It's hard to know what to expect when a developer like Retro Studios takes over a franchise as highly regarded as the Donkey Kong Country series. But with the Metroid Prime trilogy
behind them I knew that they had the capability to go above and beyond the framework that RareWare set out for the platforming juggernaut. With Donkey Kong Country Returns; Retro raises the bar not just for the series, but for all 2D platform games with it's mastery of ALL areas of design. From tight controls that allow for precision manoeuvring, outstanding level design, and a picture perfect difficulty curve. Retro also introduces new elements to the series like Diddy's jet pack function, interactive foreground and backgrounds, and creatively destructive environments. With this review I'm going to attempt to put into words why this is my favourite 2D platformer ever!
The mechanics in this game are very sound. It's a weightier game which makes the pace of the platforming faster than your average game but the directional control is so intimate that precision jumps are easy to pull off so long as your coordination is on point. There are two control schemes (one with and without the nunchuck), I preferred using just the Wiimote since I found that the less buttons you have to manage the better. On paper, flicking the Wiimote vertically to roll sounds like a nightmare, but in practise it works wonderfully as the motion controls are surprisingly responsive. Diddy's jet-pack hovering adds an extra layer of complexity to the controls and is simply a blast to use.
The level design in Donkey Kong Country Returns is arguably it's greatest strength. Almost all of the game's 72 stages feel expertly crafted and present a unique challenge to the player. You'll encounter everything from a giant octopus, crumbling canyons, a mine-shaft full of dastardly moles, killer tsunami waves, and a factory full of bionic hands (to name just a few!). The famed mine-cart and Rambi levels return and are as intense and difficult as ever before! And this game introduces a new type of auto-scroller by way of the rocket barrel levels which presents some of the game's funnest moments. The controls for using the rocket are so simple yet manoeuvring through the often outrageous obstacles proves to be a challenge not suited for mere casual players. >: )
The boss battles are fairly consistent throughout this game. Some of these encounters include a trio of crab pirate captains, a chicken in a mech suit, and the foreman of the mole mining coalition. These are some creative boss fights that are honestly quite challenging! Although Donkey Kong Country Returns is a consistently challenging and patience testing game, it never feels unfair. This is (again) because the controls are so tight and stuff like the level designs and enemy placements are so carefully calculated. But it's also because of the game's buttery smooth difficulty curve that increases at a rate that really allows for player growth and skill refinement. In terms of longevity this is the longest DKC game at 72 stages (8 worlds), and there's a f*** ton of secret puzzle pieces to find and special challenge stages to unlock by way of collecting all 4 kong letters in every stage for each world.
To be frank, the story in this game is pretty minimal. Essentially what happens are some strange tiki creatures invade Donkey Kong Island and hypnotise all of the island's inhabitants to steal all of Donkey Kong's bananas. Donkey Kong and his pal Diddy must then scale the island (just like in the original Donkey Kong Country
) to ultimately break the curse. The story really just presents itself as an excuse to make all of these areas and levels but it's still pretty cute all the same. Presentation wise the game sports a fair art direction with some really cool "silhouette themed" levels thrown in for good measure. The soundtrack is pretty decent as well, mostly consisting of reworked versions of classic tunes from the original SNES game, my favourite being the return of Life in the Mines
Simply put Donkey Kong Country Returns is 2D Platforming poetry. It's the gold standard to which I judge all other games in the genre. Never have I played a game that demonstrates so much of what makes games fun, gratifying, and fair. Sure it's hard, uncompromising even... But so rarely do we see game developers now'a'days make games without constantly pampering us and slapping on training wheels. Retro dares to give us the benefit of the doubt by letting us prove that we can best even the most awesome challenges through hard work and determination. This is the type of game that an accomplished gamer puts on their resume, well done.