With 2D platformers back in vogue, Nintendo and Retro Studios decided to take Donkey Kong’s bongos away and bring him back to the jungle. Donkey Kong Country Returns is exactly what it sounds like, the return of the 16-bit series. Except you won’t see any pre-rendered monkeys or crocodiles in this game. The enemies in this game are the Tiki Tak tribe who steal Donkey Kong’s stash of bananas.
Donkey Kong doesn’t take the news lightly. In the opening stage, players make Donkey Kong punch a Tiki out of his home by shaking the Wii remote and nunchuck. After Donkey Kong proudly beats his chest the game begins. You could go through the jungle, but in typical Donkey Kong Country fashion there are secrets right under your nose. Hop into Donkey Kong’s hut to claim a red balloon, the game’s form of an extra life. You’ll want to stock up on these because Donkey Kong Country Returns can be quite difficult.
Levels, ranging from jungles to ruins to pirate ships populated with crabs, have plenty of bottomless pits and tricky jumps. Each area ends with the Tiki Tak tribe hypnotizing an animal to attack Donkey Kong. Tikis gather in the background to watch the fight and cheer when Donkey Kong takes damage. Cranky Kong, strangely enough, can help make boss battles and stages easier. No, not through rambling advice. In Donkey Kong Country Returns Cranky runs a shop where you can exchange banana coins for items. There’s a potion that makes Donkey Kong temporarily invincible and an extra heart that lasts for one level. You can also buy lives from Cranky Kong and a key to unlock alternate routes.
A few stages give players a break from the run-jump-barrel blast platforming. Donkey Kong Country Returns has rocket barrel levels where Donkey rides a barrel while the stage automatically scrolls to the right. You don’t have a banana gun or even a steering wheel in these stages. The only move you have is changing the barrel’s altitude by hitting A. Stop pressing the button and Donkey arcs downward, but you have to be careful since it takes a second or two to get the rocket barrel to rise again. The real hair-raising levels are the mine cart stages, which have one hit kill enemies placed on the track. You’ll need reflexes and a good memory or the slivery simian Super Kong to get past the levels. If you lose eight lives, a friendly pig will wave a white flag at a checkpoint letting players know they can surrender and call Super Kong to take over. While Super Kong allows players move on to the next level, he won’t collect any of the secret items.
Scouring stages in search of those trinkets is where the real challenge lies. True to the series, Donkey Kong Country Returns is a collect-a-thon. Retro Studios hid puzzle pieces in areas that aren’t visible to the player. Objects like trees and bushes conceal paths with bananas and bonus areas. There are only a few kinds of bonus levels, which means you’ll see the same moving platform stage and barrel blast challenge over and over again. Other times players have to bounce on enemies to collect puzzle pieces out of reach or roll into a bottomless pit (with a well timed jump to escape) just to grab a K-O-N-G letter. Donkey Kong Country Returns automatically records any collected puzzle pieces so you won’t need to risk a life to grab them a second time. You can lose K-O-N-G letters, though. To complete that challenge you need to grab all four letters within one stage run. Lose a life and you also lose any letters you obtained after the checkpoint.
Retro Studios created playful backgrounds. Slam the ground by shaking the remote and you might make a plant spit out a banana coin or reveal a puzzle piece. Donkey Kong can also exhale by holding down while shaking the remote. This move blows out candles, makes windmills spin, and some flowers (that may carry banana coins) rise into the foreground where Donkey Kong can grab them. Both of these moves are also useful when dealing with Tikis. The only way to extinguish a fire spitting Tiki is with Donkey Kong’s lungs.
My favorite stages in the game are the stylish silhouette levels. The first one you’ll see is in the Jungle area. Under a setting sun and bright orange background, you can only see the shape of Donkey and Diddy Kong plus their identifiable tie and red cap. Enemies are silhouettes too and some of them appear to be background objects before they pop out for a surprise attack. Donkey Kong Country Returns only has a few of these and if Retro Studios makes a sequel I hope they make a few more.
For the most part, Donkey Kong Country Returns sticks to the formula of the Super Nintendo games, but there are a few tweaks. Retro Studios made grassy walls, which Donkey Kong can climb on. Some of the grassy areas are attached to moveable platforms, so Donkey Kong can cling on spinning water wheels. Diddy Kong, unfortunately, acts more like a power-up than a second character. Free Diddy to double your life from two hearts to four plus get a hover jump. You can use Diddy in two player mode, but cooperative play can make Donkey Kong Country Returns more difficult if one person can’t keep up. Also, you lose lives every time someone dies so cooperative mode can be a drain on your balloon stock too. It seems like Retro Studios thought about this issue since they added an option for Diddy to ride Donkey Kong during rough spots. Diddy can shoot his peanut popgun while Donkey is carrying him, but multiplayer isn’t really fun when the only thing a second player can do is shake to shoot enemies.
In other words, Donkey Kong Country Returns is the anti-Kirby’s Epic Yarn.
While Good-Feel made a platformer anyone can play, Retro Studios geared this game towards the hardcore crowd. You’ll die a ton of times and replay stages wondering how its possible to beat the time trials. That’s part of the fun of Donkey Kong Country Returns because the game feels rewarding when you finally complete a level’s three challenges.
Food for Thought
- Animal friends take a backseat in Donkey Kong Country Returns. Rambi, the rhinoceros you can ride, is used sparingly. Squawks the puzzle piece revealing parrot is actually the most important animal pal.
- Speaking of Squawks, he caws on screen when you’re close to a puzzle piece you haven’t found. However, if you don’t explore the level enough Squawks won’t be in range to let Donkey and Diddy Kong know something hidden is nearby.
- Donkey Kong Country Returns has two control schemes: nunchuck/remote and remote alone. The Wii remote controls feel a bit tighter especially when it comes to rolling. (You need to hold a direction and roll.) Most of the time I used the nunchuck combo, though.
- One neat level in Donkey Kong Country Returns has players run (mostly roll) away from a tidal wave rising in the background by hiding behind rocks. This stage has well-placed crabs placed to prevent Donkey Kong from rolling through the entire stage and switches on the floor you have to ground pound block the tide.