Oh baby, it hurts so good.
Halfway through Donkey Kong Country Returns, I realized that playing this series is analogous to having an on-again, off-again love affair with a sadistic dominatrix. When you’re together, it’s wild fun bordering on brutality. There’s lots of pain and abuse in the relationship, but you’re addicted to it. Then one of you gets bored, packs up and leaves town, and during the period of separation, you yearn for the days when you can be abused once more.
[image1]It’s been three generations of consoles since DKC left me. I was lonely and depressed. Other platformers came and went, and I loved a lot of them. Little Big Planet showed me some new moves, and Castlevania always had something naughty up its sleeves. But DKC could never be replaced. And now, suddenly, it’s back home again, and the feeling is one of breathless euphoria and lots of pain. Equal parts of each, really.
I’ve always believed that Nintendo purposefully let Rare fly the coop all those years ago for two reasons. For one, they somehow foresaw Rare’s downward spiral from their former glory, but more importantly, they saw a spark of something wonderful in Retro Studios and knew that the new Rare was already waiting in the wings.
DKCR all but proves that, as Retro has now tackled one of Rare’s crowning achievements and made a sequel as good as, if not better than, the originals. It’s even more impressive that they’ve trumped Rare without ever really appearing to challenge them. DKCR stays so true to the original design of the series that you would never guess it was developed by someone different.
2010 has proven to be a year for the resurgence of 2D platformers, and there have been plenty of good ones, even great, so far. But it’s only fitting that the last big title to come out, with a name like Donkey Kong Country behind it, would be the one to trump them all.
The game is visually appealing everywhere you look. There’s nothing in particular about the graphics that are groundbreaking or innovative for the Wii; it’s all the little touches, surprises, and oozing charm that make it something special – DK’s tie flapping in the wind during a mine cart level, a mole worker doing a double-take as he watches the big gorilla fly by, a background in a factory level that’s a tribute to stage 1-1 of the original Donkey Kong (easily missed but guaranteed to put a smile on your face if you notice it).
[image2]The throwbacks don’t stop there. The soundtrack is chock full of updated versions of old DKC tunes, from jungle hijinx to mine cart mayhem to vine valley. Rambi is back to lend a helping…um…horn (unfortunately, the other animal pals don’t make an appearance). And who can forget Cranky Kong taking every opportunity to insult you and whine about modern games? He even pops up with smartass comments in the instruction manual, just like he did in ’94.
But Retro isn’t relying entirely on old tricks, even if those tricks are more awesome than most new ones. The level design, especially later on, has been ramped up with effects that just weren’t possible for the 16-bit incarnations. The most commonly seen addition is dynamic switching between foreground and background, some levels propelling you back and forth like a furry pinball.
The several layers of background platforms open up room for lots of amazing moments. Throughout one level, for example, you’re terrorized by a giant octopus that most of the time lurks in the background. But in some places tentacles will burst through the ceiling, floors, or walls as you try to progress.
It also wouldn’t be DKC without some flavor levels to mix up the gameplay. In addition to the tried and true mine cart levels, Retro threw in some new rocket levels, with extremely simple controls – push A to throttle higher into the air, release to drop. But with obstacles flying at you left and right, it becomes a precise dance of tapping A to stay alive and not singe that glossy coat of fur (DK always looks impeccably clean for a gorilla, doesn’t he?).
[image3]Much like Kirby’s Epic Yarn, these elements give playing DKCR a sense that every level will bring something new that you haven’t seen before, and that’s a rare quality in a platformer.
That’s where the Kirby similarities end, however, and abruptly at that. Kirby was incredibly easy; DKCR is really, really, really, really hard. Overall, it’s significantly more challenging than its three SNES predecessors, and those games were no pushovers to start with. DKCR will use and abuse you, have its way with you repeatedly and mercilessly until you perfect the way through each level. There is no difficulty setting here – as Cranky might say, this is how we played ‘em in the old days. There’s only one difficulty, and it’s freaking hard.
But it’s the good kind of hard (what are you snickering at?). It’s the old-school kind of hard that keeps you coming back until you finally break through, and in my opinion not enough new games follow that example. The difficulty doesn’t come from the game being cheap or disguising the proper route. On the contrary, it’s always pretty obvious how to get through obstacles. You just have to be totally perfect in your moves and timing to do it. When you fail, it’s your fault. And when you succeed, it’s because you honed your skills to the point where you can make it – and that’s a one-of-a-kind rush you rarely get with games today.
There’s only one significant thing wrong with this beast of a game – you can’t control Diddy with one player. You’ll only use Donkey solo, and if you find Diddy, he automatically hops on your back and goes along for the ride. Diddy will add his health to yours and allow you use of his jetpack to do short hovering. While highly useful, it’s sad not controlling him directly and having the little guy be relegated to a quite literal pack monkey. I miss the days of being able to tag two Kongs back and forth and use their abilities in tandem.
[image4]Get a friend to play, though, and the second player gets to control Diddy for real. Co-op is done very well, allowing both players to play independently but with the option for Diddy to hop on Donkey’s shoulders like in single player. Donkey controls both of them when you do this, but the Diddy player can dismount any time he or she wants to. It’s like New Super Mario Bros. Wii co-op, only a lot more cooperation and it actually opens up the gameplay more so than what you have in just single player.
The only other minor quibble I have is that the Kremlings and K. Rool are gone for this installment, replaced with hypnotizing tiki musical instruments for bad guys. Yeah, I don’t get it either. They still steal the banana hoard, they still make life miserable for the Kongs, but they just have no personality. There’s nothing like the look on K. Rool’s face when you drop 800 pounds of gorilla on his head.
DKCR also has a ton of replay value for completists. Every level has the good old K-O-N-G letters and a varying number of puzzle pieces, which are either tucked away in tricky hiding spots or rewards for finding very familiar bonus areas. Add to that a time trial mode for each level, which gives you a medal based on your speed (and gold is incredibly tough, trust me). And once you beat all the bonus levels you unlock mirror mode, which makes the game even more difficult by taking Diddy away and cutting your health to one for each level. There are dozens of hours and hundreds of lives to be sunk into all the stuff to collect.
You’re back in my life again, Donkey Kong Country, and even though you hurt me so much I hope you stay for a long, long time. And next time bring the other Kongs – I want to rock out with Funky.