lives after leaps of faith. Gesturing even allows players online to practice rudimentary communication and exchange admittedly basic strategy.
None of this is to say that Donkey Kong Country Returns (or New Super Mario Bros., for that matter) is not a fun game. On the contrary, its challenges are refreshing. Visiting Donkey Kong Country is a jovial experience, it’s just a trip best spent alone. As a result, I have serious doubts about the compatibility between cooperative play and “old school” platformers. We still have many leaps and jumps to make before hopping around with another player feels appropriate, even in the most familiar platforming franchises.