Donkey Kong Country Returns is truly a next-gen 2D platformer. Gone are the tile-based levels featured in the Mario games, and instead, we get levels that truly look different from one to the other. What's more, almost every level has its own unique feature that not only gives each level their own personality, but also makes them feel truly dynamic and alive in a way that older platformers just couldn't. Levels will have you running through beaches and caves, jumping from barrel to ship to platform during a heavy storm that results in turbulent water, hiding behind walls to avoid heavy waves crashing in from the distance, making your way through a factory while smoke obscures much of your view, riding the back of a whale, and much more. No trick wears out its welcome, as everywhere you go, there's a new surprise. Plus, when tricks get reused, there's always a new twist. For example, one level takes place with the foreground entirely in silhouette in front of a sunset background. The "silhouette" concept is later used again, in a factory-themed level with clouds of steam obscuring your view. Almost every trick blends perfectly with the core platforming, preventing the game from feeling gimmicky. What's more, this game puts up quite a challenge. The levels start out putting up a fight in the beginning and generally get tougher as you go. On the other hand, the challenge is also surprisingly fair. Most boss fights are based around pattern recognition, making them much easier once you've learned exactly how they work. In general, in fact, it's possible to learn what to do in each level after making many mistakes. There were quite a few levels where I lost over 8 lives - the limit needed for the game to ask if you need help - but I pressed on, as extra lives are plentiful if you know how to get them. The 2-player mode changes the game up a bit. The two players can separate, and considering the fast pace of the game, getting left behind happens a lot, but fortunately, you teleport right to the other player within 3 seconds of being off the screen, keeping players together. If you die, you can use up a life and rejoin with the press of a button. In short, a fun, fast-paced platformer with amazing level design, and a good challenge. Retro in many ways, but also truly next-gen.
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