The nineties were approaching its sophomore years, digitized graphics and crappy FMV games were heralding a new age of video games. Nearly everyone was about to jump into the gold rush, Panasonic, Philips, Sony, Atari. Things looked bleak for the aging Super NES, surely it couldn't compete with such awesome looking games like "Night Trap", "Wing Commander", and "Plumbers Don't Wear Ties". Turns out Nintendo had an ace up its sleeve, with a new deal with Rareware and buttload of money spent on giving them special SGI machines, the British born company would bring out the 800 lb. gorilla, literally. Donkey Kong Country not only prolonged the life of the SNES, it brought back the character that made Nintendo who they are today. However, since parting ways with Rare back in 2002, Nintendo has had a tough time keeping the big ape in the spotlight, or giving him a new mainline entry game. Turns out they needed the help of outside friends once again as Retro Studios steps up to the plate to once again breath new life in a classic franchise with Donkey Kong Country Returns.
Retro has always had good artists working within their Texan walls, but here we get a glimpse of whole different kind of style. Instead of the bleak, futuristic worlds of the Metroid Prime series, we get the colorful, cartoonish world of their take on Donkey Kong. While DK and Diddy look mostly the same, the title has all new enemies instead of Kremlings and a new style all of its own. Gone are the plastic trees and gritty pirate ships, instead you get a more soft shaded take on the tropical island Donkey Kong calls home. Instead of using digitized graphics, the whole game is made up of polygons yet still played entirely in 2D perspective. What this adds is the ability to show off much neater tricks in the background and foregrounds of levels, as well as provide multi-plane gameplay. Blasting towards and away from the screen becomes second nature in the title, though admittedly this can cause some confusion on what platforms are safe to land on in a few rare instances. Outside of Cranky Kong and couple animal pals, you won't find any other monkeys or new allies within the game. Not sure if this would really bother anyone, but no Chunky Kong pineapple rocket launchers for you! The only real downside to the graphics is that they can be a bit plain sometimes. The art style and framerate are still great, its just that the game makes no effort to put any special graphical touches or textures in the game at all with one special exception. A few stages in the game are played in silhouette, looking identical to titles such as Limbo. These areas are a real treat to look at and provide some clever twists on the gameplay. Still, it would have been nice to see a bit more hardware pushing from Retro but its really hardly worth complaining about.
For the soundtrack DKCR sticks as close to the original Donkey Kong Country score as possible, while series composer David Wise is nowhere to be found, the sound team in Japan have relied heavily on his work for the title. Just about every track from the SNES classic is represented or remixed here, which is good as the country games have some incredibly great music. They even manage to throw in Aquatic Ambiance despite the no swimming level policy. There is no voice acting in the game and all the cut scenes are handled without dialog or text. This is fine as we are talking about a Donkey Kong game here. The only chatter you will find is from Cranky Kong, which is the way it should be, and no he does not have a voice either.
As for the gameplay itself, it follows the original country formula pretty closely. The title should be a big hint, this is very much in the same vein as New Super Mario Bros was to its own series. The game starts with a bizarre cast of floating tiki masks erupting from a volcano on DK Island and hypnotizing the local wildlife to help steal Donkey Kong's Banana Hoard. The Tiki Tribe also tries to hypnotize DK himself only to find themselves quickly on the apes poo flinging list. From here its another adventure around the island and its geographically diverse locations. The game is set into eight main worlds with 6-9 levels in each world plus a boss fight. That is not all either, unlocking all the KONG letters hidden in each level in a particular world also unlocks a balls hard hidden level for you to complete. Also hidden in every level is a range of puzzle pieces that when completed unlock art and music galleries for you listening and viewing pleasure. If you need another excuse to play, each level also has a special speed run challenge. Suffice to say, Retro stuffed this 2D platformer like a thanksgiving turkey for you so you will get your monies worth. You can also play the game with 2 players, and while it avoids the chaos of New Super Mario Bros. Wii, it still isn't the ideal way to complete the game unless your looking for even more of a challenge.
While Kirby's Epic Yarn is just barely a month old, it couldn't be more obvious the developers between that game and this are worlds apart, both figuratively and literally. You will die in Donkey Kong Country Returns, a lot. While 1up balloons are easy to come by and there is infinite continues, do not expect this to be casual friendly because its got pretty colors and animals on the box. Thankfully Retro proves again their design superiority by making the game tough but fair. At no point in dieing like a pedestrian walking around Hiroshima in early August '45 did I feel cheated out a life. While some of the boss fights border on tedious, you will always die due to lack of skill. This is an incredibly tough thing to do, and few have ever pulled it off. Still, DKCR doesn't get to far ahead of itself, this is not the same soul crushing difficulty as N+, Super Meat Boy, or some particular Mario hacks. You will need plenty of skill to win, or at least perseverance. The super guide is back, once again showing how to beat a level but not find any secrets. There is one catch to the game though, and that would be the rolling mechanic. While doing a ground pound and blowing wind by shaking the Wii remote feels fine, having to run and shake the remote to roll is, well cumbersome. It just does not offer the precision of a good button press and by the end will be sorely missed. Also new to the game is holding a button down to grip vines and grass. Previously it was automatic so DKC veterans will have to train their brains to hold down the grab button. Also, because rolling is done with shaking now, there is no "run" button, not to worry though as DK is constantly at a sprint now anyways.
Despite plenty of clever throwbacks to the SNES game, DKCR is also chock full of new ideas and clever twists on old ones. Mine cart sequences are never just about hoping over pits, and each new level introduces something new to player whether big or small. One interesting change/addition is in single player you never play as Diddy Kong. Freeing the little monkey from a barrel will entail the rascal to climb onto your back. Once there you can hover momentarily in the air with a jetpack. This is a great feature as it rewards skill and makes you try harder to keep the little guy alive. Both DK and Diddy have two hearts now, rather then being dead from one hit each. This won't save you from many an untimely demise, but it will make the challenge more tolerable. Still when your on rocket barrels or mine carts, one hit is all you get before meeting the grim reaper.
Most of the world themes come straight from the first country, though Retro saw fit to throw its own look and twist on everything. There are a couple new worlds so don't expect everything to be a complete throwback. All in all, Donkey Kong Country Returns gives you everything a Kong fan could want and more. The level designs are nearly flawless across the game and outside some motion control annoyances, there really isn't anything wrong with the title. It is a bit sad and annoying, as offering Classic or Gamecube controller support would have immediately remedied this problem and would have frankly made this a nearly perfect game. While the motion controls certainly don't ruin the experience, they can get in the way. Putting that aside this is another wonderful title for the system and has given Wii owners another triple A first party experience. Retro looks on track to becoming one of the best developers around after this.