Another day, another floating head...
I’ve learned over the past year or so that making a retro-driven video game throwback is not quite as easy as it seems. Merely applying new textures for HD television screens is not enough, as it sucked the timelessness out of Turtles in Time. You can’t go so far as to completely rearrange everything about the original game’s themes (Blaster Master Overdrive’s “kid who lost his frog finds a magical tank replaced with a post-apocalyptic future where mankind’s survival hinges on a single tank.) And you surely can’t just re-release the exact same game (Sonic 4, like Sonic 2 but costing twice as much for half the content). There has to be a combination of factors, old and new. There ought to be a sense of self-awareness as to what the original game was all about, along with a new twist as to justify playing this new product over blowing the dust off of/out of an NES.
Which is why I really like Donkey Kong Country Returns. It makes a whole bevy of tweaks and alterations from the original games, but it also understands the four reasons why people liked the original Donkey Kong Country games. Because lets be honest, we all like Donkey Kong Country games because:
-They were visually vibrant and energetic.
-They sounded vibrant and energetic.
-They had a metric assload of things to collect.
-They were a metric assload of punishing as hell to play through.
This is a side-scrolling platformer. You go from the left side of the screen to the right, you jump on the heads of enemies, and you collect a whole bunch of floating bananas. In a kind-of ballsy move, the game has no kremlings or King K Rool. Rather, the antagonists are flying tribal masks that hypnotize the animal population with music. I had thought that this was a nice little tweak, up until encountering the final battle against a giant floating head with two floating hands. A boss seen in many, many popular Nintendo titles. This soured me on the game perhaps more than it should have, but…come on, really? The giant enemy crab boss feels less cliché.
They did pluck out a few other positive elements from the original Donkey Kong Country. There are mine-cart levels…many in fact! Rambi the rhinoceros is back in his overpowered glory, and even then the game manages to find a challenging late-game stage to test Rambi’s bulldozing skills. Cranky Kong appears as the shopkeep and frequent insulter of Donkey Kong’s intellect. And the game is great at filling each level with a bevy of power-ups. There are tons of bananas and extra lives to stimulate the parts of your brain that need glowing things. There are also the hidden K-O-N-G letters as well as bonus mini-stages and puzzle pieces designed to reward you with concept art and music tracks. The gaming kleptomaniac that must collect every shiny trinket will spend many an hour sifting through each of the stages.
The second-biggest issue I have with the game, besides that awful final boss (and yes, that boss is bothering me more than it should) is the controls. It does seem like Nintendo dropped a mandate on all of its developers to incorporate some kind of motion controls into every Wii game, some four years after people stopped thinking the Wii motion controls were at all novel. In fact, here is a list of Wii games that would have been made better without Wii motion controls.
In this game, you thrust the remote down to interact. The key word being “thrust”, not “waggle”. Waggling in a game like Super Mario Galaxy is at least somewhat tolerable in that it demands a flick of the wrist. Regards of whether you play this game with the Wiimote held sideways or alongside a nunchuk, you must thrust your remote up and down. Thrusting while standing still will make DK do a ground pound, or blow into the air while crouching, or do a barrel roll while moving. The pounding and blowing are meant mostly to interact with the background and collect more fruit, while the nuisance-factor of the thrust made me never use the barrel roll as an offensive maneuver like I would in the original Donkey Kong Country. Why the game does not support the Classic Controller, the controller shaped like the controller you played the original Donkey Kong Country on, is beyond me. I learned to tolerate the thrust, but there are a handful of moments that demand more precise timing than the motion is capable of.
It also bears mentioning that the game is pretty gosh darned hard. The later levels will have you burning through the 50-plus lives that you were accumulating across the earlier, more humane stages. At first, Donkey Kong purists will question the design decision to give DK two hearts of health…and an additional two if you have Diddy Kong in tow. And said purists will question the decision to give Diddy a jetpack that lets the pair hover temporarily. Then said purists will play the game and realize that they sure run out of hearts in a hurry. Look, I’ve 100 percented Super Meat Boy, and I’m not going to say one game is harder than the other. But Super Meat Boy’s philosophy of short levels, instant respawning and unlimited lives makes it feel more tolerable than Donkey Kong Country’s limited lives, larger stages and modestly-placed checkpoints.
If you collect every K-O-N-G letter and puzzle piece, you can unlock mirror mode. This mode flips every stage, removes the power-ups and bans the use of Diddy Kong. It was after reading about mirror mode that I thought to myself “nope, I’m good. I had enough. This game kicked my ass pretty thoroughly.” That said, if you can find a second, competent partner and stockpile some lives, the game becomes a bit more manageable in co-op play. In spite of that, there is the weird gaffe of how player two, as Diddy Kong, gets both the jetpack and a peanut gun while Donkey Kong gets…I don’t know, low self-esteem.
So I do think this game will last players awhile, provided that they are willing. All things considered, I think Retro did a damn fine job of reviving and reinventing Donkey Kong as a platformer. It’s not for everyone, but I think people that liked the original game for all the right reasons will dig it. I would also recommend buying this game with a copy of Kirby’s Epic Yarn, as that game makes for wonderful stress relief for all the pains that Donkey Kong Country Returns will unleash on you.
3 ½ stars