Released relatively late in the Super Nintendo’s lifetime, the original Donkey Kong Country gave SNES owners something to brag about back in 1994. With its solid gameplay and what was revolutionary graphics back on the 16-BIT system, the game would go on to sell 8 million copies and was followed by two direct sequels for the SNES. Donkey Kong Country Returns is a return to the ideals of those original 16-BIT platformers, but is this Retro styled Ape in Prime Condition?
The most notable difference in Returns from the originals is the lack of any Kremlins or their leader King K. Rule. Instead, Returns introduces us to the Tiki Tak Tribe, who, for reasons I won’t spoil, have hypnotised the animal population in order to steal Donkey Kong’s horde of bananas. Immune to their hypnotic powers, Donkey Kong – accompanied by sidekick Diddy – sets off to recover what’s his and give those responsible a splitter headache.
As per Nintendo platformer tradition, Donkey Kong Country Returns is separated into eight “worlds”, each with several levels each, played through in a linear fashion before encountering a boss that you’ll need to beat in order to continue to the next world. Along the way you’ll locate puzzle pieces dotted around the map and letters that spell KONG, both of which, and especially the former, will become increasing well hidden as you progress through the game; forcing you to look at every possible nook and cranny to find them.
Completed levels can be challenged in time attack for gold, silver, or bronze medals, and going through and collecting all the bonus items unlocks art and music galleries for you to peruse at your leisure.
The game can either be control with the remote on its own, or in conjunction with the Nunchuks, while the majority of controls are processed through button presses, the act of rolling – which can be used as an attack as well as a speed boost – and smashing the ground with Kong’s fists have been assigned to the motion controls. While for the most part this works fine, when the remote takes longer than expected to response to your shaking it can lead to an untimely death. Certain surfaces, like moss or vines growing on walls and ceilings, can be grabbed, offering a different way of moving around levels.
Make no mistake though; Donkey Kong Country Returns has a definite mean streak in regards to its difficulty, with the game ramping up the challenge as soon as the third world, throughout the game you’ll rarely be standing on firm ground on a majority of the levels. And do not go and assume that the difficulty is cheap; the game relies on clever level layouts and enemy placement. To somewhat quell the difficulty, the game offers plenty of ways to grab extra lives – in the form of red balloons – and you can also purchase various helpful items from Cranky, from extra balloons, temporary power-ups that make you stronger as well as a key in each world that will unlock an alternate – generally trickier – route.
Breaking Diddy kong out of a barrel will give you some much welcomed help, DK’s sidekick offers his jet pack, which allows you to briefly hover for a fee fleeting seconds, you can continually roll whilst he is on your back, speeding you up significantly, lastly, having your monkey pal around grants you two additional hits before you’re back going it alone. Unlike the SNES original, you cannot swap between the characters on the fly, you are Donkey Kong through the entire game. That said a second player can join in the game and control Diddy but the game’s design doesn’t exactly encourage this.
Level variety is a strong point, and whilst it does goes through many of the tropes of the platforming genre, Returns is rather keen to never repeat itself enough to outstay its welcome throughout the eight-to-ten hours it takes to finish. The mine carts from the original games return, and they just as exciting and as frustrating as they were on the old SNES; and levels where you fly Rocket powered barrels through hazardous changing terrain with just the jump button while avoiding enemy attacks are just as infuriating, acting as fast paced fixed scrolling levels.
Levels feature such delights as vine swinging, free moving and tilting platforms, DK’s traditional transport barrels, and fan favourite Rambi the rhino also returns to lay waste to a handful of levels. Bosses are pattern based, but put up a worthy challenge of brains other brawn; bosses will often offer out hearts for successful attacks, meaning that you’ll generally always have at least a fighting chance with them. Many times levels will introduce you to specific dangers exclusive to that level, like one where you have to hide behind rocks to avoid being swept away by frequent tidal waves. The sheer variety of the level design and the challenge therein are highly impressive; the controls are spot on, and the game is a joy to play even after you’ve died for the umpteenth time in a row.
Designed both to invoke feelings of nostalgia in those that have played the original, as well as stand up to the standards of the system, Donkey Kong Country Returns looks very much like an updated version of the series would’ve looked like if the SNES was as powerful as the Wii. Smooth animation and cute characters loaded with personality and charm, and neat background touches like a Donkey Kong Jr. Math “statue” atop of a Mayan temple are they just to look cool. A handful of levels sport a marvellous silhouette style, in particular a level on the first world that’s set on a beach during a sunset that is absolutely stunning.
Despite being in 2D the game is not confined to one dimensional plane, Donkey Kong can find himself being sent to the background, interacting with the background elements via collisions. The landscape is always busy and always ready to show an amount of eye candy; which while sometime potentially distracting, provides a lot of incentive to see just what the artists at Retro Studios have cooked up in the next level and, indeed, the next world.
Like the visuals, the sound is also set on nostalgic, with re-mastered tunes that will be sure to make fans of the original trilogy – and its spin-offs – smile. Luckily the music is just as good as it was back in the day, provided the right mood for the games fast-paced levels, with the rocket barrel and mine cart levels alone assured to get the adrenaline pumping. Sound effects are as well based on the cartoony bops and suchlike that will be familiar to Nintendo aficionados matching the animated tone of the game perfectly.
It would be easy to dismiss Donkey Kong Country Returns as an attempt to cash in on nostalgia, but that would be to do the result a massive disservice. What we have is an altogether welcome return to Kong Country, and if you’re up to the challenge – or think that modern games are too soft – it is well worth the trip to this island to spend time with this prime ape.
original published on gamingtilldisconnected