Friday, November 26, 2010

Donkey Kong Country Returns: Impressions

After spending a decade in suspended animation, in the early 90s Nintendo hired British developer Rare to revive the Donkey Kong character for an adventure game on the Super Nintendo. The result was Donkey Kong Country, and the game became an overnight success, which had grabbed consumers with its computer modeled graphical style. Sequels quickly followed, and the series' themes of crocodiles, barrel shooting, animal buddies, minecarts, and pirates had been embedded in the minds of the 16-bit era. In no time at all, Donkey Kong had joined the apex of Nintendo characters such as Mario, Luigi, and Link. He was unstoppable.

...until Nintendo sold Rare in 2002. Ever since that fateful moment, it seemed as though the company was afraid to evolve the character, and he once again became stagnant. An attempt was made with 2005's Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat, but many were put off by the game's deviance from Country, and as such it failed to make an impact. It seemed as though Donkey Kong and his simian family had joined the likes of forgotten icons such as Spyro the Dragon and Crash Bandicoot, and would be forever relegated as character slots in Mario sports games.

Or not!

Appropriately titled Donkey Kong Country Returns, the new title was by far the biggest bombshell at E3, and had just about every Nintendo fan hollering out of their seats. A new Donkey Kong being developed by the guys behind the Metroid Prime trilogy?!? It seemed too good to be true. But, of course, that ever vigilant presence known as skepticism had been seeped into the jaded minds of many gamers, and most were pondering this question: could the first Donkey Kong Country in fourteen years live up to the series' legacy.

Since I've spent over three days with the game, all I have to say is this: Forget every single piece of criticism you've heard. The title says it all, folks. Donkey Kong Country has returned.

Now, I'll be upfront in admitting I never really grew up with the original trilogy. We had the first game when I was a kid, but back then I found 2D platformers to be too intimidating. I did, however, set out to beat the game right before Returns released on Sunday and I'm itching to try out the entire series. Even before then, though, I was familiar with many of the series' mechanics, and I'm sure many older fans are wondering how well these have translated three video game generations later. I'll take the opportunity to be blunt.

This is a new Donkey Kong Country. Yes, many of your favorite elements are still present, but Retro Studios has taken a direction that defines this entry as their own. Perhaps the best example is the graphical style, which abandons Rare's moody ambience and takes a hint from the cartoony atmosphere of Jungle Beat. Much of the backgrounds are wonderfully animated and show an abundance of activity. The Kremlings aren't present, but the new bad guys (the evil Tiki Taks and their entourage of hypnotized animals) present even more personality in their animations and are hilarious to watch. Details like these show how much fun and care Retro had in their development.

And that's not even mentioning the out of this world level design, which I daresay might even rival Super Mario Galaxy 2. Much of the levels are in a new style, and they're incredibly fun to overcome. Ever imagined plowing through a horde of crabs while dodging constant cannon fire? How about being stalked by a giant killer octopus in stormy weather on the cove? All of these new concoctions blend with established relics, and put Rare's original executions to shame. The best ones by far are the minecart levels, all of which are deadly, fast-paced and absolutely insane and have to be seen to be believed. If a developer can make my jaw drop from level design in a 2D game, they have automatically won my respect.

Some might bemoan that Retro has taken a different path with this franchise, but I personally believe that this was absolutely necessary. While I had higher hopes for this game then I did with Kirby's Epic Yarn and Zelda: Skyward Sword, the only thing I truly feared was this would end up being a rehash of the original Donkey Kong Country, and thankfully that's not the case. This is a new, living, breathing Country and I feel that most of the omissions (New style, lack of water levels, no Kremlings) were needed in order to properly present a new Donkey Kong Country in this day and age.

That said, there are still many elements that remain present in this new game. For example, the barrel blasting sections return and they are even more inventive then they were on the Super Nintendo. Bonus games are hidden across the many levels, and once again require patience and timed jumps/shooting. Moreover, remember those pesky K O N G letters littered around the many bottomless pits? They're back with a vengeance, and they bring with them the hidden puzzle pieces, cleverly hidden and often missed.

Most of all, Diddy Kong returns as Donkey Kong's sidekick, and while he is only playable in two player co-op, he is still a valuable asset. Shake the Wii Remote, and you'll roll down everyone in your path while he speeds along on top of you. His Rockbarrel Boost jetpack from Donkey Kong 64 also makes an appearance, and you'll need 'em to to dodge projectiles. Overall, he's a bigger help then he ever was in Country.

Not enough to convince you crabby old gamers? I guarantee that there is one certain element that you will will go gaga for. Remember how hard the original games were?

A common criticism for today's video games is that they lack difficulty, and often don't challenge the player. Every gamer who grew up in the 8/16 bit era knows that most games back then were full of moments that tempted you to chuck your controller through the wall, and more often then not it was as if every level was out to ruin your day. Today, it seems as though games are only as difficult due to a case of awkward camera angles or bad level design.

No longer is this true.

Now, I've played many hard games in my lifetime. Upon looking back, it is true most of them reside on the older Nintendo consoles. Perhaps Nintendo felt the current generation lacks the tough skin older gamers grew up with and had made their games easier (hint: everything that wasn't Pikmin, Mario Sunshine, Fire Emblem, or F-Zero GX) so as to not chase the new, spoiled generation away. Well, I guess they had enough of that BS.




Other than Mario Galaxy 2, I cannot remember the last time a game made me want to scream this loud and kick something. Just like in the old days, you are going to fall down a well-placed bottomless pit. You are going to die over and over again by the hands of some rogue enemy who ruined your jump. You are going to miss a barrel. You are going to die at the hands of Retro's devilish level design. If you die, it's your fault, and the curses you will be shouting at the TV will be an testament to that.

And guess what? There's the option of time trials! Yeah, like the ones you partake in racing games. You can't mess around while under the pressure of the clock. NO, you have to be exactly precise in your movements. Every jump you make, every maneuver you perform, how many bad guys you stomp on in progression, WHETHER OR NOT YOU ROLL OR RUN THAT IS ABSOLUTELY CRUCIAL. EVERY SINGLE DECISION YOU MAKE HAS SOME SORT OF IMPACT, NO MATTER HOW SMALL, ON YOUR TIME RECORD. Hopefully, you'll make in time for the gold medal BUT NO. YOU'RE GOING TO BE A SECOND BEHIND AND YOU WILL WALLOW IN THE REGRETS YOU JUST MADE BECAUSE YOU SCREWED UP THAT ONE JUMP know who I hate the most? The jellyfish. THOSE JELLYFISH. I HAVE CURSED AT THEM SO MUCH WHILE PLAYING THIS GAME. Never before have I wished death on an entire species, and for that I have to give this game a pat on the back. I cannot tell you the amount of times that after dodging constant barrages of cannon fire and crab pincers that I HAD TO RUN INTO THOSE FLOATING ELECTRIC BITCHES AND GET ZAPPED. How about I tell you why I hate them. First, THEY ZAP THE HELL OUT OF DIDDY KONG AND THEN HE DIES. BECAUSE OF THAT I CAN'T ROLL AS FAST. BECAUSE OF THAT, I'M SLOWER AND I CAN'T MAKE IT IN TIME SO THEREFORE I JUST WASTED LIKE THREE MINUTES TRYING TO DO THIS TIME TRIAL FROM HELL




...that's much better.

So, um, yeah, I'm enjoying every moment of it. Hard to believe that the guys who made this game transitioned from Metroid Prime, a game that looked like this:

to a game that looks like this:

I love diversity!

You can expect a full review by the middle of December.

Oh, and welcome back, DK.


Well, that was decent. I'll be gushing about every face of the game in the review, so you can look forward to much more detail in the review.

Soo, what's after this?

For starters, you can expect the third game this weekend. Hopefully, I won't be late again, but if not this weekend, then very soon after.

And then the Epic Yarn review, which should arrive next week. I still feel guilty about not giving that the coverage it deserves...


  1. I'm glad to see another DKC enthusiast! Ever since I found out they were bringing back the old school 2D style, I've been hankering to get my hands on this game. Your preview only makes it worse! Curse waiting till Christmas!

    Also, I admit I was kinda cautious when I heard Retro was making it, though to be fair I felt the same way when they first announced Metroid Prime and look where that ended up! Retro is seriously one of the best non-1st party developers out there right now and its great to see them really start branching out!

    Back to Donkey Kong....
    You're preview pretty much eased my biggest worry so far and thats that the game would be far to easy. This generation of games (heck, even last generation) just felt too easy over all (We don't need regenerating health in every game, people!)But with Retro going... well retro, people can start expecting real challenges again. How is the soundtrack though? Retro had a terrific soundtrack for the Prime games and the original DKCs (especially 2) still blow most OSTs out of the water.

    Anyway, one closing remark, as one Nintendo fan to another:
    If you haven't already, play Donkey Kong Country 2, it's easily the best one of the platformers ever made. DKC1 is good, but not the best, and in my opinion 3 can be passed on, its not nearly as good. And for the love of Mario, keep away for Donkey Kong 64.

    Anyway, looking forward to the big review (and in a few months for the Skyward Sword one!)

  2. Trust me, you don't have to worry about the difficulty. You're definitely not going to be able to do any of the time trials on your first trial, considering that you have to literally master every single jump and know when exactly to change between running and rolling. The game does hand out plenty of balloons to a seasoned veteran, but at the moment I'm on the verge of using them all up. This is the hardest Nintendo game in god knows how long.

    The soundtrack is lovely. I think some of them have actually surpassed the originals, in particular Tree Top Rock and Forest Frenzy. Quite a few others actually have numerous remixes (Island Swing, Simian Seque, and Minecart Havoc), so if you don't like the first arrangement you hear then there's another one to look forward to. Most* of them sound very similar to their SNES counterparts, so I think you'll be satisfied. Kudos to Kenji Yamamoto (and I believe Minako Hamano.

    *With the exception of Aquatic Ambience, which you can listen to in the post. It's a different spin on one of my favorite classics, but I think it's still true to the spirit of the original. It's also in the only level you can relax!

    I'm not sure when I'll be able to play the other ones, but I played through DK64 when it came out. As an eight year old, it kicked ass but I don't know how it'd hold up today.

    I will be working on the review RIGHT after I finish the Epic Yarn one, so look forward to 'em both! And I hope I end up liking Skyward Sword in the end..