The Metroid Prime of Good Times
There’s a rapper named Riff Raff that I’m not a fan of. I don’t think his rhymes are very good and his beats don’t stand out in my memory. When I hear a great piece of music, my body physically spasms. I might shrink in or stretch out. I don’t do that when I hear a Riff Raff song. I sit very still and listen to music I’m not especially invested in.
But in a weird way, I still love Riff Raff. Riff Raff posts on Vine several times a day, usually dancing around a room, showing off his new shoes and goofing around with his friends. He gets dumb tattoos of things like the BET logo or Bart Simpson’s head. He shows up on Rob Dyrdek’s stupid show like either of them will matter in 5 years. Simply put, I like Riff Raff because Riff Raff kind of sucks, but he’s still having a great time.
I feel like video games can take a page from Riff Raff’s book. Take a look at any release list and find me 3 games on it that don’t take themselves deadly seriously. I understand that Bioshock Infinite is a very intellectually stimulating game with solid philosophical foundation. Bioshock Infinite can take itself seriously because it has worked hard to earn it. It’s frustrating when games like Gears of War have lead characters that look a side of brisket with a dew rag and a chainsaw gun their main character and act like it’s high fantasy.
And that’s why I love Donkey Kong Country Returns so much. There isn’t a single element of the game, in its music, characters, art design, animations—nothing that doesn’t let you know that the game is super stoked that you’re along for the ride. It’s a game so dedicated to a single attitude that I feel like chalking it up to charm alone is lazy. Donkey Kong Country Returns is a game postured and groomed to produce as much fun as it can at any given time.
There’s broad-brush strokes everyone notices at first and smiles at. How Diddy Kong uses his jetpack to lengthen jumps, or how he rolls on Donkey Kong’s back like a lumberjack. But it’s in the game’s subtleties that it’s clear how much thought was put into the idea of fun. Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong never frown or wince. When they get hit, they mug the camera, their eyes wide and their expressions frozen in shock. When Donkey Kong picks up a barrel containing Diddy, he chuckles to himself, and Diddy snickers as soon as he joins the action. They’re clearly stoked to be hanging out. While riding Rambi, your rhinoceros bud, he shuffles his feet while he accelerates, almost like a happy dog sliding across a hardwood floor.
Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D isn’t perfect. Its transition from a Wii game to a 3DS game has unsurprisingly cost the game some visual fidelity and it’s paid its dues in the vibrancy of its color palette. The game is still stupid hard and more often than not it’s in a “why were you still moving after I let off the circle pad,” than in a fun challenging way.
But I honestly don’t care. There’s more value to the game than in it’s gameplay alone. It’s not often you see games so earnest and unpretentious. It creates an environment that renders irony or cynicism unsustainable. At its worst, Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D is outplayed by its own old-school ambitions. It’s too difficult and its control scheme can’t always meet the demands of its design. When the game really shines though, when it’s really landing important punches and playing to its strengths, it’s the kind of fun that thrills you to your core. Gamers remember Retro for their Metroid Prime games, and the dense atmosphere they washed over the experience. Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D proves that atmosphere is still the studio’s strongest suit. It’s a master class in being a whole lot of fun.