Donkey Kong Country Returns Review: Swingin’ Into Greatness

Watch out! Phew, that was a close one. Who’s throwing barrels, anyway? Oh wait, is that… Donkey Kong? He’s back! This time, he’s finally not flying a barrel jetpack, playing bongos, or brawling with other Nintendo characters. Do you know what this means? Donkey Kong finally has his own full game on the Wii! Now, dodging Nintendo’s legal department, it’s safe to say: It’s on like Donkey Kong!

Platform: Wii
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Retro Studios
Genre: Barrel-Bound Jungle-Platforming Adventure
Release Date: November 21, 2010
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Donkey Kong Country Returns barrel-blasts forward through the past 10 years to the future of banana-collecting and baddie-stomping. Oh, how sweet it is. With a complete graphical overhaul and a re-imagining of the environments and the cast of characters, the wait has been well worth it.

As the game begins, the player watches the Tiki Tak Tribe steal Donkey Kong’s precious banana hoard. Naturally, Donkey and Diddy Kong quickly set out to reclaim their bountiful banana bunches. Despite the game’s absence of Kremlings – the series’ previous baddies, the Tikis do a nice job of taking over as the new breed of the game’s enemies, including an array of surprisingly challenging boss fights. Donkey Kong immediately springs into action in the game’s first level, which is completely reminiscent of the original Donkey Kong Country’s starting stages.

Throughout the game, fans of the original Donkey Kong Country series will notice that the worlds’ environments will begin to change, twisting away from anything that the previous DKC titles have done before. While the first “Jungle” world keeps the retro feel alive, players will eventually arrive at other locales, including “Ruins” and “Cliff” areas. These areas introduce new elements of gameplay, and even the “Volcano” and “Factory” stages are largely different than those seen in previous titles. Donkey Kong finds new ways to progress through many of the game’s levels: from tricky jumping, to the fan-favorite levels with mine carts, to piloting a rocket-propelled barrel through some tricky turns and collapsing caves.

The absence of Rare’s inspiration in Donkey Kong Country Returns is no doubt an unsettling one; much of the content and characters from the original three games are off-limits due to legal issues and rights. Luckily, one thing that Retro Studios didn’t have to refrain from using was much of the original game’s music. Right from the beginning, the first world’s “Jungle” themes are played, inviting the player to return to the last 15 years of playing the original trilogy in hopeful anticipation of a sequel of this caliber. Through the remainder of the game, the new original music remains just as innovative and exciting as the music that captured the infectious jungle madness back in 1994.

Donkey Kong Country Returns is by far the MOST difficult game in the series thus far. That being said, it is not a frustrating adventure. Red balloons will be lost because of falsely-timed jumps or craggy cave layouts in the rocket barrel levels. The heart meter addition is a great asset to the game; certain levels would likely not be finished if Donkey and Diddy could be hit only once each. The game also introduces the use of Cranky’s Shack as a store. Here, the Kongs can pick up power-ups to use, in a vein similar to the item inventory system used in New Super Mario Bros. Wii. These are purchased using the vast array of banana coins found around the island’s stages.

As previously noted, the power-ups are vital to the Kongs’ success with boss battles. The first few fights are fairly easy, but towards the end, they get very challenging, even for a Donkey Kong game. An additional heart power-up can help, but the invincibility power-up is often the best choice, as it will allow the Kong duo to take damage ten times before their heart meter will diminish. The last item available in Cranky’s shop is Squawks the Parrot, who valiantly returns to help the Kongs sniff out hidden puzzle pieces.

Players are encouraged to collect these puzzle pieces throughout Donkey Kong Country Returns, reminiscing the DK coins from the last two games. The Kongs can pick up from five to nine puzzle pieces in each level, depending on the level’s length and complexity. These puzzle pieces eventually give the player a bonus, granting access to an area similar to The Lost World from Donkey Kong Country 2. This addition significantly increases the length and replay factor of Donkey Kong Country Returns, especially since the bonus area is not available to the player until after the normal game is finished.

Writing from the perspective of a long-time Donkey Kong Country fan, this reboot is, in a sense, flawless. Even though it has been roughly 15 years since the last true DKC game, it shows that Retro Studios and Nintendo have not forgotten what true Donkey Kong platforming is about. There are plenty of baddies to bounce on, tons of timed barrel-firing sections, and extras for every completionist. Every new addition to the series is a positive one, and enhances gameplay rather than demeaning it. If only the series hadn’t been swept under the rug for this long. Boy, is it good to be back!

Review Disclosure: A retail copy of Donkey Kong Country Returns was purchased by Warp Zoned for the purposes of this review.

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