Reviews: Donkey Kong Country Returns

DK's back, but at what cost?

Upon the announcement of DK's return to the classic style of platforming what made him and his primate pals the Zinger's knees back in the day, there was naturally a tiny pang of worry about how it would fare without the guiding hand of Rare (not that they'd be of much help to begin with, given their pitiful state at the time...). However, I decided to ignore my misgivings and give Retro Studios the benefit of the doubt. Things looked positive as it got closer to release. Everything seemed primed and ready for a return to greatness.

Turns out, I should've listened to that little warning voice of mine.

Yes, superficially it looks exactly like what a contemporary stab at DKC should look like. Playing it, however, is a different story altogether. Fact is, it doesn't really feel like a DKC game at all. Platforming is comparatively slow and clunky, waggling is mandatory because GIMMICKS ARE INEVITABLY FUN apparently, and levels are a bit too long and plentiful for their own good. Basically, the whole thing feels more Mario-inspired than anything else. That's not inherently a bad thing at all, but in this case... yeah. It's not what I'm looking for in a DK game.

The aesthetics too, feel a bit... off. It's a bit too cheery and colorful, all the time basically. DKC games always used to have a bit of a dark, creepy backside to them. That vibe is so important to what made the trilogy so memorable, and it's hard to find any of it here. It even extends to the enemy designs, which are a bit too goofy and cartoony... it feels like they could come out of any cookie cutter indie platformer out there.

DK's animal pals, which were pretty much Kuribo's Shoe times a hundred in how they made for an exciting part of a level and a break from the normal platforming routine, are also a complete side note here. Add to that the utter disappointment that being a completionist nets you (gallery unlocks? What is this, a cereal box pack-in game?) and what you're left with is a bit of a clockwork orange (banana?)... the outside looks good and tasty, but bite into it and you'll get your teeth messed up from gears and shit.

Meaning, it's a bit of a disgrace to DKC's good name. It's a good game in its own right, but they should have never made it a continuation of those storied masterpieces.

Old-school yet modernized, this is a great platformer

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.

It's like DKC never left us.

In the pantheon of Donkey Kong Country greatness, Diddy's Kong Quest is still top banana. But Returns is not only a worthy second-placer, it made me feel as though fourteen years hadn't passed since my last side-scrolling stroll through the Northern Kremisphere. The gameplay and artistic aesthetic are both spot-on, the music could use a little polish but a couple of great themes do stand out (I'm thinking Mast Blast and Sticky Situation, though the plentiful remixes of familiar tunes are great, too), and although not all our old friends are back to greet us, the fresh faces we'll be running into definitely feel like a part of of their world—even when they're trying to kill us with some catchy musical hoodoo. And, honestly, do you really think Retro will drop the franchise after just one game? There's a high chance of seeing Dixie Kong and entourage at some point in the future, methinks.

The game is, indeed, very challenging, quite a bit more so than its three predecessors; hidden goodies are remarkably well hidden, and one tiny misstep renders them lost forever—at least until you try the stage again. Not that this is a bad thing by any means; most of us weren't very experienced gamers back in ninety-six, and even if we were, things have changed a lot since then. Retro has taken that into account and created an experience that will make us pull our hair out today as much as the previous installments in the series did years ago. It's matured along with us, and that's a great thing for it to have done; just ask that boy wizard over there. It definitely won't leave fans as dissatisfied as New Super Mario Bros Wii may have.

Nothing left to do now but wait for Tiki Tong to cast his spell on K. Rool...
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