Leaves rustle, woodland creatures run for cover, caverns in the background crumble to bits violently--the screen is pulsing with activity and life, and yet what I’m focused on is the big furry bullet bouncing around the stage. The ledges, cliffs platforms and even foes that make up the foreground obstacles are distinctly aligned to allow for a near-nonstop perfect run; the background may as well not even exist to me.
And yet within moments, I’m forced to pay attention; rocks from the background roll towards the screen, a pesky giant bat peeks from afar maliciously before making his attack, and in some cases, a barrel will blast me to the back of the screen entirely.
This is the nature of the beast that is Donkey Kong Country Returns. No longer bound by relatively simplistic pre-rendered assets, the series truly stretches its legs in the field of level design and ends up pushing the comfortable clichés of platforming to the breaking point. Yes, you’ll still play as Donkey Kong and his buddy Diddy through a series of 2-D levels centered on a large island, but Retro has taken the relatively basic framework that Rare has set up and run with it to achieve bold new ideas. While some gamers may miss the elements of the old games that didn't make the cut (namely water levels and the Kremlings), it's clear from the get-go that Retro wanted to make their own mark on the series instead of just basing it entirely on the SNES trilogy. It paid off, especially in the stage design, where every level works in multiple ways:-Exploration
: Each level has the familiar K-O-N-G letters to find (which now open up new stages instead of granting DK an extra life), as well as a number of Puzzle Pieces. These “jiggies” are either tucked away in hard-to-reach locales or granted as rewards for besting the hidden bonus stages, and there are 5-9 of them per level. Due to all the nooks and crannies of each stage, plus the generally sizable length, it can take five or more minutes to fully comb a level, not counting deaths (and even then it’s likely you’ve missed a Piece or two!).-Action
: There’s no shortage of it, really. Every level will offer something new and exciting that you can’t see anywhere else (similar to Mario’s three Wii outings). In fact, I’d say DKCR pushes its ideas to maximize their challenge potential, something I’d hesitate to say for even Mario’s latest. Indeed, the game is quite difficult (arguably moreso than the original trilogy) and doesn’t let up with the variety. Even so, it’s certainly manageable with moderate skills and the level design never feels unfair or cheap. I’ve heard people claim the contrary, and I just can’t agree; there may have been one or two levels total where something was a little iffy with the enemy placement, but for 99% of the game, you’re given time to react to everything.-Speed runs
: DKCR offers a Time Attack mode for those who want to tackle it. Beat the allotted times and you’ll get a Bronze, Silver, or Gold medal for your quickness. Go even faster and you’ll get a “Shiny” Gold medal, whose target times are always hidden for the level. What makes this more than just busywork is that the stages are centered around speed runs in ways that are actually quite brilliant. Enemies will be placed just so
, to the point where you can bop them to skip large, slow portions of stages and attempt some truly daring jumps. It’s remarkably clever for the most part (with a couple exceptions) and it’s one of the greatest features of the game. I finally got all the Shiny Gold medals earlier today and it was quite a fun accomplishment…and a lengthy one too, taking well over 20 hours by itself.
It’s rather amazing that Retro’s very first sidescroller gets so much right with the level design, but one area in which the gorilla can’t quite measure up to Mario is in the controls: they work well about 97% of the time, but there’s a weird issue with DK’s bounce mechanics while Diddy is on his back. If you press the jump button too early when trying to bounce off an enemy, you’ll active Diddy’s jetpack a split second before bouncing, and DK will hover there right above the enemy’s head. This will
happen to you, and it may cause death. More frustrating is working around this problem in the time trials, since the jetpack really kills your forward momentum when you use it while at top speed.
I will say, however, that the shake-to-roll technique works 100% of the time for me, and has prompted me to make an image
to clarify the new roll mechanics of the game. IF you use the nunchuck, it will always register your shake assuming you did it right. Less impressive is the shake-to-blow mechanic, which seems like a rather superfluous design decision since we already have the ground pound as a stop-and-explore type move (and it’s more fun to ground pound anyway since it can actually be used on the offensive, and everything shakes when you do it). Finally, while the motion controls work every bit as well as, say, Mario Galaxy’s, a Classic Controller option would have been good for the chumps who had more problems with “waggle” than you can shake a stick at. If you've had a rough time adjusting to the Wii's controls, you may find yourself wishing for CC support.
The Metroid Prime series is renowned for—among other things—its outstanding art direction; the worlds Samus explores are living, breathing environments with terrific, unique architecture for every area. The same goes for DKCR; even levels with similar themes have entirely different backgrounds built from scratch, some with nods to earlier or later levels (the first stage of every world), others for gameplay-related purposes (2-7: Tidal Terror), and still others simply to give the stage a great sense of scope and atmosphere (5-7: Longshot Launch). The silhouette stages are a rare and lovely treat, and the attention to detail
in every aspect of the game, including character animation
, makes Kong one of the finest-looking Wii games on my shelf. Some may miss the darker atmosphere of DKC2, which is understandable, but DKCR pulls in some pretty amazing locales on its own (visually, I was a big fan of world 5 in particular).
The sound doesn’t fare quite as well. It’s very remix-heavy, and while a number of these are well-done, several of them could’ve really benefitted from the Mario Galaxy orchestral treatment (notably the mine cart theme). I also would’ve liked to hear more original music in general, although some of the new songs are quite good (Sunset Shores, although sort of a remix in its own right, is done really well, as are the Rocket Barrel themes and the Tiki theme).
There’s really an enormous amount of content in this game. The number of stages is rather high, close to New Super Mario Bros Wii numbers and much more than any of the original DKC games. And just as impressive as the quantity is the quality, as mentioned earlier; each stage almost feels like a world in itself and has plenty of secrets and speed running opportunities. If there's one element lacking in the general design sense, it'd be the bosses. They look nice and are generally fun enough, but they come up short in comparison to the exquisite platforming going on in their respective worlds. As a nitpicky aside, some of the Time Attacks for the bosses are terribly designed. Note to Retro: one-minute-long unskippable auto-scrolling pre-fight section + randomized attacks + difficult time to beat =/= good time trial design!
All in all, Donkey Kong Country Returns is a great platformer and one that I’d recommend to anyone who’s a fan of the genre. I’d honestly put it up there with some of the SNES’s finest sidescrollers: Yoshi’s Island, Donkey Kong Country 2, and Kirby Super Star, as well as among the best games the Wii has to offer. Despite some weak bosses and minor control snafus, the masterful design makes for a nonstop entertaining game from start to finish--it's a classic structure with contemporary polish, almost like a 2-D Super Mario Galaxy. The multiplayer is good fun too, as long as you have a skilled buddy on hand.+Wonderful design from beginning to end
+Excellent visual detail
+Lots to do and find
+Time Attack mode! (everything but about five of the Shiny Golds is great)-Tepid bosses
-Small control issues
-Music not quite up to the rest of the game’s quality