The people responsible for turning Metroid on its head with Metroid Prime for GameCube now have their hands on Donkey Kong. What have they done with it? Delivered the expected, a Donkey Kong Country game that goes back to basics.
Where others have experimented with Donkey Kong adventures in 3D worlds (Donkey Kong 64) and with bongos-based control (Donkey Kong Jungle Beat), Retro Studios plays it straight with Donkey Kong Country Returns. In this side-scrolling action game, Donkey Kong and his tiny sidekick Diddy Kong seek revenge—precisely, the return of their swiped banana stash—against a group of evil, hypnotic Tikis known as the Tiki Tak Tribe. The Kongs will leap from precarious platform to precarious platform, riding mine carts, rocket-powered powder kegs and a returning Rambi the Rhino as they scroll to the right, seeking banana redemption.
The Nintendo fan who finds New Super Mario Bros. and Kirby's Epic Yarn beneath their level of platform game playing expertise—this is a very challenging game—and the visually acute explorer who likes studying screens and flexing their hand-eye coordination skills to find every hidden coin, puzzle piece and bonus level.
This is the Nintendo platformer at the opposite end of the spectrum from the last one the company released. Kirby's Epic Yarn is for creampuffs, but Donkey Kong Country Returns is for the hardened Nintendo fan.
What does Retro do new in Donkey Kong Country Returns? There are no first-person sequences in this Retro Studios game. No scanning either. (Who'd want to go inside Donkey Kong's head anyway?) This Donkey Kong Country has you leap from ledge to vine to hovering platform, just as the Super Nintendo trilogy trained us. Retro makes use of the Wii Remote lightly. A shake of the controller makes Donkey Kong slap the ground to shake things or, more delicately, expel a lung-full of breath, blowing the seeds off dandelions or causing pinwheels to spin. Donkey and Diddy now work more closely together, the latter lending the former a rocket powered boost for his jumps. Kong can now cling to grassy surfaces, adding vertical complexity and gripping tension to old platform hopping mechanics. What Nintendo and Retro have more smartly done in this game is take the depth of a 3D world and build new challenges for Donkey Kong and the player, resulting in a game with beautifully conceived and gorgeously rendered platform choreography.
So this is one of those more challenging Wii games? Donkey Kong Country Returns has a level of difficulty that may cause forehead veins to throb in anger due to its many opportunities for death. There are bottomless pits, crumbling platforms, grueling mine cart racing sequences—even a mine cart boss that was almost spirit-breaking—and other harsh challenges that players looking for tall walls to overcome might relish. But it's certainly not impossible, for I was able to beat this Donkey Kong Country faster than any other I've played. Along the way, it may have flustered me, but I enjoyed being challenged by this game.
Well, what if I don't want it that hard? You can make it easier on yourself. First, there is the Super Guide, the option to auto-complete a level while watching a silver Super Kong do it for you. He'll do so in a vanilla way, completing what you couldn't but not spoiling the location of hidden items like K-O-N-G letters, hidden passageways and obscured puzzle pieces. Second, Donkey Kong Country Returns also gives Donkey and Diddy Kong a simple item inventory to make things easier. Ornery ally Cranky Kong will sell you disposable items like Banana Juice for invulnerability and an extra heart for your life meter in exchange for coins you acquire. For confounding puzzles, you can hire Squawk the Parrot to help you find the game's elusive hidden treasures.
Treasure?! Simply walking through the generous number of levels in Donkey Kong Country Returns is not where the real challenge lies. Finding its hundreds of squirreled-away items in its complexly dressed levels is. What often looks like decoration in Donkey Kong Country Returns is a sign of something hidden, a world full of little surprises and cleverly disguised treasure boxes. Sometimes you'll need to slap the ground curiously, sometimes you'll just need to stand in place lining up items in the distance. Donkey Kong Country Returns may force you to sprint through some of its levels in order to complete them, but the allure of the undiscovered, to understand how to secure a bonus item seemingly just out of reach, will bring you back.
Where will Donkey Kong Country Returns take me? Okay, that was a lame question. I simply wanted an excuse to gush over the many varied locations in Donkey Kong Country Returns. What starts off, logically, in the jungle eventually winds up in a few fantastic, memorable places. You'll ride on rickety pirate ships, explore mines populated by angry moles and leap through lava filled worlds. But the highlights come in the form of prehistoric lands where animated dinosaur bones clack about, where you'll be chased disgustingly by hordes of freshly hatched bugs and where smog-choked factories and sunset drenched worlds turn Donkey and Diddy into flat silhouettes. Worlds in which the Kongs are threatened by a giant, omnipresent octopus and crushing ocean waves are stand outs. In between the curses you'll spit when dying again and again from falling totems or rolling boulders, you'll smile at the many clever ways in which Retro built these worlds.
Well, what's not to like about this Donkey Kong game? You may be annoyed by the try, die and retry nature of mine cart levels that require memorization and reflexes (and not much intelligence on your part) to overcome, because these feel like tired tactics that seemed more fitting 15 years ago. Or the game's stressful bosses may make you unhappy, for similar reasons. Or maybe it will be the damned rocket barrel riding portions, which are probably accurate representations of riding a wooden barrel with a flame shooting out the back. So am I simply saying the hard stuff could bother you? Yes. But every death is just a balloon pop in this game. And you can always get more balloons.
Donkey Kong Country Returns is not a Retro Studios reinvention, but an invigoration that may be just as surprising for its ability to both replicate the Donkey Kong Country style of old and to make it feel mostly fresh on the Wii. It's a gorgeous, deep, expertly honed game full of discoveries and challenges, fun stuff very rarely dinged by old-feeling design sensibilities. It's also a great case for why a man plays a Donkey Kong game. You may occasionally curse it for its trappings, namely those mine cart and powder keg rides, but you'll be won over by its charms.
Donkey Kong Country Returns was developed by Retro Studios and published by Nintendo for the Wii, released on November 21. Retails for $49.99. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through story mode in single-player mode, died only a few hundred times. Employed Super Guide exactly once, for the health of my heart and my nearly flung Wii Remote.