The big ape is back and looking pretty good in Nintendo's new take on a beloved franchise.
Donkey Kong Country was a must-have for the Super Nintendo because of its gorgeous graphics, thumb-breaking platforming, and OCD-inducing collectibles. Nintendo is channeling the spirit of that franchise with Donkey Kong Country Returns, due out for the Wii on November 21.
I was a huge Donkey Kong Country fan, so I was a bit concerned that the Wii-ification of the franchise would mean a bunch of ridiculous waggling. This is the company that had you smacking congas to get DK to move, after all. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that while there is a bit of waggle, for the most part it makes sense and even feels reminiscent of the original controls. DKC Returns uses the Remote/Nunchuk configuration, using the thumbstick to steer and A button to jump. Shaking both controllers makes DK pound the ground, which can break blocks of stone or, in the level I played, spin a giant screw into the ground. Shaking the remote while you're moving left or right will send DK into a roll, which can not only defeat enemies but also help him cross short gaps - very handy when you're trying to snag a tile or puzzle piece that seems just out of reach. The controls were nicely responsive, which is vital to a game that requires such precise platforming.
In the single player version of the game, Diddy rides around on DK's back, providing him with two extra hit points of health and also giving him a boost from his jet pack. I wouldn't think a jet pack would be a wise idea for someone covered in fur, but the extra time in the air definitely has its uses. Get hit twice and Diddy leaves you, but you can pick him up again by finding a barrel emblazoned with "DK" and breaking it open. In co-op mode, Player 2 is free to ride around on DK's shoulders or venture off on his own, as he sees fit. He can still use the jet pack, and he also has access to a long-range gun that can clear a path as DK runs along. It's not very powerful, but every little bit helps.
The plat forming is classic DKC, and even the environments will feel familiar to fans of the original game. I didn't encounter King K-Rool or any of his minions, but the new enemies I found - very angry birds and drums - were just formidable enough to add challenge without feeling cheap or aggravating. The action was 2D, though at times DK could move into the screen - via exploding barrel, of course - to another section of platforms. There were loads of collectibles, too: the expected balloons, bananas, and K-O-N-G tiles, but there are puzzle pieces and dandelions, too. I have no idea what they all get you - and the Nintendo rep wouldn't say - but if Returns follows traditional form, they'll rack up your Extra Lives tally.
The boss fight I tried was also very nicely old school. An enormous hypnotized toad (insert joke here) hopped back and forth at me (and swallowed me a few times, ew); jumping on his back when his spikes weren't extended was the way to take him out.
So far, so good. Donkey Kong Country Returns seems to be blending the old school play of its predecessors with the modern controls of the Wii very nicely. Can't wait to play more when it comes out next month.