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London MCM Expo 2010: Donkey Kong Country Returns

There was plenty to see at this year’s MCM Expo in London; from the various stalls covered with Japanese paraphernalia to the countless cosplayers, who exhibited some truly amazing costumes at the show. But for us it’s all about the games; and there were games aplenty. The Nintendo booth in particular managed to cram in a lot for its small size, from the adorable Kirby’s Epic Yarn to Disney Epic Mickey. But nestled at the back of the booth was one game which faces a truly epic challenge: returning Donkey Kong to his former platforming glory.

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Donkey Kong Country is a Nintendo series which, for a long time, seemed to have been forgotten. But for Nintendo, E3 2010 served as a format to demonstrate a conscious reinvigoration of some of their more neglected franchises. While the past decade has seen Nintendo’s iconic ape dabble with various genres and ideas, this is the first proper return to the side-scrolling formula since 1996, and Retro Studios is perhaps the perfect candidate for revitalising the franchise. Having proved themselves with the Metroid Prime series it seems only natural that Nintendo would trust the developer with another of their most important characters.

From the word go it’s clear that Retro Studios want to stay true to the consistent gameplay elements that defined the first three Donkey Kong Country games. We had a chance to play four stages in our hands-on with the game and they were as typical of Donkey Kong Country as anyone could expect; right down to their playful alliterated names. Opening with Jungle Hijinx, a reimagining of the first stage from the original game, it all seems strikingly faithful; the bananas, the barrels and the lush, colourful environments remain, as do the tight controls. Further levels continue this trend; with Rickety Rails continuing the tradition of having runaway mine cart levels, while Poppin’ Planks recaptures the pirate theme from Diddy’s Kong Quest. Mugly’s Mound, on the other hand, is a fairly typical Donkey Kong Country boss; a charging rhino-like creature which shows off the adorable character design.

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But Retro Studios have seen fit to alter the series’ template in some significant ways. For one the visuals adopt a more Donkey Konga-esque look, rather than the ultra-realistic sheen of the old games. But more importantly there is now a significant degree of Wii Remote waggling involved. Shaking the Wii Remote and Nunchuck activates the respective character’s abilities: When playing as Donkey Kong he will beat his giant fists on the ground (Diddy can also fire his peanut gun in this manner), smashing through specific sections of the level, busting open treasure chests and generally serving as a primary method of interaction with the game world. The rolling attack (a common feature of the Donkey Kong Country games) has also now been assigned to a shake of the Wii Remote and Nunchuck performed while running. On paper this sounds somewhat imprecise, but from the stages we played it generally worked well. We were even able to pull off some fairly tricky manoeuvres from the original Donkey Kong Country games, such as rolling off of a ledge and jumping to collect one of those familiar KONG letters.

Multiplayer has always been a feature of the Donkey Kong Country games; but for this first time Returns allows you to play simultaneously. While playing alone restricts you to controlling a combination of both characters at once, in co-op each player controls one of the two characters independent of each other. When a player dies at the hands of an enemy they can respawn as a floating barrel which must be smashed open by the other player. Cooperation is key, as we found it difficult to make it past some of the platforming sections in the Poppin’ Planks stage without Diddy’s hovering jetpack ability. Luckily both characters can be combined and separated at will. At any time Diddy can hop onto his friend’s back, allowing you to utilise both characters’ abilities at key points, while also giving less experienced players a chance.

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There often seems to be a question of justification in regard to Nintendo’s tendency to thumb through their back catalogue. But here it doesn’t seem necessary; the core gameplay of Donkey Kong Country Returns doesn’t really require any justification as to why it’s so fun. By updating many of the series’ signature elements and adapting them to the Wii, Retro Studios have risen to the challenge of both reimagining and revitalising yet another Nintendo franchise. Donkey Kong Country Returns is shaping up to be a welcome revival, and the promise shown by our brief time with the game leaves us asking only one question: what took so long?

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in April 2010.

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