Donkey Kong Country Returns Review

Foreword

Oh I remember playing this game! It was extremely difficult and frustrating, forcing me to be very precise with the controls and have fast reflexes, or risk dying over and over again…but enough about my rambling. I bought this game at Wal-Mart in February 2014 after getting only one game (Other M) at Downsview Flea Market two months prior, which was a disappointment. I already knew what I was getting myself into after reading online reviews; however, it would change everything I knew and experienced about video games (like with Twilight Princess).

After the barrage of mediocre games that plagued the IP on the Nintendo Game-Cube, the big N wanted to reboot DK the way Metroid was with the Prime series. Since they were pleased with the results, they asked Retro Studios to develop another game for them. A few years back, they decided to make Donkey Kong Country 4 on the DS as a side-project, though they brought the idea over to the Wii in 2009. This was a smart move, since the console could accomplish feats not possible with the original trilogy first seen on the Super Nintendo and later the Game Boy Advance.

Returns is an excellent reboot that has superb graphics and a heartwarming soundtrack, simple yet precise controls and a superior gameplay, redeeming the reputation of the franchise. It’s faithful to the original trilogy, full of references that invoke nostalgia in veteran players, adding new concepts and mechanics that will captivate newcomers. As mentioned before, this is a highly challenging game that requires fast reflexes and precise button mashing to overcome the obstacles which are real brain teasers. Therefore, this is not something for casual gamers to play.

Presentation: 10/10

The graphics will immediately blow you away, with near high definition visuals in a colorful and vibrant world all rendered at native 480p SD and consistent 60 FPS. Retro Studios went for a more cartoony look, so you won’t be seeing realistic fur or photo-realistic backgrounds (though Tropical Freeze takes that route). Unlike Mario though, this is a 2.5 D sidescroller in terms of both graphics and gameplay; thus, you’ll occasionally control the ape in the background and foreground, which enemies and obstacles can harm DK in the middle (I find this to be awesome).

Background of levels corresponds with map, such as seeing the edge of the jungle upon entering the beach. Diversity is key as the color and lighting change for different environments that adds realism and beauty. Few levels have an art style of water-color painted background and a foreground (including the apes, enemies, and hazards) rendered in black vector silhouette…beautiful. Animation and modelling is breath-taking though the sharpness makes everything jaggy. Unfortunately, textures are rough from being a mix of cartoon and realism.

As soon as the title screen appears, you are immediately greeted with the original title theme, followed by familiar melodies in levels. These come from the original trilogy remastered to appeal to veterans, but that’s not to say newer tracks are neglected. Games ranging from jazz to blues while instruments including piano, bongos, and sxaphone all add something to spice up the soundtrack. This plus being rendered in glorious high definition (the audio, not graphics), and perfect balance between sound effects and music make Returns very rewarding to the ears.

Plot Analysis: 5.0/10

Story starts off with a volcano on a tropical island that erupts, releasing lava and a dozen fireballs that transform into sentient musical instrument – wooden carving hybrids called Tikis. A gigantic Tiki that is made of stone and lacks being an instrument is erected at the top, commanding its minions to hypnotize the islands’ animals. They are then brainwashed into stealing all the bananas on the island, including Donkey Kong’s banana hoard. Diddy Kong notices and gives chase, while DK is taken hostage by a Tiki, who fails hypnotizing the ape (guess he’s too stupid to know).

Now he must re-claim both the island and the banana hoard. Along the way, he is aided by Cranky Kong, Squawks, Rambi…and that pig. The couple fights many beasts that are brainwashed by the Tikis which are all eventually defeated. We soon a discover a factory manufactures that bananas and mined resources into Tiki minions. When they climb to the top, the apes discover Tiki Tong, the mastermind behind all this and uses bananas to power-up. But Tiki Tong is successfully defeated and peace returns to the island once again when DK punches the moon to crush it.

The plot isn’t something that is as good as say Zelda, though simple enough to captivate players and immerse them to play the game. This target audience is obviously kids, so get used to the corny jokes and sheer stupidity of the characters (yes, it’s worse than Colors). No words or speech are present, although the body language is very expressive to make up for the lack of dialogue. What’s a damn shame is the plot is bare-bones compared to more recent DK games, but I guess that’s just a consequence of rebooting the classics instead of the 3D installments (DK 64 was the only 3D game, sorry).

Cutscenes are few and far in between, and besides the intro and conclusion (rendered in stunning CGI), all else simply depicts them of the apes interacting with the Tikis and bosses. These mundane clips repeat the same formula: they arrive in the boss’ lair, Diddy Kong notices it, Donkey Kong stares and growls at it, Tiki hypnotizes the monster(s) and the fight commences. While the animation, camera, special effects, and choreography are done very well, the lack of quality and quantity of these corny cinematics are weighing the game down negatively – not good for a reboot.

Gameplay: 8.0/10

There is a limited amount of health that makes this extremely challenging, forcing players to be extremely cautious. You start off with only two hearts and can upgrade to four if equipped with Diddy Kong or even five with a power-up. Back then, it was only one to two HP with no checkpoints so be grateful. The young chimpanzee allows DK to hover with his jet-packs for longer and more precise jumps; a friend can join in and play as him for co-op, as Diddy is lighter and more agile than the gorilla. Different modes of transportation such as mine-carts, rocket barrels, and barrel cannons add more fun.

A new feature is the rocket barrel, which is what its name suggests and is an inspiration for the mobile game Flappy Bird…though less difficult and more fun. Another is the foreground/background concept I mentioned earlier; however, it’s hard to see DK so far away (background) though it helps you predict upcoming enemies and hazards (foreground). Vine walls and ceilings are a plus but Rambi is the only returning animal (for some reason the ostrich and swordfish are gone). So overall you can tell that it’s a game worth to be played.

You can either use the Wii Remote alone or combine it with the Nunchuk extension to play. The d-pad is to move; 1 button is for running, grabbing, and climbing; 2 button is to jump and maneuver rocket barrels and barrel cannons. Shaking the Wii Remote (and the Nunchuk if used) enables rolling, stomping, blowing, and beating the ever-living shit out of the Tikis and barrels. Diddy Kong hovers and shoots instead of jumping and stomping, while the control stick, A button, and B trigger do what the d-pad, 1 and 2 buttons do if you’re using the Nunchuk variation.

Precision is a must with the consequence of immediate death or health reduction. This creates many issues like added difficulty and small reaction time, with more frustration for the player. I did notice a benefit as it allows temporary invincibility when hit and poor collision detection in some instances (just like with Mario). It’s very simple to learn and master the controls, making the game welcoming to newcomers and casual gamers. There are no glitches that make this unplayable or unfair, so just keep practicing and you should overcome the aforementioned setbacks.

Believe me when I say this – Returns is the hardest game you’ll play on the Wii and for the 7th generation (okay, besides Dark Souls and Monster Hunter). It’s just as frustrating and challenging as the originals, if not even harder if you aim to be a completionist. This game is fair though since Cranky Kong has a shop that sells extra lives, heart booster, puzzle finder (Squawks), and map key…though you can choose to ignore these. Also, there is a Super Guide available if you die 8 times in a row. Returns does stay faithful by making you play until you quit from sheer frustration.

Content: 8.8/10

If you think beating the game alone wasn’t a challenge, then 2 player co-op and Flip Mode should make you want to pull your hair out. A friend or sibling can join in and play as Diddy Kong; however, both players do not share lives (just like Brawl), rocket barrel and mine cart levels is solo. To top it all off, Diddy Kong’s fast speed, great agility, and light weight makes it unfair to play as the gorilla. Flip Mode is simply playing the whole game again and with added difficulty: DK only has one heart, Cranky Kong’s shop and Diddy Kong are off-limits, and all levels are mirrored.

(But hey, if you’re a veteran and want extra challenge, then go for it). By having two controllers, one person can choose to play as Diddy Kong only, which is this game’s easy mode. Levels can be completed faster, enemies and hazards more easily avoided, and platforms are easier to cross – even the boss scenes and CGI ending changes. All these advantages make him superior to his…uncle? Time Attack Mode is a must for completionists; you basically beat a past level as fast as possible without checkpoints, being rewarded with a medal based on your time.

Level selection is achieved through a map of the island, rendered as a 3D tropical island with 8 different environments that somehow don’t blend into each other. Levels are represented as red dots and have landmarks to give you an idea of what to expect (much like NSMB.Wii). Beating them turns it blue and unlocks a single or multiple paths – you do need the map key to unlock the secret level. Defeating the boss unlocks access to the next world, while collecting all K-O-N-G letters unlocks a bonus level called a Kong Temple (clear all eight for a surprise post-game).

At first it may seem like a typical map hubworld, but it totally triumphs NSMB and rivals that of Sonic Colors. The eight worlds are brilliantly designed, with the landscape rapidly changing as you transition to the boss with different landmarks and scenery (not just the levels). As you climb up the island, you’ll also notice that the areas are in a specific order that transitions smoothly at an aesthetic and gameplay level, plus being very realistic. The island consists of jungle, beach, ruins, cave, forest, mountain, factory, and volcano (too bad there’s no desert or tundra).

Level design is what I have to admit is the strongest point of Returns. Retro Studios managed to successfully reboot the DK franchise to its former glory and retcon the flaws. Common but creative features such as hazards and enemies of giant proportions, enemies and areas from fore/background, platforms bringing danger and rhythm, and being chased by enemies and/or hazards are just too amazing. And with the unique levels like the rocket barrel, mine cart, barrel cannon, vector silhouette, and Rambi levels makes Returns a very enjoyable game.

Special memorable levels include the vine climbing, giant octopus, tidal wave, bat cave, insect swarm, giant musical instruments, and rising volcano all come to mind. If I were to describe a particular level, you’d instantly recognize it as each level is unique for being creative, frustrating, or amazing to play. They contain mechanics that appear in those levels never to be seen again. They’re filled with K-O-N-G letters and puzzle pieces to collect, as well as hidden rooms that serve as free mini-games. While there is only one goal, there exists multiple paths for some levels.

Most of the enemies are Tikis while others are animals respective to the specific world. This is underwhelming for such a diverse game – the enemies that are unique only appear in a few levels like the octopus or bat. You can easily defeat them by jumping, rolling, blowing then attacking, stomping, or throwing a barrel (works against all enemies). Because of this, they’re extremely forgetful, which brings down the fun of playing the levels. Tropical Freeze no longer has this issue though, as Retro Studios noticed and learned their mistakes by preventing it in the sequel.

I would have to say that the bosses are somewhat better but not by much; most are what you expect while some lack imagination. Fighting them is much, much better as they have multiple phases which they use different attack strategies, and take 6 to 9 hits defeat just like Zelda or Metroid. They’re not hard in the sense that they require you to problem solve, but their attacks are difficult to dodge and you can easily die if you’re too reckless. You fight two rhinoceroses, a team of pirate crabs, giant bird in a pot, mole crew riding a train, sentient fruit caterpillar, chicken in mech, and Tiki Tong itself.

Verdict: 8.3/10

Beating the game without collecting anything takes 4 hours; collecting all K-O-N-G letters and puzzle pieces increase it to 8. Clearing Time Attack Mode takes 16 hours, and completing Flip Mode takes 30 hours plus. As you can tell, trying out everything is where Returns truly shines and is heavily dependent on for fun…just like Colors. Collecting puzzle pieces unlock concept art, music, and dioramas whereas Time Attack Mode increases your skill, reflexes, and ego. You can even track your progress with a percentage on your save file for you completionists.

While this is a frustrating game, if you play it safe or only attempt harder tasks later on, it will be a fun experience. Returns is still forgiving in the sense that it offers ways to let you “cheat” without forcing it on you, and the levels are designed in a way to guide the players…just like Metroid. Beating the game with the amazing aesthetics does wonders for your senses, as well that practice does lead to perfection for mastering the controls. But believe me, trying hard and having a fast-processing brain to fix mistakes and have great reflexes is needed or you will die frequently.

Donkey Kong Country Returns is a superb game that not only rebooted the IP, but also brings difficulty in an era when games have become way too easy. It defies our expectations by implementing both great gameplay and aesthetics, something that is also rarely achieved. I personally enjoy playing the extraordinary levels – rocket barrel, mine cart, barrel cannon, silhouette – while I despise collecting the K-O-N-G letters and puzzle pieces. If you’re a DK veteran fan or just a hardcore gamer looking for a challenge, then Returns is the game just for you.

Final Review Score: 8.0/10

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