Donkey Kong Country Returns Review

By Scott Alan Marriott - Posted Nov 29, 2010

Donkey Kong Country Returns is yet another solid platform title on Wii, with the biggest surprise being how close in spirit the game is to its 16-bit predecessors. Retaining the same precision-based platforming that made Super NES controller flinging an under appreciated art form, Donkey Kong Country Returns offers intense, visually arresting action with a few caveats.

The Pros
  • Vibrant visuals and foot-tapping music
  • Challenging, "old-school" platforming
  • Eight worlds and 70+ levels
The Cons
  • Motion controls seem forced
  • Underwhelming co-op play
  • Weak list of unlockable extras

Donkey Kong Country Returns Review:

Well, it's about time. After several years of silly spinoffs and playing second banana to Mario, Link, and Kirby, Donkey Kong finally gets to rumble in the jungle again in Donkey Kong Country Returns for the Wii.

The original Donkey Kong Country series helped establish Rare as one of the premier developers for Nintendo, so news that the publisher was planning a return to the franchise was as big as Cranky Kong's chip on his shoulder. Yet would a developer best known for transforming the Metroid series into a first-person shooter be able to deliver a traditional platform game known for its heady challenge, humorous characters and high-quality presentation?
 


 
Putting the "Retro" in Retro Studios

For the most part, yes. Retro Studios has delivered a gorgeous looking and great playing platform game that retains nearly everything that made the 16-bit series a hit on the Super NES. There are some notable changes and omissions, of course, but the "feel" has been lovingly captured by the Texas-based developer.

As in the earlier games, you'll select levels from an overhead map that will eventually encompass eight playable regions of the island, from a jungle and beach to a factory and volcano. To play a level, you simply move Donkey Kong to each available destination and tap a button.

You'll then advance to a colorful side-scrolling stage, where the primary objective is simply to reach an exit barrel by running, jumping, and climbing from left to right. No surprises there. As in the 16-bit games, you can collect letters to spell out K-O-N-G, grab balloons for extra lives, snag golden coins and puzzle pieces, and gather oodles of bananas, with the latter earning you an extra life for every 100 bunches.

Cranky's hut is also available in each world, with the old coot giving you a brief respite, some sarcastic advice, and an opportunity to spend your golden coins. You can purchase extra lives, a key to unlock a world's shortcut, a temporary heart to absorb one additional hit, and hints as to where hidden puzzle pieces are, courtesy of the parrot Squawks.

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Out With the Old...

The Kremlings and their overlord, K. Rool, are nowhere to be found in this game, because who can get behind the idea of crocodile-like creatures wanting to steal bananas? It makes no sense, does it? So, this time around the storyline involves a group of flying tribal masks that brainwash the animals and island inhabitants to steal, um, bananas, because, ahem, they are apparently deficient in potassium. O-kay. Don't worry, there are no overbearing cinematics, dialogue sequences, or annoying cut-scenes to distract you from the fast-paced hopping and bopping to variations of the original title's wonderfully infectious songs.

While the platforming action might not differ radically from the original games, there's a lot more going on in the levels. You'll notice quite a bit of activity going on in the background, which when combined with the action in the foreground, give the game the same sense of 3D as the first game's "advanced computer modeling" or rendered sprites.

Jump on a croaking frog, and it will deflate, sputter in the air, and slam toward the screen. Watch as a giant octopus in the distant waters flings its tentacles into the foreground, giving you added obstacles to jump over as you attempt to focus on the other dangers in your way. A pirate ship will launch cannon balls toward you, the tide will threaten to wash you away, and stone columns will come crashing forward, giving you a surface to jump on while crossing chasms.
 


 
Going Bananas

You can also discover secret areas filled with bananas and goodies, and interact with different parts of the scenery in various ways. You can bowl over groups of birds, grab and fling barrels, pound the ground near a cannon to have it fire, smack posts and crates, and much, much more.

One of the weaknesses in the original game was the zoomed-in visuals, which often meant you had to take leaps of faith while learning the level's ins-and-outs through trial and error. The camera here stays farther back than the 16-bit games, zooming when needed and pulling back seamlessly to make sure you always have the best view of the action. The other big change is the control scheme, which unfortunately uses the motion controls in a rather silly way.

Unlike Mario, who has crisp, tight movements and responds immediately when you tap the jump button, Donkey Kong has somewhat floaty jumps, the heights of which depend on how forcefully you press the button. Yet, it's the forced use of motion controls that is the most irritating design decision, which involve shaking the Wii remote vigorously while crouching to blow (to put out flames or to uncover secrets in plants or flowers), slap the ground like a kid having a tantrum, or to roll in a ball like Sonic or Samus.

At best, the motion controls are a minor inconvenience. At worst, they are needlessly distracting, since you have to briefly think about shaking the controller forcefully enough to complete an action instead of immediately reacting in a game where split-second timing is crucial. Alas, there's no option to disable the motion controls or to use the classic controller in place of the remote.
 


 
Do-Wah-Diddy

Another change involves the use of Diddy, who in the single-player game, is more of a power-up to Donkey Kong than a partner. Diddy grabs onto his uncle's back instead of following the big guy, but you cannot switch between characters as you could in the original series. Instead, Diddy grants Donkey Kong an extra two hits to absorb and a slight rocket-powered boost at the end of jumps -- something that can actually get you into trouble in certain stages when you need to land in a specific spot. After absorbing two hits, Diddy goes away and can only be acquired again by smashing on a specially marked crate, usually found after a checkpoint.

In another curious design decision, Diddy Kong is only playable as a co-op character in the two-player mode, which isn't nearly as fun as it should be. The second player often serves as a distraction in a game that emphasizes precise, quick movements to get through each area in one piece. Since lives are shared between characters, the second player can also quickly end the game if he or she isn't as skilled or as familiar with the levels -- so you can forget about helping little Johnny or Suzie. Sorry guys, you're on your own. There's no competitive mode or multiplayer-specific challenges available, so if you want a platform game to have fun with friends, New Super Mario Bros. is still the top choice on the system.
 


 
Jungle Love

It's not quite perfect, but Donkey Kong Country Returns is a great first effort by Retro Studios at re-establishing a beloved series. Each world offers new experiences, surprises, and challenges, which makes you excited to see what lies in store for the next level or boss encounter. Enemies are tough and varied, often requiring multiple hits and techniques to bring them down. And the constant activity going on in the scenery brings the island and characters to life, so much so that you won't mind revisiting stages to collect everything there is to collect.

If the developers could tighten up the controls, introduce more playable characters, revamp the multiplayer mode, and include more meaningful extras to unlock (outside of artwork or music), future adventures in Donkey Kong Country could easily be discussed in the same breath as a certain mustachioed plumber's famous exploits. For an often underutilized ape, that's something worth beating one's chest over.