Donkey Kong Country Returns Doesn’t Shy Away From DifficultyBy Michael Pearl
If you grew up playing the Donkey Kong Country series, the news that Nintendo was re-launching the franchise with a brand new 2D installment is the equivalent of having the little kid in you high-fived. Crafted by Retro Studios, the talent behind the Metroid Prime trilogy, Donkey Kong Country Returns for the Nintendo Wii is a throwback to the salad days of the hobby: when games were simple yet difficult, required moving just left to right, and tested reflexes. I found out the hard way that my own gaming skills have become a bit rusty since playing the original SNES Donkey Kong Country titles. It’s tough to admit – damn you, gamer pride!
Keep reading for hands-on impressions of Donkey Kong Country Returns.
DKCR wasted no time setting you on the path to retrieve Donkey Kong’s stolen bananas; there were no lengthy cutscenes to watch or convoluted story to digest. Instead, in a move that likely jacked up his home owner’s insurance, DK bashed down his front door (accomplished by shaking the Wii remote and Nunchuck rhythmically, natch) and erupted from his home, ready to go.
What separated Donkey Kong from his Nintendo compatriots (such as Samus Aran and Kirby) was readily apparent: he moved much slower, and it took a second for his forward momentum to cease. He’s literally the 800lb gorilla in the room. OK, OK — ape, but you get the point. Maneuvering the big guy took some getting used to due to his heft, comparatively shorter jumps, and overall slowness. There were also some advanced moves, like a roll and rolling jump, that, when used properly, allowed DK to make difficult jumps and nab out-of-the-way treats. A ground-pound attack enabled by moving both controllers up and down smashed enemies but also uncovered secrets, like banana bunches hidden in flowers.
Luckily, the opening level was tailored to make the process of learning the controls smooth and frustration-free. Enemies shuffled towards you in a measured approach – just one at first, then eventually en masse. Platforming was simple, with no bottomless pits or deadly spikes beneath. An environmental hazard in the form of a stone tower collapsed from the background and landed at DK’s giant feet, nearly flattening him. There would eventually be more to worry about than just what was in front of you; venturing into the backgrounds of levels for light puzzle-solving played a brief role in the introductory moments. Luckily, Donkey Kong had some help.
Playing in single player mode made Diddy Kong’s presence feel more like a power-up, though a second player could jump in to seize full control and add moves (like a peanut gun) at any time. The diminutive ape was hiding in a special barrel that had to be lifted and hurled against the ground to spill its contents. Once Diddy was freed, he jumped on his uncle’s back and aided him with a jet pack that allowed for brief hovering – something which would no doubt prove a godsend for the more perilous platforming to come. But in the calm beginning this ability felt more like cool bonus than lifesaver.
While the opening areas offered a minor challenge for both new players and veterans alike, a level further in the game ramped up the difficulty by placing Donkey Kong inside a rickety mine cart careening on – and off – rails. I had a feeling I was in for trouble when the PR guys in the room started jokingly placing bets on how many tries it would take me to complete the level. And I wasn’t mistaken. Deaths mounted as I missed jumps and slammed into enemies, sending DK hurtling into the abyss below. Many enemies were intentionally placed near banana bunches and collectible “KONG” letters, which made the prospect of grabbing them extremely risky but enticing nonetheless.
The overall difficulty was compounded by the fact that there was only a single checkpoint in each level. This type of sadistic design may have been the product of technical limitations back in the 90s, but here it’s just another way for DKCR to maintain it’s old-school heritage – think ‘retro-chic.’ Whether this challenges or frustrates will depend entirely on your skill level, but Retro clearly wasn’t holding back on delivering all the things that made the original series such a hit: a high difficulty, plenty of secret areas, classic timing-based platforming, and tight controls.
Donkey Kong Country Returns has an ambiguous “Holiday 2010″ release date. My suggestion in the meantime? Practice. A lot.