In recent years Donkey Kong has been in some great titles (Jungle Beat being one of my all time favourites) but mostly he’s starred in experimental kinds of games like King of Swing and Donkey Konga, or in spin-off games like Mario vs DK. None of these have been big mass-appeal games and it felt like Nintendo were just using the series to try out various things to see what stuck. But after the success of New Super Mario Bros Wii it has been clear that there is still a huge market for the 2D platformer on consoles, so Nintendo has followed up the 2D Mario revival with a revival of 2D Donkey Kong Country in Donkey Kong: Country Returns. It’s a top-notch platform game with lots of variety in mechanics and level design, lots of content and high difficulty – it should satisfy any long-time platform gamer and still be entertaining (and very challenging, in a good way) for new players.
Bananas for Bananas
The story is the same as always – someone has taken Kong’s secret hoard of bananas, so he goes off to get them back. There is a little more to it – some nefarious villains called the Tiki Tak Tribe are behind the burglary, and they’re stealing all the bananas by hypnotising the animals in the jungle and controlling them. Of all the animals around only Donkey Kong (and Diddy, and Cranky, so basically the Kong family) seem immune to the rhythmic music that have the other animals in a trance. So, along with getting back his hoard of bananas it’s also up to Kong to save the animals. But mainly he just wants the bananas.
Donkey Kong is a much bigger beast than Mario, so it’s inevitable that he’s got very different physics. Generally he’s a lot less maneuverable and he can’t get into tight spots or stand on tiny platforms, so the platforming takes on a very different style to Mario games. He has quite different moves too. Kong can run, jump and duck but he can’t do things like wall-jump or butt-stomp. By shaking the Wii Remote you can make him pound the ground when he’s standing still to stun enemies or break floorboards. By running and shaking the remote he can also roll – indefinitely if Diddy is on his back and you carry on shaking.
You find Diddy in special barrels scattered around the place – he’s kind of an upgrade as he gives you extra hearts and makes your jump and rolls better. By standing still, pressing down and shaking the remote Donkey Kong will blow air – useful to make windmills turn or dandelions blow away. I love the little turbines that power light bulbs – when you blow them the bulb slowly lights up and then pops, revealing a treat. Kong can also grab things like vines, grassy walls or barrels, and if he has Diddy on his back he can float a little bit using Diddy’s jet pack. There is also a 2 player co-op mode in Donkey Kong: Country Returns with one player as Donkey and the other as Diddy. In this mode the player controlling Diddy has a few other moves, the main one being the use of his Peanut Popgun, which you can use to shoot enemies.
The controls are very responsive despite Kong’s bulk, but I do sometimes find the lack of maneuverability a challenge because it means you have to be more precise. For instance, if you have to jump over a chasm you have to time your jump well because Kong doesn’t have a B-dash move that will make him jump far. He also doesn’t get much height on his jumps, and without a wall jump to help you recover you have to make sure you jump at just the right time. This means you have to be a bit more deliberate than in Mario games where you can generally jump all over the place knowing that you can usually recover if you miss something – Donkey Kong: Country Returns is not so forgiving.
Variety and Challenge
The challenge factor is high right from the beginning, even if all you’re trying to do is get through the stage. Fortunately there are usually two, and sometimes three, checkpoints in a stage, so all you have to do is make it to the next checkpoint to progress. You have a limited number of lives (or balloons), however, so you want to stock up on balloons at Cranky Kong’s shop before you take on a level to make sure you don’t run out after getting to the second or third checkpoint.
The variety in the game is much greater than the move list would suggest. This is because Kong can do a bunch of other things depending on the stage. Some stages he gets to ride Rambi the rhinoceros. While riding Rambi he is almost invincible so you just run through everything, making Rambi charge by shaking the Wii Remote. Some stages have Kong riding in a mine cart where all you can do is duck or jump, but these are some of the best (and at times most infuriating) in the game because of the great level design. I had a great wow moment when a curved section of tracks tore off and started rolling downhill – with Kong still on them! This gets even more crazy later when he rides on top of a big egg, and then falls inside and carries on riding even as huge chunks of the egg are broken by the stalagmites.
Other stages have ships falling apart, rocky outcrops falling when Kong walks on them or the sea’s waves washing away sections of stages. There’s a permanent feeling of danger – you really have to keep on your toes because something could happen any second that will take out Donkey Kong. This is fun because getting through a stage gives you a sense of accomplishment, and there is always suspense while playing. The challenge is taken a little far every now and then when memory becomes more important than reflexes and the only way to complete a certain section is to play it over and over again. Like I said, stock up on balloons –you’re going to need them.
Quantity + Quality – a winning combination
Donkey Kong Country Returns is a big game. There are eight worlds, each with between six and eight stages and a boss battle. The stages are also really big – even a Time Attack run through a stage might take you three minutes. If you’re playing the stage normally and trying to collect the KONG letters along the way and trying to find the hidden puzzle pieces too it’s going to take much longer. I find just getting through the stages enough challenge to start with, and then I go back later to find the collectibles (some of them are in really challenging locations). Once you complete the game there is an extra world where the stages are opened up by collecting KONG and the puzzle pieces in each stage, so the extrinsic rewards for finding all the collectibles are pretty big. Fortunately you can buy an item at Cranky’s shop – Squawks the parrot – which helps you find puzzle pieces by squawking when one is near you. To buy items, which are only usable for one life on one stage, you have to collect banana coins which means you can’t just buy lots of Squawks without grinding for lots of coins, but it’s nice to know he’s there if you can’t find that last puzzle piece.
There is also an item that will make you invincible for a period and another that will add an extra hit point (you only have two) – these are very useful if you’re struggling with a boss battle. Nintendo have also implemented the Super Guide feature again – once you’ve died enough times on a stage a little pig will appear which you can talk to to call in Super Kong. This guy is like the Superman of Kongs. He will carry on to the end of the stage if you want him to, although nothing he picks up can be kept. The stage sequence is linear for the most part, so if you find one stage too hard then this is the only way to get past it to the other stages, making the Super Guide a very welcome feature (erm, not that I had to use it, of course).
Donkey Kong: Country Returns is not the most innovative platformer (like, say, Super Mario Galaxy is), but it is true to its roots, immensely fun and chock-full of great ideas. The stages are varied and full of set pieces that are unique, making every section feel fresh and interesting. Much of the time you’re hanging on to life by the skin of your teeth and the challenge of the game adds to its charm (although it can also add to your frustration every now and then). Its old school in this way, not pulling any punches in bombarding you with chances of instantaneous deaths. But it is rich, so rich. Beautiful art, well animated enemies, characters and backdrops, catchy music, fun boss battles (although these are weak compared to the awesome Jungle Beat bosses), and a vast amount of content (say 12-15 hours to get through the levels, many hours more to complete their collectibles and time attacks), make Donkey Kong: Country Returns a delight for platform game fans.