Back in the 80's, there were a few Donkey Kong arcade games - the first of which is most famous for introducing us to the most widely recognized video game character by far, Mario. However, the Donkey Kong franchise didn't see as much recognition by itself until the SNES era, when Rareware, a second-party company owned by Nintendo, created the Donkey Kong Country trilogy. Sporting then-revolutionary graphics, tons of secrets, fantastic level design, and an incredible difficulty level, these games would find their way into the hearts of many gamers. During the Nintendo 64 era, Rare would make one more Donkey Kong game called - wait for it - Donkey Kong 64, and it remains as the series' only foray into the third dimension, which is a bit unfortunate if I do say so myself.
In 2002, Nintendo would sell Rare to Microsoft, and, unfortunately, the Donkey Kong franchise would suffer a bit. While they were - from what I've heard, anyway, since I've played hardly any of them - pretty solid, most Donkey Kong games from that point onward were spinoffs. The only platformer to come out of the series during the GameCube era was Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat, and even that was a spinoff that you played with the barrel bongos (bongo drum controller originally made for Donkey Konga, which was...a rhythm game. Yes. A Donkey Kong rhythm game.)
Fast forward to 2010. 2-D platformers are seeing somewhat of a resurgance in popularity, which has prompted several series to produce games that see them return to their roots. Mega Man 9 and 10, Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I - probably the most recent game of its nature - and Nintendo's own New Super Mario Bros. series have all seen success, and the Rayman series will be receiving its own retro revival, Rayman Origins, later this year. Realizing that fans would probably like to have a proper Donkey Kong title, Nintendo got Retro Studios, famous for the amazing Metroid Prime trilogy, on the job to see if they could make an equally amazing Donkey Kong game in the style of the original DK trilogy, and that's just what they freaking did! What the Super Mario Galaxy series is to 3-D platforming, Donkey Kong Country Returns is to 2-D platforming. Yes, it is that good. Let's see why, shall we?
The story of Donkey Kong Country Returns is simple. A volcanic eruption has released tiki guys that are hypnotizing the animals of DK Island and, like King K. Rool before them, stealing Donkey Kong's bananas. Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong seem to be resistant to the tikis' hypnotism, so they set out on a quest to defeat the tikis and get their freaking bananas back.
Pretty much everything you loved about the original Donkey Kong Country trilogy is here. You run through a level, going from point A to point B, clearing enemies and obstacles in your way and collecting bananas and coins to spend at the in-game shop, and often you will have to use barrel-shaped cannons to cross gaps and other areas. Of course, this game is for the Wii, and Retro Studios couldn't pass up the opportunity to make use of the motion controls. Actions like slamming the ground, used to destroy some objects and find secrets, and doing a roll to go faster are now handled by shaking the Wii Remote. A lot of people seem to have a problem with this, but personally I think it works pretty well. Also, Donkey Kong can actually take two hits in this game rather than just one. MUCH appreciated, Retro.
Of course, Donkey Kong won't be alone in his adventure. Also returning from the classic games is Diddy Kong, DK's sidekick, and I love what they've done with him in this game. In the classics, if you weren't playing in co-op mode, Diddy was pretty much just an extra hit point. He was faster and lighter than Donkey Kong, but he wasn't as strong. In Returns, you can't control him in single player mode, but I doubt you'll miss this ability much. In addition to giving you two extra hit points, Diddy actually rides on Donkey Kong's back. He uses his jetpack from Donkey Kong 64 to add a hover to the end of a jump if you keep the jump button held down, making platforming a bit easier. He also allows you to roll continuously if you keep shaking the Wii Remote. This makes it faster to get around, and let's face it: it's just plain satisfying to plow through enemies while rolling. Rambi the Rhino also returns, and he's just as awesome as he was way back when. There are two other small but nice touches that Retro saw fit to add. If you bounce on several enemies in a row, the chain will give you coins and eventually an extra life. Also, at the end of every level, there is a barrel with a bonus roulette on it. If you can touch it when it's on the "DK" symbol, you will be able to punch the barrel by shaking the Wii Remote repeatedly, and how much of an item you get will depend on how many times you shook the Wii Remote. You get to do something similar every time you beat a boss. These things may be small, but I couldn't help but find them relentlessly entertaining.
But we haven't even gone into the main reasons why Donkey Kong Country Returns is such an amazing game. Let's start with the level design. Remember when I said that this was the Super Mario Galaxy 2 of 2-D platformers? Yeah, this is why. Level design in Donkey Kong Country Returns is simply amazing. Retro Studios has shown a lot of creativity in designing these levels, and there's a lot of diversity to be found here. Each level poses its own challenges, and all of the levels are extremely enjoyable to play. We even get to see the return of the beloved minecart from the first game, as well as a new type of level in which you actually have to maneuver a flying rocket barrel around obstacles. Boss design is fantastic as well; the bosses are creative, challenging and fun to fight.
Speaking of challenge, this game has tons of it. Donkey Kong Country Returns is an immensely difficult game, and if it weren't for Super Meat Boy, this could even be called the platformer equivalent of From Software's Demon's Souls. I've seen a few people say that this game is cheap or unfair, but this simply can't be true. Every time I died in Donkey Kong Country Returns, I felt like I had genuinely screwed up - and I died a lot. The game is also pretty generous with extra lives, so you won't have to worry too much about getting game overs unless you really suck, and if you get too frustrated, you can always use the ever-insulting Super Guide. I'll get you one day, pig...
Wave that flag one more time. I DARE you.
In true Donkey Kong fashion, there are tons of secrets and extra items hidden in the levels of Donkey Kong Country Returns. Varying amounts of puzzle pieces are hidden in each level, which you may have to get creative to find and sometimes you will have to complete a bonus level to get them. Also, returning from the classics are the four KONG letters in each level. In the classics, getting all four of these in a single level would net you an extra life. Here, though, getting all four from each level in a world will unlock that world's secret level...which are some of the hardest in the game. Completing all of those unlocks a ninth world with a single level, and if you beat that, you get the Banana Mirror. This lets you replay the levels in Mirror Mode. Not only does this reverse everything, but it reduces you down to one hit point and forbids you from using inventory items or Diddy Kong. So basically, your reward for getting 100% is pretty much that you get to play through the levels again except they're even more difficult. To be honest, I was a bit too scared to try this beyond the first world.
As for flaws, well...I really can't think of anything to complain about! I wouldn't necessarily say that Donkey Kong Country Returns is perfect, because if I tried I could probably think of a nitpick or two, but DKCR really is a game that comes ridiculously close.
I suppose it would be fitting to say that Retro Studios could very well shape up to be to Nintendo now what Rare was to them way back when. Donkey Kong Country Returns is a simply fantastic game and a joy to play throughout. The gameplay is as good as it ever was, the level design is fantastic, it's incredibly challenging...if you own a Wii, this game is an absolute must-have. Well, I'll see you all again soon. Farewell, friends.