A dash of nostalgia, and a blast of new innovations.
If you ask me, Donkey Kong Country is a series in which a new entry has been long overdue. Often regarded as one of the best series on the Super Nintendo, Donkey Kong as a character has lived on, but retired the Country name for over a decade. But at last, Nintendo and Retro Studios have made the wise decision to revive the franchise. No Konga. No Jungle Beat. No 64. Just pure, old-school platforming Country. And it's great.
Donkey and Diddy Kong come with their old techniques from the nineties and some new ones to mix things up a bit. DK retains his ground pound and roll, but can now blow on smaller objects like flowers and candles to see if items come out. Diddy has kept his now-trademark items from DK 64 and Brawl, those being the jetbarrel pack and peanut popguns. Diddy can use his guns to stun enemies before he or DK attacks, and the jetbarrel can be used as a temporary hover when facing a tricky jumping section. The only downside to Diddy's moves is that you won't be able to access all of them if you go it alone. Retro has ditched the tag-team system of before and made Diddy more of a power-up and DK the primary character for single-player, and made 2-player a New Super Mario Bros. Wii-esque experience where one person controls each Kong.
Keeping in line with original developer Rare's famous collect-a-thon method from the SNES and N64 days, DKC Returns brings its replay value in the form of collectable K-O-N-G letters from the old games and hidden puzzle pieces as well. Getting all the puzzle pieces in a level will unlock pieces of concept art that show off some of the amazing hard work that went into designing the characters and environments for the game, while the K-O-N-G letters offer something a bit different that I dare not spoil.
One of the best parts about the old games was the combination of graphics and music to create a terrific atmosphere, and Returns does an admirable job of doing this again. The Wii's ability to have fully-realized 3D polygonal worlds and backgrounds instead of the static pre-rendered sprites of old is taken full advantage of, and both the main plane and backgrounds of each level look gorgeous. The music is a mixture of nostalgia and originality. A lot of it is made of great remixes of David Wise's famous soundtrack to the first game, but there's some nicely done new stuff sprinkled in there.
One of the only real downsides, and one that comes down to basically nitpicking, is how much of the old character lineup Retro has thrown away to make room for the new. King K. Rool and the Kremling army don't get as much as a mention, no other Kongs besides Cranky are in, and while it's great to have Rambi and Squawks back, where are other familiar animal buddies like Enguarde? Though Retro shows in all other areas of the game how much love and respect they have for the series, it seems odd to leave so many of the characters people remember behind.
Another thing that might throw people off is the difficulty. This game gets hard with a capital H. Getting to the last boss is tricky enough, but if you want to get all those collectables and secrets, you will really have your work cut out for you. Nintendo has included the increasingly familiar Super Guide from recent Mario games into this for people having trouble making it through a level, but it should be noted that it will not get any of the items for the player.
I must admit that while I was excited to hear this game's announcement, I tried not to get too pumped. All Retro had done before was first-person games for a very different franchise, and I didn't know if they would be able to make a good platformer or a faithful Donkey Kong game. They have succeeded at both. With beautiful graphics, engaging gameplay, and a lot of challenge that will keep players going for a while, this is a game worth your time.