Donkey Kong Country for the SNES was what my dad would refer to as a "big damn deal." It became an instant classic, with gorgeous visuals that pushed the limits of that platform's graphics and killer platforming that nearly broke the fingers of everyone who played it. Many things have changed in gaming since someone last tried to steal Donkey Kong's banana stash, but Donkey Kong Country Returns isn't one of them. It's still great looking, it's still hard enough to make you cry, and it's still fantastic.
Donkey Kong Country Returns isn't an actual remake of any of the other games in the series, but it certainly feels familiar. King K. Rool and his crew have been replaced with some crazy musical tikis that hypnotize the local wildlife, but other than that it's business as usual in the jungle. Bananas have been stolen (again), DK is annoyed (again), the thieves must be punished (again). A tiki and his musical minions pop out of a volcano, then force the local population to steal all the bananas in sight. The Kongs seem to be the only ones capable of resisting the tiki's hypnotic gaze, so it's up to them to set things right. A path winds through each section of the island, culminating at a showdown with that region's boss, an unfortunate creature that's actually been possessed by one of the evil tikis.
The game wisely sticks to the 2d platforming style that the previous games in the series perfected, rather than trying to revamp itself into something more modern, but makes ingenious use of it, shooting DK into the background or bringing enemies into the foreground. A giant octopus pulling down a ship on the horizon might suddenly surface to bar DK's way with tentacles, or a conveniently-placed barrel might shoot Donkey Kong to a Bonus Level hidden in the jungle canopy. Making your way through a 2d space is far more exciting when you need to be aware of what's happening in the background because you never know when it's going to try and kill you.
And kill you it will, with satisfying frequency. Donkey Kong Country Returns is unaware of the Wii's reputation as being a console for casual gamers, if its apparent desire to make you cry like a little girl is any indication. It is difficult, and you will fail levels many, many times before you ultimately best them, but DKCR is never unfair. You always know exactly what you have to do, if only you can make your fingers do it. The controls shouldn't be the problem; the Wii Remote is well implemented, and even though you'll be shaking the controller a lot, it never feels stupid or forced. Shaking to pound the ground, break rocks, or go into a roll feels completely natural and fluid and doesn't get in the way of the platforming.
Making it to the end of a level is only part of the challenge, of course - the real trick is to snag all of the collectibles along the way. In addition to his precious bananas, DK will also be trying to find the balloons, banana coins, puzzle pieces and K-O-N-G tiles stashed in every level. You can also use the banana coins to buy yourself some power-ups at Cranky Kong's shop, like extra lives, a key that will unlock a hidden path, or a parrot that will point out hidden puzzle pieces. You'll appreciate the help - Donkey Kong Country Returns has many, many secrets and it keeps them very well hidden.
The Wii isn't known for being a graphical powerhouse, but that doesn't stop Donkey Kong Country Returns from being a real beauty. As much as we joke about every game being cast in various shades of brown, you forget how true that is until you see a game that uses the entire Crayola box of 64. Yellow, green, purple, red, even more green, and of course, yellow - DKCR coats its challenging platforming in a thick coat of very cheerful paint. When it's not being charming, it's being unexpectedly lovely - one takes place at sunset, casting everything, including DK himself into silhouette. Even the enemies are so adorable that it's almost hard to get mad at them for killing you.
Donkey Kong can get a bit of help from his pal Diddy, who rides on DK's shoulders, carries a peanut popgun, and has a rocket barrel that can extends DK's airtime. If you'd like a pal to join you in your banana-retrieval efforts, you can play through the game co-operatively, with Diddy dropping in or out as desired. Having two monkeys jumping around is about as chaotic as it sounds, but can certainly make boss fights and item collection easier. Both players pull from the same pool of lives, though, so you may need to hit up Cranky's shop to stock up before tackling the really tricky levels.
Bottom Line: Donkey Kong Country Returns deftly blends the familiar with the new, creating a game that's just cute enough to keep you from throwing it out the window when you die for the umpteenth time. It's hard without being cheap, charming while remaining challenging.
Recommendation: It's a platform-lover's dream and the kind of game you buy a Wii for. Do whatever you've got to do to play it.
This review is based on the Wii version of the game.
Susan Arendt appreciates the happy pigs.
Game: Donkey Kong Country Returns
Developer: Retro Studios
Release Date: November 21st, 2010
Available from: Amazon