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There was a time when Rare and Nintendo were a formidable team. Nintendo’s titles were generally never to be missed, but Rare’s games of that time were equally legendary in their own right. Throughout the troubled times of the N64 era when third-party support took a nosedive for Nintendo’s system, the first-party developer and their brilliant apprentice churned out enough golden titles to convince skeptical hardcore audiences to pick up a console. Their contributions to our gaming libraries were infrequent but always solid, leveraging a sort of inspiration—and elaborate, unforgiving gameplay design—that was… well, quite rare.
It’s that sort of developmental synergy—a tangible yet unquantifiable presence that imbues the very best projects with their characteristic glow of polish and poise—that defines a classic. And amazingly, that sense of collaborative genius is precisely what Retro has captured in their very first non-Metroid title ever.
“Returns” = “Evolved”
1994’s Donkey Kong Country could arguably attribute a large part of its success to its presentation. While its gameplay and challenge were nothing to discount, it was its fluid animation, beautiful art style, rich personality, and David Wise’s first-rate soundtrack that drew the attention of most gamers at that time. Nevertheless, it was popular, and the pervasive nostalgia that surrounds its legacy is something that has managed to earn it a spot in history alongside other classics of its time.
Ridiculously complex and beautiful environments; the Retro way.
From the first musical note you hear (the start of a remixed Donkey Kong Country opening theme), you will recognize Retro’s loyalty to the Rare original. And if you’re like me, it might mislead you into thinking that nostalgia is the backbone of this game’s success strategy. Surprisingly, while references are diplomatically applied in the form of seasoning (including music, environments, characters, and gameplay ideas frequently lifted from the original), Donkey Kong Country Returns’ recipe is wholeheartedly entertaining and expertly-tuned with or without those elements—and that’s where its success lies.
Donkey and Diddy Kong are once again the stars, and their fundamental movesets haven’t been drastically altered. In its simplest form, DKCR finds us running, jumping, and blasting our way through jungles, forests, caves, ruins, and other familiar environments in an effort to retrieve DK’s stolen cache of bananas (this time thanks to the misdeeds of some funky anthropomorphic musical instruments who have a penchant for hypnosis). There is a hub map of the island, illustrating each of the game’s eight worlds and its corresponding levels in similar fashion to the original game. Progression is mostly linear, but like in New Super Mario Bros. Wii, branching paths and hidden levels are also part of the plan.
Tidal waves are one of many threats you will face in ape form.
You can choose to play by way of Wii remote and nunchuk or simply sideways Wii remote—whichever suits you best (I always prefer the sideways Wii remote myself). The controls are straightforward enough, but there are a few differences. The most significant of them all is the fact that Donkey and Diddy no longer tag-team the action; instead, while Diddy is present, he rides on Donkey’s back, providing his new jetpack ability (which allows you to hover momentarily) until he’s lost. Speaking of which, both Donkey and Diddy now have two hearts apiece—which you might think would make the game easier, but I don’t think I’d worry too much about that (more later).
Apart from the basics, ground pounding and the roll maneuver are mapped to a quick shake of the controller—one of the only mishaps with regard to the design, as it just doesn’t feel as precise as button presses (a Classic Controller option would have been welcomed). You can also blow by ducking and shaking, influencing such environmental items as candle flames and dandelion sprouts. Via careful inspection of your environments for fake walls, hidden barrels, and breakable containers, you’ll find a wealth of hidden collectibles: spendable coins, puzzle pieces, K-O-N-G letters, and (of course) the ubiquitous bonus rounds, which now must be completed to collect a puzzle piece.
Inspired level design
But the levels themselves are entertaining enough even without any extraneous collectibles. In fact, this is the game’s greatest strength: its never-ending barrage of beautifully-animated, endlessly-inspired environments, and the winding, creative paths that you carve through them along the way (supplemented an invariably smooth 60 frames per second action). Although the game is wholly two-dimensional, you’ll frequently blast into the background, breaking holes into the hulls of attacking pirate ships (which fire ballistic cannonballs at you), traversing alternate planes in the caves (sometimes atop a mine cart), and just generally interacting with your surroundings in completely unexpected ways.
Stunning art direction.
Every level is chocked full of this sort of action, lined with organic, interactive elements. Retro’s outrageous attention to detail (which you’ll recall from Metroid Prime’s environments, teeming with gears and other mechanical nonsense) is alive and well in DKCR’s two-dimensional world—meaning that no two areas look the same, and nearly everything with which you interact animates with the greatest of care. Ledges in the ruins rise and fall with the help of counterweights, wheels turn to pull ropes and open the way forward… many of the background spectacles are actually part of the gameplay, meticulously worked into the flow of the action. And even those items which serve no purpose still often manage to shake and bounce when DK pounds his fists. It’s a stunning display that truly never grows old.
The mechanics are constantly refreshed as well. Many levels share ideas with previous ones, but with such applied variation that it never stales. Much like Nintendo’s other recent triumphs in platforming gameplay (Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Super Mario Galaxy 2), DKCR is a continuous parade of new ideas, overflowing with personality and creativity at every turn. In one level, you’ll be riding a Rhino (a la classic DKC), breaking down idols and platforms and stomping across rows of spikes furiously while everything around you crumbles. Then, before you know it, you’re riding a rocket barrel through a Battletoads-inspired side-scrolling one-hit-kills obstacle course, chasing a mole train in cramped cave passages. There are endless trials of vines, flames, climbable cliffs, barrels, and spikes.
One early stage called Sunset Shore features a reddish-orange horizon decorated by the silhouettes of lighthouses and birds and the foreground subjects: ledges, enemies, and our simian pals (only DK’s tie and Diddy’s hat are still their original color). It’s beautifully minimalist in that Limbo sort of way. In the background, a series of rocks protruding from the water combine to form a gigantic illusionary banana figure as the level scrolls by. At the press of a switch, the sun swells to a blistering giant, eliminating blocks beneath our heroes and opening the way forward.
In another level, tidal waves approach from the backdrop, threatening to wash away the apes in a single sweep. Their only shelter is in the form of rocks along the way, some of which crumble violently after the waves reach them, washing them away.
It couldn’t be more evident that the development team had a blast creating the game. It’s a labor of love, brimming with heart and soul which can’t be manufactured by way of budgets and focus groups.
Efficient mining track design; undoubtedly the work of the government.
Life’s little challenges
Much conversation has taken place regarding DKCR’s challenge. Is it too much? Likewise, many still wonder if it’s enough.
Platforming veterans will likely scoff at the idea of most any modern “challenge” short of Super Meat Boy, but rest assured, my hardcore brethren, that DKCR provides. It’s rarely overly frustrating, and never unmanageable, but that isn’t due to a lack of challenge; rather, it’s the fairness of the design and the competence of the gameplay which leads to this conclusion. It also means that no matter how difficult, you’re likely to persist—much like those older games we all know and love (including the original DKC).
As for those of you who are concerned that it might be too difficult (as some have testified)—quite simply, it’s not. Yes, it’s tough, but the game never requires you to punish yourself beyond a reasonable extent. The widely-popularized Super Guide system from New Super Mario Bros. Wii is back again, and it’s wisely implemented. Should you happen to get stuck and just wish to bypass a particular level, you have that option after a certain number of deaths—but at the expense of any items which may be collected during the course of the level. As before, this means that the more casual or less skilled crowd can still enjoy the bulk of the adventure, but that completionists still must work to earn their prize.
Likewise, the coins you collect throughout your adventure (in generous amounts) can be used to purchase supplemental items at Cranky’s shop which last for a single level, or simply additional extra lives. Checkpointing throughout the game’s levels is relatively frequent and sensibly managed as well. It’s a very fair game, and anyone who calls themself a gamer is not likely to be upset about the implementation of the challenges within. The folks at Retro ought to be applauded—not rebuked—for successfully producing a game which is not afraid to challenge the player, while still providing options for those who can’t quite make the grade. In the mainstream, these big-budget, 2-D, challenging AAA titles are fewer in number than ever before, and it’s wonderful to see Nintendo heading back in that direction.
(Above: a video clip from one of the game’s secret “Golden Temple” levels, of which there is one per world. This particular one is from the first world in the game. It’s brutal!)
Friends and enemies
One aspect of the original DKC which wasn’t so strong was the bosses: they were boring, tedious, and mostly uninventive. Fortunately, the boss battles have been given a complete overhaul in DKCR, and now, they’re all completely unique—and sometimes very creative, too. There are a number of “traditional” boss battles (all with sufficient variation), but equally many completely wacky ideas as well. For instance, one battle lands you on a mine cart filled with bananas, chasing the rest of the train of carts and avoiding pickaxes tossed at you by malicious moles on the train. As you eventually approach and board the train, your battle transitions into a twisted version of whack-a-mole where delaying will get you killed by an oncoming drill engine behind you on the tracks. It’s exciting and completely unlike anything else in the game (much like many of the challenges).
Two can play as well, once again in similar fashion to New Super Mario Bros. Wii. When a character dies, he can choose to rejoin the action if additional lives are available. When he reappears, it’s in the form of a DK barrel floating toward the other character, who must then free him (or, alternatively, you can always just wait for the next DK barrel and revive them without using a life). As a separate entity, Diddy deprives Donkey of his jetpack (keeping it instead for himself) and carries a peanut gun. Co-op gameplay is a lot of fun, and benefitted also by the option of having Diddy hop onto DK’s back at any time to bypass sections of gameplay which might be too difficult for multiple players to simultaneously complete.