Donkey Kong Country returns in Donkey Kong Country Returns. Retro Studios already has experience resurrecting hallowed Nintendo franchises with the trilogy of Metroid Prime games, and it brings that skill to bear here to bring Donkey Kong's platforming roots onto the Wii and into the modern era. I wish the game offered more control options--namely, options that don't involve shaking the controller around--but overall this is a really well put-together and fantastic-looking platformer that will really challenge your ability to play hard games the way you used to way back when.
I've played all the way through this game, and even I'm not sure exactly what's going on in the thin wisp of a storyline. There are some comically sinister events involving some evil jungle spirits that come out of a volcano, and then (what else) Donkey Kong's stash of bananas goes missing. That's just your excuse to run and jump Donkey and Diddy Kong across eight worlds full of pretty intense platforming levels. There's an incredible amount of visual variety from world to world, with levels set in jungle, beach, cave, prehistoric, industrial, and volcano environments, and Retro's artists have outdone themselves in bringing these areas to exaggerated life. Everything moves in a big, cartoonish way, with a ton of little animations going on in the background that make the world feel especially lively. This is up there as one of the absolute best-looking games on the Wii.
The platforming action is really no slouch here, either, and if you remember anything about the old DKC games, this one is also high on the difficulty scale. It's no Super Meat Boy, but by the end of the first world you'll know the game demands pretty tight, specific timing of you. Like in the originals, Donkey Kong can pair up with Diddy when you find him hiding out in a level, and having Diddy onboard doubles your life and also gives you a jetpack-assisted hover move that makes the jumps a lot easier to pull off.
The unfortunate consequence of this is that when you take a couple of hits and lose Diddy, you also lose the hover. I found myself enjoying the game a little less when Diddy wasn't around and I had no way to get him back until the next level, since the way Donkey Kong moves on his own is a little sluggish compared to the sorts of jumps and landings you sometimes have to make. If you ever get really frustrated, you can use Nintendo's patented Super Guide technology to make the game literally finish a level for you so you can just move on to the next one. You don't actually get credit for any of the collectibles in the levels you skip through, anyway, so you can still go back and accomplish them for yourself if you feel the need.
Donkey Kong Country Returns lets you play with the standard Wii Remote and Nunchuk combo, or just the Remote on its side like an NES controller (which I preferred), and mostly these controls work fine. In addition to jumping on top of enemies, you can roll forward to pick up speed quickly, pound the ground to stun enemies and interact with a lot of background elements, and make Donkey Kong blow a big puff of air to do weird things like put out the flames of enemies that are on fire. Unfortunately, you activate all three of these moves by shaking the controller, which is never as fast as just pressing a button. But the game sometimes wants you to roll or pound with really specific timing, more quickly than a controller shake really allows. I would have really appreciated Classic Controller support here, with all those abilities mapped to different buttons, but the game is playable enough with the existing controls.
There's a lot of ingenious stuff going on in the level design that makes the game well worth playing through, anyway. Massive parts of levels will explode or collapse into each other on a regular basis, and you'll find yourself getting launched into the fore- and background from time to time. Between all the platforming, there are some occasional forced-scrolling levels where you're careening along in a mine cart or hurtling through the level in a barrel with a rocket jammed into it. These stages rely a little more on memorizing and anticipating the obstacles by dying repeatedly than I would have liked, but there's still a ton of fast-paced, satisfying action here.
There's also a ton of collectibles here. Bananas give you extra lives every time you find 100 of them, and banana coins let you buy a few trinkets at Cranky Kong's shop in between levels. You can collect balloons for extra lives, and an enormous number of puzzle pieces and K-O-N-G pieces if you really want to do and see everything the game has to offer. Despite all this, the game felt a little on the short side to me, partially because you don't have to finish every level in a world to move on to its colorful boss and then on to the next world. You certainly can go back and play every level, but you could also finish each world in less than an hour if you really wanted to.
Nintendo's got an uncanny knack for knowing when it might be a good time to bring one of its hallowed franchises back to the fore, and sure enough, now seems like as good a time as any for more Donkey Kong Country. And Retro has done a fine job with this new installment, which has Nintendo's trademark fit and finish all over it. If you're yearning for solid, demanding 2D platforming and can look past some slightly misplaced motion controls, you could do far worse than Donkey Kong Country Returns.