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Donkey Kong Country is a franchise that unfortunately isn’t particularly well known in this country. It found its genesis on the Super Nintendo, developed by now Microsoft-owned Rare. It quickly catapulted its way in to gamers’ hearts, becoming one of the console’s hallmark titles; thanks to its venerated game play and – for the time – revolutionary visuals.

And though the franchise might not be familiar, its principal characters are, owing to their inclusion in evergreen Nintendo mascot vehicles, Super Smash Bros and Mario Kart. Donkey and Diddy Kong are back for more adventuring, this time under the helm of Retro Studios, best known for the Metroid Prime Trilogy.

What they’ve delivered is somewhat of a throwback; it’s a game designed to invoke nostalgia and return the player to those halcyon days where time and patience fostered the ability to play games that would have many of today’s gamers defenestrating their controllers out of frustration. It won’t win any innovation awards and certainly isn’t set to redefine the platform genre, but does refine it to the point of near perfection – although it may still result in broken windows, controllers and spirits.

Much like the in first game, Donkey Kong’s hoard of bananas is stolen, thieved this time by a mischievous band of Tiki masks, the Tiki Tak Tribe. They’ve hypnotised the jungle’s creatures into aiding them while you, stepping in to the red tie of Donkey Kong, ably aided by the more diminutive Diddy aim to retrieve them. In single player mode, you primarily control Donkey Kong but when you encounter a DK barrel Diddy – a chimp off the old block – joins, granting you the ability to use a jetpack to slightly prolong your jumps and doubling your life tally. In co-op each player controls their own simian. So much fun!

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The developers (or a Nintendo executive) have forced unnecessary motion controls on the player, without option to use classic controls. There are two control scheme options available; the default is the Wii/Nunchuck combo, which uses the nunchuck’s analogue stick for movement, and Wiimote’s central “A” button to jump and a waggle to activate a “ground pound,” a move that’ll stun enemies and help you uncover the games multitude of secrets and hidden areas.

Holding down and waggling make you blow – expel air from your lungs, you naughty readers – certain objects, revealing more secrets. Waggling while moving forward sets you off an evasive and offensive roll. To further engage the nostalgia receptacles in your brain you’re also offered the choice of playing with the Wiimote held sideways, but it still requires forced kinetic activity. A little practice and both options are perfectly adequate and so much fun.

Veteran players will likely be dismayed by the absolute lack of Kremlings, the crocodile-like enemies of the original games. This has granted Retro Studios a licence to be creative with their enemy design, and your new foes are colourful, each with their own character, and any misgivings you have about a new developer will rapidly diffuse starting with the first familiar note of music heard.

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The plot, as in previous DKC games is mostly inconsequential; the meat of this game is its superlative platforming. The level design is some of the best I’ve ever encountered; every single item, enemy and landing is perfectly placed, requiring the utmost precision, timing and dexterity. You’ll need to learn many of the levels’ hazards, which you’ll be forced to do – because you will die. A lot. So much fun though!

This is, more than anything else I’ve played on the Wii, a game for the hardcore gamer. Your skills, along with your patience, will be convincingly put to the test.

Its brutal difficulty never feels cheap – your many deaths are always the result of your own failings; mistimed jumps, lack of foresight and unresponsive fingers. Death is fun!

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Augmenting the classic platforming sections are the returned mine cart races, which are exhilaratingly fast paced and monstrously difficult – but like the rest of the levels, impeccably designed. New to the series is Retro Studios are barrel rocket levels, where you traverse arduous, obstacled horizontal levels. The rocket isn’t directly controllable though – tapping a button increases the rocket’s thrust, while ceasing causes it to lose momentum. These are some of the game’s toughest stages, requiring an otherworldly amount of fine balance. Also, they’re fun.

As difficult as it all is, you’ll be back for more, because this time…this time goddamit, you’re going to make it to level’s end, and it’s just so much fun and so damned rewarding that you don’t care that you’ve exhausted your entire cache of extra lives just on one level.

For more casual players – or if you’re at wits end, Donkey Kong Country features the same Super guide found in New Super Mario Bros Wii. If you find a level too tricky and die too often the game can play the level for you.

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And just when you think you’ve seen it all, beaten the game and endured its difficulty, a golden temple appears, and reveals to you that if you collect all of the letters spelling out KONG on every single level in each of the game’s rich and sumptuous worlds, you’ll be given access to another level in each; and they’re exponentially more difficult, bordering on insane. Just finishing the game will take you many hours, but harvesting the game’s myriad of collectibles will take months. There’s even further value in that each level, once completed, unlocks a time trail. If you thought a level was difficult, try doing it as quickly as you can. Now it’s fast AND fun!

It’s difficult to convey through words alone just how much fun I had playing Donkey Kong Country Returns, but if you own a Wii, you owe it to yourself to buy this game. It’s as close to the perfect 2D platform game as you’re likely to get. Nintendo promised it would deliver a game to its disillusioned core fans, and they’ve done so with spectacular aplomb.

FUN!

Scoring

Game play: 9.5

Fun, brutally difficult (and occasionally frustrating) platformer with ingenious level design. Have I mentioned at all that it’s pretty fun?

Presentation: 9.0

Beautifully animated and visually arresting

Sound: 8.5

Even the soundtrack’s fun!

Value: 9.0

So much to do, collecting everything will take close to forever.


Overall: 9.0 (not an average)

Donkey Kong Country Returns is an almost flawlessly executed platformer that will kick your ass repeatedly, but make you feel good about it. Pure, distilled fun. It’s not only one of the best games available on the Wii right now; it’s one of the best games I’ve played this generation. If Super Mario Galaxy 2 is the best 3D platformer (and it is), the Donkey Kong Country deserves the 2D crown.

Last Updated: December 13, 2010

Donkey Kong Country Returns
Summary
9.0

Geoffrey Tim

Editor. I'm old, grumpy and more than just a little cynical. One day, I found myself in possession of a NES, and a copy of Super Mario Bros 3. It was that game that made me realise that games were more than just toys to idly while away time - they were capable of being masterpieces. I'm here now, looking for more of those masterpieces.

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