In the list of dormant Nintendo IPs that fans have been clamouring for a revival, Donkey Kong Country held a relatively high ranking during this DKC-free decade. The series’ following isn’t as fanatical as say, the cult behind Earthbound, but bringing back Donkey Kong to his platforming series today does sound like a low-risk endeavor for Nintendo, assuming that a sequel would be handled by a proven studio that has a profound respect for the series’ roots and 16-bit gameplay in general. Given Retro Studios’ close relationship with Nintendo, not many would feel skeptical of the Austin developer being up to the task. The result is the simply titled Donkey Kong Country Returns.
Retro wisely does not fool around with the series’ formula much. The gameplay is still 2D but takes numerous liberties with the 3D space, resulting in the modern-day platforming design known as 2.5D. No, you won’t have to worry about aiming barrel throws down the z-axis, but you can expect to jump into the background on a near-regular basis. It’s a welcome effect that does not feel forced or gimmicky and helps DKCR attain its own unique appeal beyond its predecessors. Returns retains many of the elements that made prior installments bestsellers and include a satisfying collection of mine cart stages, multi-phase boss fights, item collecting, and a ton of vine-swing. From beachside paths to underground temples, the variety of environments is an unsurprising but still enjoyable selection of areas fitting for the tropical island that is the setting of Donkey Kong Country Returns.
Nintendo has become quite an old hand at co-op friendly platformers. With Donkey Kong Country Returns, the company manages to find a sweet spot, bridging the gap between the overly challenging, while often amusing 4-player chaos of New Super Mario Bros Wii and the no-death ease of Kirby’s Epic Yarn. Since the single player experience already provides access to Diddy’s abilities, there is no need for the game to tweak the level design should a 2nd player want to join in. There are of course the intrinsic timing challenges that come with having another player, but the game also provides countless opportunities to divide-and-conquer.
If there was one standout aspect of Donkey Kong Country Returns that Retro Studios’ should get credit for, it is their ability to give players SNES-era flashbacks of other great platformers as they’re playing DKCR. The game delivers that kind of classic challenge where you’ll find yourself losing lives in the same trap over and over again, not because of poor level design but because you either A) keep rushing through vital sections without thinking or B) had a momentary brain fart. It’s that kind of level design where you only have yourself to blame so you never feel compelled to throw your controller. And while pulling this off might seem like child’s play compared to what Retro Studios pulled off with Metroid Prime, it still does not make this effort any less impressive. When you do finally master a mine cart area or pull off that perfect string of 12 barrel jumps, you’ll get that sense of accomplishment that many newer, well-intentioned side-scrolling platformers fail to deliver. It is this aspect that not only makes Donkey Kong Country Returns one of the best platformers of 2010, but also one of the best Wii games ever made.
(This review was based off a complete playthrough of the game, where about half the stages were played with a 2nd player. A copy of the game was provided by Nintendo for review purposes.)
Developer: Retro Studios/Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo Wii
Released: November 21, 2010