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Donkey Kong Country Returns Review

By Matt Cabral, 12/6/2010

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It was just about a year ago that Nintendo’s New Super Mario Bros. Wii numbed nostalgia-loving gamers’ thumbs with its modern day take on old school platforming. Like that title, Donkey Kong Country Returns respects its SNES-era roots while making its gameplay and presentation relevant for the current generation. Developed by Retro Studios, the same folks that successfully turned Metroid into an FPS adventure, DKCR is a must-play for fans of the run-jump-climb-crouch-collect genre.

Once again, players get behind the famed chest-beating chimp and--once again--they must recover his banana horde. This time the fruit-stealing antagonists are possessed Tiki masks that have hypnotized the local wildlife population, making them turn against DK and covet his precious pile of bananas. This simple set up, of course, leads to DK traversing multiple levels, all meticulously crafted to support the title’s polished platforming challenges. Additionally, each world is capped with a boss battle offering a welcome change of pace from the dominant side-scrolling action. Nintendo pretty much invented the platforming genre, so it’s no surprise they get the basics right. However, it’s the elements complementing the expected pitch-perfect gameplay that truly make DKCR shine.

For starters, the visuals pop off the screen with a vibrancy usually reserved for Pixar films. This is one of the best looking games on the Wii, and a testament to what the modestly powered hardware can achieve when set firing on all cylinders. Spanning various sections of a tropical island, eight themed areas offer detail, diversity, and many visual surprises, all drenched in hues that’d make a rainbow feel inadequate. In addition to leveraging a brimming color palette, bringing oceans, jungles, mountains, industrial areas and volcanoes to eye-popping life, DKCR uses a number of tricks to further support its can’t-believe-it’s-a-Wii-game graphics.

Many levels incorporate background and foreground action that hurl the big ape out of his 2D world or bring baddies into it. A monkey-chucking barrel, for example, might shoot DK into the background, where a smaller version of him must continue his quest. Similarly, an enemy seemingly placed safely in the distance may find a way to obstruct your path. Other games have blended 2D and 3D, but the effect has generally been cosmetic; DKCR ups the ante, brilliantly weaving the dual perspectives into its gameplay. Another neat trick involves silhouetting the foreground while a blazing sunset lights up the background. This essentially turns DK and his adversaries into black shadows, while treating players to some of the game’s most beautiful levels.

You won’t want to spend too much time taking in DKCR‘s impressive scenery though, as rubbernecking is punishable by death in this challenging world. Yes, just like the classic titles it’s based on, DK’s latest will test your reflexes--no joke, the morning after an extended play session my right thumb was sore to the touch. Much of the difficulty stems from the game’s mine cart and rocket missions; these can’t-catch-your-breath levels hurtle you forward toward obstacles, enemies, and collectibles you’ll risk your life trying to snag. As with the games it takes its inspiration from, DKCR sometimes demands a delicate balance between precision, memorization, and luck. Thankfully, frustration is thwarted by the return of Nintendo’s Super Guide. Anyone who survived New Super Mario Bros. Wii‘s more challenging moments probably did so with the help of this hand-holding feature. Basically, the game will play itself, allowing you to complete a level once you’ve burned through an embarrassing number of lives. Despite this helpful inclusion, I still would have liked to see the challenge offset by different difficulty settings, mainly because using the guide robs you of the collectibles you’d otherwise earn.

Speaking of loot, players can expect to collect plenty; extra life-granting balloons, the franchise’s famed K-O-N-G tiles, coins, and, of course, bananas, are all just begging to be grabbed up by the angry ape. In fact, finding everything is part of the fun, as doing so often takes you off the beaten path and poses some of the missions’ most inventive challenges. Replaying levels is a must, especially for completionists who want to see everything the game has to offer. You can recruit a buddy, in the form of a jetpack-sporting Diddy Kong, to help snag all those goodies and defeat the psychotic animals in co-op; it’s a fun mode for sure, especially if you’re joined by a less skilled player looking to get their paws wet. However, as with New Super Mario Bros. Wii, it becomes crazy chaotic during the late-game difficulty spikes.

You’ll want to go it alone if you plan on finishing the more pulse-quickening levels and collecting all the extras. That said, you’re not entirely on your own even when you trek through the jungle solo. Diddy, when broken from barrels, will hop on DK‘s back--his extended jump is a big help--and Rambi the rhino occasionally comes out to play and smash things. DK’s no slouch either; he can jump, smash and chuck items, hop on and power roll over enemies, navigate climbable surfaces, blow a wind gust, and ground pound. Doing all this is best handled with the Wii-mote held horizontally like a NES pad, although a Wii-mote/Nun-chuck option is also available. You are required to execute some of DK’s moves with motion-sensing gestures, but all are pretty intuitive and, in most cases, serve to immerse you further in the experience. You’ll no doubt hear detractors complaining that the controls fueled the difficulty, but I didn’t find this to be the case; no question it can be a taxing game, but more often than not it was my fault--not the hardware’s--that saw me revisiting checkpoints.

If you’re craving the kind of expertly crafted platforming only Nintendo seems to able to produce, as well as one of the year’s best Wii offerings, you‘ll find DKCR as appealing as a ripe banana. It doesn’t hurt that it’s supported by stunning visuals, tremendous replay value, and the return of one of gaming’s most beloved icons. The sometimes insane difficulty will sting some gamers, including the Wii’s target demographic, but fans brought up in the 8- and 16-bit eras will appreciate the robust challenge. Epic Mickey might be stealing the Wii spotlight this holiday season, but this monkey shouldn’t be overlooked.

Overall: 9 out of 10



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