I am a tremendous fan of the original three Donkey Kong Country games on the Super Nintendo. I spent dozens, if not hundreds, of hours playing those games over and over again. I loved the art style, the variety of stages, the tightness of the platforming, and the timeless music. When it was announced that another Donkey Kong Country game was being made, I was ecstatic. Retro being the studio to craft this new adventure was even more exciting. Unfortunately, it took me until recently to finally get to play it, due to not owning a Wii to play it on. When I picked up a Wii U, this was one of the first things I bought–and I had a blast with it. While I’m not a fan of a few of the design decisions made by Retro, Donkey Kong Country Returns is still a great blast from the past for fans of the series.
There is a story reason to encourage you through the eight worlds of Donkey Kong Country Returns, but it doesn’t really matter. All you need to know is that Donkey Kong has had his bananas stolen again, and you have to get them back. The structure of the game is pretty identical to the SNES classics: each world is broken up into several stages, ending with a boss stage. Branching paths on the world map can be accessed with keys bought from Cranky’s store, but this isn’t necessary unless you are a completionist. After finishing the game, players have the option to collect the KONG letters from every stage in a world to open a secret level containing an orb. Collecting all these orbs opens a final world to conquer (which I didn’t actually do as of this review’s writing). If you’ve played any 2D platformers in the past, you know how this works.
Similarly, the gameplay itself is also quite similar. Donkey Kong can jump on baddies heads and roll through them just like always. The biggest change is that you no longer control Diddy Kong (or whoever the other Kong is in later games) as a separate character; instead, having Diddy Kong around just extends the life bar of the player and adds a hover to the jump, courtesy of Diddy’s jetpack. Each Kong gets two hits before croaking, double of what the original games granted. You will always want to have him around for the simplicity he brings to several of the game’s platforming sections and the extra hits you can take. Donkey Kong himself also has a few new moves–a blowing move and a ground smash. Unfortunately, both of these moves MUST be triggered with the motion control of the Wii. Even worse is that his trademark roll also requires a shake to trigger. This meant that I barely used the roll because of how unreliably it would often be. I really would have liked at least an option to forego the motion controls. Other than that, it plays just like I remember it from when I was a kid.
Another issue I had was that Donkey Kong Country Returns is quite unforgiving. I would try and say that the original trilogy on the SNES was a cakewalk, but the difficulty always felt fair to me. If I ate it on a section, I was just playing really poorly. That still applies in Returns for the most part, but the mine cart and new rocket levels (which are touchy to control, in addition–think Lunar Lander’s thrust controls) are rough. Touching anything will immediately kill the player, regardless of health. I don’t mind challenge, but it has to be a fair level of challenge. Having to perfectly memorize a stage to just pass it isn’t fun; a small margin of error should be allowed to keep things enjoyable. I don’t feel like these stages keep with the spirit of the older games in the series.
Donkey Kong Country Returns manages to look quite good for a non-HD game. Retro uses a bunch of color and stylistic choices in order to draw attention away from the fuzziness of the graphics, but it may bug you if you are easily annoyed by that sort of thing. Some of the stages, such as a pair of contrasted Limbo-esque (or Shank-esque) levels and some neat tricks with foreground and background switching. My only disappointment, and this is a bit of a nag, is that there aren’t any underwater or ice stages, some of my favorite from earlier games in the series.
The original Donkey Kong Country soundtrack is probably one of my favorite SNES soundtracks ever. Each track is amazingly unique, and I love every single one of them. I feel Retro did a great job of using the base melodies of those tracks but also managed to infuse of bit of their own style into them. Several tracks from the original game made it into Returns, usually remixed to fit better in the modern game. I loved hearing all the superb music that I remember so well, and all the remixed versions are excellent. I didn’t even mind the few new tracks that popped up here and there. Again, it would have been nice to have the ice and water stages, just so I could have heard that music as well.
I’m so glad I finally got to play Donkey Kong Country Returns after missing out on it originally; I’m even more glad that it turned out so damn well. Most newer games that try to recapture what made the original great crash and burn so horribly that they sour me on the original game I loved. Retro managed to avoid this fate and make a new DKC game that I am perfectly willing to consider part of the family. The motion controls and rough difficulty spikes may not make it as enjoyable as it could have been, but the rest of the package shines so brightly that I can’t help but enjoy it. Anyone who loved the original DKC games should definitely give this game a go.