Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
I can't say how much of a surprise this was when Nintendo finally announced a proper sequel to my favorite game of all time--side by side with Banjo-Kazooie. It was never really a surprise that Miyamoto didn't take Donkey Kong Country's original release very lightly, the game captured the essence of gaming so well, that not even he could even dream to someday match that level of expertise. Still, Rare are a bunch of trolls, trolling Nintendo when they least expect. They went on to dominate the Nintendo 64 lifespan. Check a top 20 list of the best N64 games, chances are half of it is composed of Rare games, and if it isn't, it should have been.
Rare's masterpiece on the SNES led them to go ahead and make two sequels, each of them glorious in its own way. That's what was magical about Rare, the main idea was the same, but it felt like a completely new deal. I wish the original team, with their original mindset could create infinite number of DKC, but let's just face it, it's not only impossible but would also grow old pretty quickly, despite how ultimate the formula is.
What I ask is to keep the gameplay kind of like the original, add in a few new stuff to make us feel like the purchase was worth it, complement with some modern gaming trends like achievements for the true hardcore, some collectibles here and there, maybe a few extra modes based around the core concept, and voilá! I'm not the kind to start vomiting pretentiousness like I know more about what a game needs than developers that were creating games when I was wearing diapers. In this case, I think I have a pretty fine background though.
I'm a hardcore DKC player, I speed-ran most of the games. I play them to this day. I captured the spirit of those games, they're etched in me, and when a new one is announced I expect nothing more than that. Sure the game would be childish, which Nintendo release these days isn't, but you shouldn't bother dumbing-down the game to please younger audiences. Nintendo didn't think so back then--comes to mind the commercial where the very DKC is showcased as they needed to make it "harder", an irony in every sense of the word--, maybe they changed their mind.
Take this for example, after a while playing this game the game itself will pop a dialog box on-screen and tell you've been playing it for too long, how about taking a break. Really? The first time I thought I was seeing things or had just gotten it all wrong. The second time I was sure, it was lame. Parents should be worried about that, deciding that kind of stuff for their children. It comes with the package of "being a father/mother/guardian/whatever".
So let's see, the graphics are pretty well made. It's hard to beat DKC original art style, it's one of those titles that will look awesome 450 years from now when graphics will be better than real life in 800K TVs that shall encircle the watcher. It's that memorable. It fits so well to create the island's atmosphere that it's almost illegal to be this spot-on. DKC Returns has modern graphics and I never expected them to follow the former art style, they probably think it's outdated, I still stand in awe when I think Capcom had the guts to make Mega Man 9 exactly like the first 6 were. Of all developers, Capcom!
The graphics are beautiful and completely not the issue here. The issue has more to do with gaming. Gaming is gameplay, how you control your character, how natural it feels, how in control you feel, how many skills and movesets you have at your disposal and how responsive it all transfers to your own hands. This is where Donkey Kong Country Returns lacks, and lacks big time.
The original had probably the tightest, most deep control mechanics in a video game ever. Few games were so simple yet allowed so much to be done, so much dynamism to be put forth. The cartwheel/somersault + jump was downright spectacular! So simple, so pure, so effective. They managed to dumb-down this amazing technique to shreds. They even separated the run button from the attack one. Which generates more problems than it tries to solve. Sure you don't have a button acting strange when you think of it about doing one or the other action, but you also add a new button to keep track of. Due to the dynamic nature of this game and the chaos that are the shoulder buttons of our 3DS systems, it wasn't a good idea at all.
They hinted that something could be done when I checked options and found out that the player can choose either the analog stick or the digital pad to control the Kongs. Also, the setting of the rest of the buttons would also change. At first I thought you could choose both, but you can't! How in hell's name would anyone do something like that. Give the player the ability to choose the buttons for each move. I know, too unwieldy for children of about 7 years of age that would get confused making their brains explode! Let's just make it easy for them, and everyone else.
This control scheme really bugged me. Should you choose to control Donkey Kong with the analog stick you can only use the front buttons to perform rolls and run. Should you think differently and choose the digital pad, you'll be stuck with the shoulder R/L buttons for rolls and ground pounds. This is absolutely ridiculous. I would absolutely choose the pad along with the front buttons if I could, even better if the Y button could function for both run and attack, but I'm not even that bossy, just give me the option to move and attack with what I feel comfortable.
In the last paragraph I mentioned controlling Donkey Kong, people who haven't played the game might think I made some sort of mistake since you can also control Diddy like the original right? With all those differences like Donkey Kong being more clunky, stronger; while Diddy was nimble and faster. The answer is a resounding no. You can only control Donkey Kong this time around. Unless you play multiplayer which not everyone will unfortunately, Diddy Kong will function much like an equipment on Donkey Kong's back. When you have Diddy, after you jump you can hold the jump button to ignite the jet-pack and float around for a short while. For such loosy game/controls this should be built-in.
The game actually opposes quite a challenge to the player. Sometime because of nifty level design, in other unfortunate moments because of sheer loose mechanics. It's clear that Minecart Carnage/Madness was of great importance because DKCR is filled with carting moments. Most cart levels are impressive since there's not much room for error when all you need to do is press jump at the right moment. Still, they didn't think some gimmicky move would look "super cool" while controlling the cart and I can't thank them enough for that. Some takes are completely crazy while on top of the cart, and most "wow" moments will occur during the cart levels.
Another stage style that dares to go beyond the constant platforming is the rocket stage. Every now and then Donkey Kong will board a rocket that will drive forward at constant speed. You control how high or low it goes, to do that tap the jump button. You must keep pressing the button to maintain certain height, if you do it more rapidly the rocket will go up, if you decrease the pace, you will go down. Of course things are complicated when baddies happen to cross the screen and giant machinery tries to cause a crash. This time, the life bar will not have any part in saving poor Donkey Kong.
Rambi (the Rhino) from the original is featured here as well. The Parrot is not controllable but makes his appearance help the player out. It's kind of expected if you think about it, Rambi is the easiest of the four original animals. Still, I'd like to see them back, the ones from later games too. I guess there's lots to work on in a sequel. As far as I remember Enguarde (the Swordfish) appeared in every game of the trilogy, I kind of expected them to include him in this game, but I guess they focused on Rambi anyway.
Even though this is a 2D platformer at heart some uncontrolled 3D entice the player, especially during the blasting sequences from the many barrel cannons hanging around. It has nothing to do with how the game controls because you don't actually control the Kongs in them. Sometimes you're blasted to background plain, the camera stays fixed at the level while you have to deal with challenges from a distance, making every move far more responsive, and much more prone to error. Those are fine.
The nostalgia factor is abundant. Most music is re-recorded from the original DKC1. I must say the score for that game stands as one of the most glorious in music history -- not only video-games, Sebastian Bach would be proud to have composed some of those tunes; I kid you not! Overall I must admit that the use of old compositions was a magnificent move. Making something as memorable for something that won't be as note-worthy as the original trilogy is almost impossible at this point. Retro might want to go deeper and persevere a little more in the next one, and they actually should, but for now the re-arrangements are excellent.
Cranky's Shop was as useless game as it was intriguing in DKC1. This time the old man got to keep his sharp sense of humor while making a buck from Donkey Kong's quest selling him some items. The items are usable before you start a level and give you certain utilities like an instant DK barrel, the presence of Squawks the Parrot, to help you find secret stuff or the ability to recover from a crash in the minecart. The currency are the banana coins introduced in Donkey Kong Country 2,which also played a huge role in Donkey Kong 64. You find them everywhere scattered around the levels, especially by blowing stuff you find along like dandelion flowers for example.
Also, following Nintendo's trend of fearing their little kids getting stuck in some level, at anytime you can just talk to the pink hippopotamus that marks the checkpoint parts of the stage so it completes it for you at the minimal cost of no items acquired at that level. Just press start and ask nicely for a nice cup of don't worry, be happy kid. Never had those in my youth, which made advancing levels so much more rewarding. Have memories of them to this very day.
The pink hippo, if I'm not mistaken, is that one from Donkey Kong 64 that turned the key on the boss gate after getting elevated by that other blue one that ate the bananas to gain weigh. It's quite sad to see the mid-way barrel gone, but not as an actual problem, now most advanced levels have more than one checkpoint. The items help, but what helps the most is that this time around DK has lives. Three hearts for each Kong until he "dies". As most might remember, the original was quite harsh on this, any mistake and the Kong was gone, if you had only one, say goodbye to a balloon.
Completionists like me have a real feast served. Each level has the known KONG letters that now count toward receiving a medal at the end. By collecting every jigsaw piece in a level you get another medal--number of jigsaws differ from stage to stage, more needed in later levels. After you complete the level you can race against the clock for a bronze, silver or golden medal as well. Some jigsaw pieces are found inside bonus rooms, and they don't stand as simple cash-in when it comes to bananas or percentage toward the final completion, if you get all the bananas/balloon/items or whatever before the time runs out you "open the chest" and get a brand new jigsaw piece.
Quite a lot of new stuff for Donkey Kong to face his quest of epic proportions. What quest is that anyway? I have no idea. The original was about the stack of bananas being stolen by the King K. Rool; the story backing everything up is still so secondary it becomes pointless. Donkey Kong could be doing everything because he just wanted to have a laugh for all I care.
After all, why do some games even have a story? Can anyone really dismiss the original because the story was lackluster? Because it lacked depth? The characters didn't develop too well, or that Donkey Kong was emotionless in that macho pose of his? Could anyone really think less of such a classic gaming experience because it didn't portray some dark, ethereal commentary full of philosophical perspective about the human condition? Of course not, Donkey Kong Country is all about gaming, gameplay at its finest, that's what I expect when I play it.
I must say this is not a bad game. I might sound harsh but it's just because I expect nothing but greatness from this series. The controls are absolutely not as tight as the original trilogy, and that a crying shame really; but after getting used to it you might feel comfortable with how the game mechanics work. Just don't reminisce about the past too much. Donkey Kong Country Returns is up against three behemoths of the gaming world, three undeniable classics that might add up to the most solid trilogy in gaming, certainly one of its finest moments.
In the end, it's such a harsh task this game has to endure, living up to the expectations for the Donkey Kong Country trilogy is almost a surreal task. It does a fine job in its own way though.