Donkey Kong Country Returns
The Tiki Tak Tribe almost succeeded. They did everything that any decent villain upstart would do; they invaded the island through sheer force of numbers and strength. They set off the local volcano, sending devastating lava flows cascading down the mountain and roasting everything in their path. They even used their magical music powers to hypnotize and subjugate all the animals on the island, creating a massive army of slaves. In all of the ensuing chaos, taking over the island was a rather easy affair. But one of the final steps in their dastardly scheme had one huge, nasty flaw:
They stole Donkey Kong’s banana hoard.
It was an easy mistake. After all, they’re new in town; they don’t know what they’ve just done. There’s a good reason why no one has messed with the big guy’s stash for over a decade. Everyone knows what happened to the last band of baddies that tried to pull off that stunt. It ended…badly for them. It’s one thing to conquer the island. But stealing the banana hoard? The Tiki Tak Tribe is about to suffer the unbridled fury and wrath of a beast unlike anything they’ve encountered before. Donkey Kong has returned, and he means business.
His crusade will take him all around the island, side-scrolling through eight sections with differently themed levels. Reclaiming his homeland won’t be an easy task; you’ll have to do tons of platforming to get anywhere. It starts off small, with some leaping around tree branches and ledges, climbing vines, and occasionally clinging on to overhead canopies to crawl along the ceilings. The games takes these basic steps and builds upon them, steadily increasing the difficulty with new obstacles and longer stages. It’s kind of hard to navigate a level when there’s a small fleet of pirate ships annihilating everything with cannonballs. Using a cart to roll through an old mine seems simple enough (not to mention an awesome throwback to the areas in Donkey Kong Country), until a bunch of rogue moles start bombing the tracks and triggering avalanches and cave-ins. Even the most beautiful ancient ruins and cliffs become deathtraps when nearly all of the platforms crumble underfoot and whole levels are crammed with Spiky Balls of Doom. If you get killed too many times, you’ll unlock an option to summon Super Kong (an adaptation of the Super Guide from a couple of recent Nintendo games) to beat the level for you. It’s more satisfying to do it yourself, though. Getting through some of these areas will require near-perfect timing, a ridiculous amount of determination, and many, many extra lives.
It’s not all about platforming, either. Donkey Kong can also perform some of his old tricks, like pounding the ground with his massive fists or curling up into a ball and rolling over smaller enemies and obstacles. He’s even got a new move that lets him blow air to interact with certain background objects and baddies. While all of these abilities seem cool and riddled with nostalgia, they suffer from poor execution and gimmicky controls. You have to press in the corresponding direction and shake the Wii Remote (or Nunchuck, depending on which option you‘re using) to activate each move. It won’t take long for you to adjust, but it’s difficult to do precision platforming when you’re waggling the controller to gain a decent amount of speed. The blowing ability seems nearly pointless; aside from a handful of minor enemies and obstacles, you’ll never use it for anything more than systematically checking every bush and flower for hidden bananas and other pickups. The pounding move could have been reworked to have the same effect. You’ll occasionally find yourself lamenting the fact that the game doesn’t support a Classic or Gamecube Controller configuration, which would have made Donkey Kong’s moveset far more accessible and easier to handle.
The biggest oversight, however, is Diddy Kong’s new design. In the previous games in the series, each protagonist had his or her own unique abilities. Donkey Kong had plenty of raw strength, but Diddy’s lighter weight let him jump further and move faster. You could tag-team between the two of them, letting you get through obstacles and reach places you wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. It made for greater sense of variety and exploration. In Donkey Kong Country Returns, Diddy’s role is the same, but drastically reduced. He’s not even playable (unless you go for the two-player Cooperative Mode, which is surprisingly fun), and serves as little more than a glorified power-up. Having him riding on Donkey Kong’s back doubles the amount of hits he can take before dying. Diddy also comes equipped with a miniature jetpack that, thanks to his partner’s sheer weight, can let you hover in midair for only a couple of seconds. It’s not much, but it’ll prove indispensable when you’re trying to get through the harder levels or uncover hidden areas and items on far-flung ledges. While these two make a great team, their mechanics could have been further developed and better utilized.
You’ll probably be too busy trying to uncover all of the secrets and unlockables to care, though. Aside from the thousands of bananas strewn throughout the island, each level is also crammed with collectibles and other bonuses. The KONG letter pickups from the older games are back, and they’re absolutely vital in getting a full completion. That goes for the Banana Coins as well; they may be much easier to find than they were in the previous titles, but they’re used as currency for extra lives, additional health, and unlocking alternate routes on the island map. They also let you enlist the services of Squawks, the parrot from the original Donkey Kong Country. If you play a level alongside him, he’ll help you find a set of hidden puzzles pieces that are normally awarded by solving puzzles, interacting with certain objects, or completing bonus stages. When all the pieces are collected, you’ll be rewarded with a few art and music galleries. It might not seem like much, but you’ll want to find every secret area and collect every last pickup you possibly can; hardcore completionists will be in for a particularly awesome bonus in the end-game.
It’s the presentation, however, that will likely stand out the most. The soundtrack is a superb blend of catchy drum beats and remixes from the older Donkey Kong Country games. Old school gamers will be drowned in nostalgia when they play through some of the stages. Not only is the iconic Jungle theme back, but so are all the lush trees and bushes that made the original such an impressive sight. Not to mention the Factory theme; its increased tempo blends perfectly with the fast-paced rotation and changes of the environment. You’ll have to run down the coastline, ducking behind crumbling walls and washed-up ship debris as tidal waves obliterate everything around you. Then there’s the forests, with their impossibly bright mushroom springboards and gorgeously rendered butterflies. Even simple platforming and barrel cannon launches are epic when you throw in a lot of collapsing ruins and other random chaos. Besides, nothing tops running through the jungle as the sun sets; aside from the brilliant red and orange dominating the screen, everything else – Donkey Kong included – is cast in nothing more than a silhouette. This kind of creative work doesn’t quite top the utterly stunning art of Muramasa or the texturing of Kirby’s Epic Yarn but it easily makes for some of the best visuals on the Wii.
Donkey Kong Country Returns has a lot going for it. It brings back a style of platforming that hasn’t been seen in over a decade, and it pulls it off with a great assortment of well-designed levels. The sheer amount of pickups, unlockables, and secrets will keep dedicated gamers coming back long after the main story has been finished. Old school fans will not only revel in the revamped versions of the classic levels, but in the superb remixes of the corresponding music. But it’s not perfect. The gimmicky controls, poorly-utilized special moves, and the drastically watered-down team mechanics drag down the experience. Don’t let that stop you, though; despite its flaws, Donkey Kong Country Returns offers one of the best gaming experiences on the Wii. Donkey Kong is finally back.