The original Donkey Kong Country, released in 1994 for the Super Nintendo, holds a special place in my heart. (Check out our retro review of that game if you haven’t seen it.) The music, the tight gameplay, the innovative 3D-wireframe-to-2D-sprite visual style: DKC was the total package. The game came out of nowhere to deliver a platforming experience that rivaled the best of the Super Mario series. And for me personally, the game remains a powerfully nostalgic games to revisit. So when it was announced that Retro Studios—the solid developer behind the Metroid Prime series—would be bringing the classic gaming ape back to his side-scrolling golden years, I couldn’t wait for the revival. But could a fresh Country adventure possibly live up to legend of the original SNES series?
The short answer is, “Yeah, pretty much.”
Retro Studios has captured so much of the magic that made the original Donkey Kong Country amazing. The first thing you’ll notice is that much of the stellar music from original returns, sometimes seemingly unchanged, other times noticeably remixed, instantly making the soundtrack a hit and lending the game a welcome familiarity. The visual style is consistently clean and colorful, and all the characters and locales look right at home. In presentation, Retro strikes a delicate balance between homage and technical advancement, arguably nailing exactly what a DKC revival should look and sound like.
Storywise, this is yet another tale of Donkey Kong and friends fighting to retain possession of DK’s massive bananas hoard. This go-around the musically hypnotic Tiki Tak Tribe plays the role of the fiendish fruit filchers. The Tikis are certainly adequate villains in their own right, their colorful flourishes and musical references inject some pleasant originality into the series. But I did find myself missing the old Kremlins’ crocodile presence to some extent. Boss fights against the Tikis felt a little hit or miss for me, though your mileage my vary.
In the gameplay department, Returns takes a few risks at being its own game. Like the original, controls are tight and levels get challenging. Donkey and Diddy can now take two hits each before they’re out—unlike in the original series where one hit would kill either of them. Power-ups that can be purchased from a Cranky Kong shop in each area will even allow each ape to take a third hit.
As a Wii game, Donkey Kong Country Returns' controls are made for the Wiimote. And while I had thought I'd be a SNES purist and play using a Classic Controller, this was not an option. The Wii Classic Controller is not supported. There is an option to use a Wiimote-Nunchuk control scheme, but I don’t see how that would be superior to just holding the Wiimote sideways. This means you are limited to the D-pad and two buttons, plus—of course—a jolt of motion controls.
Honestly, I'm never very keen on the motion controls, but after taking some time to acclimate to shaking the Wiimote to preform a roll, ground pound, or blowing out a candle (seriously), I suppose it’s not actually that bad here. It does take some getting use to though. Especially for DK’s classic roll maneuver, the accuracy of a button press would have been preferable, but the shaky motion controls get the job done.
The controls of Donkey Kong Country Returns are tight and super responsive, exactly what a demanding platformer requires. Donkey Kong himself feels legitimately heavy this time around, with every jump and landing carrying the heft of his 300+lbs. When you get the big ape galloping swiftly through a level, the inertia of DK’s weight is palpable, making him wild and destructive, but not necessarily easy to accurately maneuver. At times, I wished DK was a bit lighter on his feet, but the game’s controls are precise enough that I never felt like he was letting me down. Each victory was my own, as was each failure.
Unlike in the original DKC, where you can swap between controlling Donkey and Diddy at pretty much anytime, you only control Donkey Kong in Returns’ single-player game. Diddy is there too, but playing solo, you never control him alone. In fact, Diddy Kong is arguably more a power-up here, clinging on to Donkey’s back, allowing him to hover briefly thanks to Diddy’s jetpack.
While we’re discussing Diddy Kong, I have to say this: the inclusion of a jetpack in this game is pretty stupid. I know, I know...it’s from Donkey Kong 64 and the little guy even has it in Smash Bros, but it’s too over-the-top for my tastes. That jetpack admittedly does come in handy, taking the edge off of the precision-demanding platforming with a little hovering. Though useful as it may be, it also makes bouncing off enemies’ heads for bonus height tougher in many instances, since both actions are performed by pressing the jump button whilst airborne. Still—stupid or not—Diddy’s jetpack is a welcome support, because DKC Returns is a very challenging game. And by “very challenging”, I mean it’s hard as f#$k.
Since the original arcade game hit in the 80’s, the name Donkey Kong has been synonymous with difficulty. That first game was such a beast, it’s where the phrase “it’s on like Donkey Kong” derives from. And while I never thought of them as overly difficult, the Donkey Kong Country series on SNES did ramp up to a decent challenge on later stages. So with that legacy in mind, it might come as no surprise that Donkey Kong Country Returns is a hard game. But for a Wii game with a colorful cartoon aesthetic, you will probably be surprised with just how hard the game really is. The Super Nintendo days never challenged you like this. Prepare to die. A lot.
There are checkpoints midway through each level so, just in case you die, you won’t have to start from the very beginning. In early DKC games this was marked by a special barrel, but now checkpoints are managed by pigs for some reason. As it turns out, if you fail enough times on a particular level, these little pigs will show you a tutorial video to illustrate how to get through it. Anytime this came up, I found the extra help kind of insulting. I mean, it's not like I didn’t know what I need to do, it’s just that what I need to do is pretty damn hard to execute.
To be clear, the level designs in Returns are genuinely awesome. In fact, even with the quality visuals and perfect soundtrack, I would say that level design is this game’s defining trait. Retro Studios manages to bring so many new ideas to the DKC formula that nothing feels like a retread. The K-O-N-G letters are back to collect, along with a variable number of puzzle pieces hidden about each level, often in deviously clever places. The 3D visuals even get used in inventive ways, with jumps from the fore to the background and back again, or barrels catapulting the Kongs all over the place in elaborate transition set pieces tying one segment to another.
The classic mine cart levels make a welcome return here, and they’re even crazier than you remember. Rocket Barrel levels—originally introduced in Donkey Kong Country 3 (though in a different form than seen here)—also show up here to give the player a different kind of riding level. To be honest, I really hated these Rocket Barrel levels. They just aren’t very fun. The controls are kind of novel, though not necessarily good, and every time I came across a Rocket Barrel segment, the flow of the game felt ruined. The mine cart levels are always interesting, but these rocket ones are a poor substitute. More mine carts next time, less rockets.
Speaking of returning elements from original Country games, where the hell are my animal buddies? On my first play through, I only saw Rambi the Rhino in one of the last levels. One Rambi, one time. That’s so light on animal assistance, I feel like I must have missed a ton of stuff along the way.
I'm mostly nitpicking here because Returns’ platforming and level design are so very impressive. Admittedly though, the steep difficulty (and annoying Rocket Barrel levels) detracted from my overall experience. It also made coop multiplayer a hard sell with my friends. Many times I ended up replaying the same level over and over, unable to make it through the path the way the game demanded that I master. So be forewarned: if difficult platforming games are not your thing, steer clear of this one. But if you’d down for a solid challenge, Donkey Kong Country Returns is absolutely worth your time—and if you're a fan of the Super Nintendo DKC games it’s still essentially a must-play.
Any lingering doubts I might have had in recommending DKC Returns were instantly dashed when I played one of the last levels in game, a mad scramble through a volcano called “Red Red Rising”. Despite the difficulty—and my several, frequent deaths—this level proved to be superbly memorable and delightfully rewarding. The culmination of all the trials the player has overcome by this point, you are forced to utilize your platforming skills near flawlessly—rolling, jumping, bounding off enemies’ heads—in order to dash up the inside of an erupting volcano, constantly pursued by deadly lava rising below your feet. The level had me so completely enthralled that my wife Marissa stopped what she was doing just to watch me play it—a rare feat games rarely accomplish.
In the end, Red Red Rising represents the perfect summation of what Donkey Kong Country Returns has to offer. It’s crazy, frantic, visually arresting fun, demanding real mastery in order to progress, but generously rewarding players for their effort…eventually.