Jun 23, 2011

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Review: Donkey Kong Country Returns

Review: Donkey Kong Country Returns

This review was originally published November 30, 2010, and is republished here for your convenience.

Like many children back in the day, I had a Super Nintendo.  Unfortunately, my mother thought the games for said system were too expensive, and so the only games I ever really got to play on Nintendo’s second console were Super Mario World, Super Mario All-Stars, and Donkey Kong Country.  As a result, I was primarily a Sega girl at the time, since I had plenty of games for the Genesis, and all my friends had that system, rather than Nintendo’s sweet little gray box.  However, I did spend hours, and hours, and hours on those three cartridges that I did own, and to this day, the first Donkey Kong Country is still one of my all-time favorite games, with plenty of fond memories playing it with my friends and family.  As a result, when I heard Nintendo was doing a New Super Mario Bros, but with Donkey Kong Country, I was ecstatic, and eagerly counted down the days until the game’s release.  Now it’s finally out and available for purchase, but does it live up to my nostalgia-fueled hype, or will fans of the series be disappointed?  And will newcomers who never experienced the amazing original game find this reboot as compelling as veterans?

I’m proud to report that overall, Retro and Nintendo have hit a homerun with Donkey Kong Country Returns.  It is probably the biggest love letter to fans of any retro reboot I’ve played recently, and skilled newcomers and platformer enthusiasts will undoubtedly be downloading the Virtual Console version of the original SNES game after they’ve thoroughly exhausted this new title.

The first thing fans of the series will immediately recognize is the excellent soundtrack.  Although a few updates and additions have been made, the Retro team really did an excellent job of keeping or matching the classic tunes as much as possible.  For me, the music is one of the things I remember most about certain classic games, and I’m always incredibly disappointed when reboots or remakes alter those songs: for example, Tetris just isn’t the same for me without the original music.  Thankfully, Retro and Nintendo recognized this, and you will instantly be humming along to the various jungle themes, cave themes, and more.  Best of all, once you defeat each areas’ boss, you unlock music tracks in the extras section, so you can listen to them again directly from the menu whenever you wish.

The gameplay will instantly feel familiar as well, although I will admit that the controls could have been better, and they really prevented me from giving this game a perfect ten, which I would have loved to do.  The game gives you two control options: the Wiimote and nunchuk or the Wiimote alone (held sideways, ala New Super Mario Bros Wii).  I initially tried the game with the Wiimote nunchuk  combo, but didn’t care for it, so I switched to the NES-style, and played the rest of the game that way.  I still would have really, really preferred the option to use the classic controller (or Gamecube controller), as the game requires more than the limited buttons allowed by the Wiimote, and shaking repeatedly is hard on your wrists and elbows.  For example, to jump you press “2,” and to grab you press “1.”  In order to roll, you have to shake and press right on the D-pad, to blow, you press down and shake.  To pound the ground, you have to shake several times.  That all sounds fine in theory, but the problem is it doesn’t work as well as it could.  Having to shake constantly is annoying at worst and wearing at best, and the shake mechanic isn’t nearly as responsive as a button press would be.  Although the game is definitely challenging in its own right, I suffered many deaths due to the fact that my shaking wasn’t registered quickly enough (especially for blowing) or frequently enough (especially for pounding).  Allowing use of the classic controller, with its SNES-style buttons, would have immediately remedied these issues, and because it continued to bother me despite how much I enjoyed the game, I simply could not overlook this flaw.

Still, although the game plays a little differently from the original, despite my nostalgia snubbing any major changes initially, I grew to really appreciate most of these elements.  Pounding is now a major element of the game, and is not used only for discovering hidden bananas, but actually for major environmental puzzles; pounding on certain switches (labeled “DK”) will completely change the level, opening up new paths.  Blowing is also a new element, allowing DK to find secret coins and puzzle pieces, as well as extinguishing dangerous fire or ice enemies.  The game also uses Donkey Kong’s climbing skills more than in the SNES original, implementing grass he can climb and hang from, as well as bells he can ring to unlock secrets or new areas.  In single player, Diddy will ride on your back (rather than tagging along behind you), and he has a jet pack that will allow you to extend your jumps slightly.  Although I initially missed the “slap” of swapping the two characters, this system means as long as you have Diddy, you can utilize his abilities: no need to switch characters.  I also discovered that Diddy wasn’t as necessary to reach certain areas as he was in the original game, meaning you won’t be at a disadvantage in that sense if you don’t have him.  Related to this, unlike the original game, each character gets two hearts (unless you use a temporary upgrade), meaning you have four “lives” within the level (rather than the “two” of the original game).  Due to the steep difficulty of the game, this is a welcome change.  Purists may snub the concept now, but after playing the game for a few moments you will be grateful Retro has made the game as forgiving as it is.