Donkey Kong is the anti-Kirby. While death is nearly impossible in the charming, cozy Wii side-scroller Kirby's Epic Yarn released this month, gravity and spikes murder Donkey Kong often in November's Donkey Kong Country Returns.
The mistake was my complaint. I had told Nintendo officials that I couldn't get a good impression of their games if they kept only showing the early levels, as they had before the launches of Kirby's Epic Yarn and Metroid Other: M. For revenge, at a hotel in Manhattan recently, they served me to some of the later levels in Donkey Kong Country Returns.
Level 4-3, Bombs Away. A mine cart level. Death, death and more death.
Level 5-8, Muncher Marathon. a race from a swarm of spiders. Death, death, death.
Good thing we started with a lot of extra lives, for demo purposes.
I played the game co-operatively with a woman named Mabel who works at the Nintendo Treehouse, a branch of Nintendo where employees translate, write, test games and apparently hand-select tough ones to try on the press. Mabel and I combined for 50 deaths. Her excuse is that I was asking her questions about the game. My excuse is that this new Donkey Kong game is hard.
Donkey Kong Country Returns is a sidescroller homage to the DKC games developed by Nintendo and Rare for the Super Nintendo in the 1990s. The new game is from Nintendo and former Metroid Prime studio Retro, though there's no sign of Prime influence here and a lot from those Rare games. Playing the game solo or cooperatively, you spend the game mostly running to the right, trying to make jumps, swing from vines, launch yourself from exploding barrels and collect many, many bananas. You need to do this well, because the game can be punishing.
In Bombs Away, Mabel and I played as a Diddy Kong/Donkey Kong tandem. It's a minecart level, so we both hopped our apes into the cart and hoped for the best. The minecart moves on its own, but either player can trigger the cart to jump (ideal for griefing and forcing a suicide jump, the reason for a few deaths during my session). Both players, however, have to trigger the ducking action when the cart races under spikes. There was a checkpoint in the level but we still plummeted a lot.
I suggested a theory: just as I'm a better driver when I'm alone, since I have to fend for myself, maybe Mabel or I would be a better DKCR player solo? She tried some, then I did. My theory requires more testing, but I was doing okay in Muncher Marathon, which is a forced race to the right away from a swarm of spiders. A few jumps vexed me, but I appreciated the ability to grab tufts of grass that sometimes coat floating rocks. They helped me hang on as I caught my bearings and then hauled further forth.
We tried a third level called Temple Topple that let either or both of us control Rambi the Rhino, a returning animal from the original series. It obeys the same jumping rules as the minecart: either player can make it leap. Rambi stampedes through the bad guys in his levels — and can break through barriers that lead to secrets — but he is vulnerable to fire. Naturally, I found many ways to get Rambi into contact with fire.
All of these deaths! Some were intentionally instigated by my scheming against my "partner" Mabel, and some were premeditated by her. I am sure of it. Most were from the game's harsh environment. The world of DKCR punishes those who don't wait for vines to swing all the way toward them before leaping and makes a gamer who hasn't memorized the first four jumps needed in to survive in a game level repeatedly die before the fifth. In its intensity of challenge (exacerbated during co-op), its rampant opportunities for calamity and its temptation for giving it another go, Donkey Kong Country is similar to Nintendo's Wii side-scroller of last November, New Super Mario Bros. Wii.
Donkey Kong Country Returns for the Wii looks like it will be another tough throwback. Perhaps I should have spent more time learning the easy levels. The game will be out on November 21.