Donkey Kong Country was a pretty big deal when it came out. I’m not going to go into boring specifics, but needless to say I ended up loving it. Over the years since the hype has died it seems that most of the gaming community (especially the enthusiastic press) don’t really have any true feelings of love for the series. While it’s true that DKC never truly broke any new ground in the area of game design, that doesn’t mean what it was doing was bad. I personally love the feel of playing one of the DKC games because they really do have fantastic spot on control. There’s something about being able to blitz through a stage flawlessly and having absolute control over every single jump. It’s just fine platforming, I don’t care what anyone says. Don’t even get me started on DKC2, which I’m willing to say is pretty much a masterpiece.
So now you know my love for the series. Donkey Kong Country Returns, coming from the fine folks over at Retro (the dudes that also revived the shit out of Metroid with Metroid Prime) have managed to bring the series back to its roots, yet make enough minor changes to the formula to give it its own identity. This isn’t Donkey Kong Country 4, it’s more of a reboot of the series which forgets creepy characters like Candy Kong, ignores Rare’s Donkey Kong “cannon” (in that Cranky Kong is alive, would you believe he was actually killed in a game? It doesn’t get much worse than that) and boils everything down to its basics. This is all for the better of course, because the moment you start introducing over arching story lines and awful characters (though I do like Dixie) in games like this things just get ridiculous.
Anyway the big thing here is that the speed of the game has completely changed, or at least at first glance. With a camera that’s more pulled back than the original games, and a more weighty and realistic Donkey Kong, Returns comes off by feeling slower than its predecessors. That isn’t a knock, it’s just that the speed has been toned down as a whole, meaning unexperienced players won’t be running and jumping like Mario does New SMB. That said, experienced players will be able to use DK’s move set to propel themselves through stages in the blink of an eye. Rolling and jumping onto enemies help DK find new momentum and will send him flying through stages. In fact there’s actually an entire portion of the game devoted to speed runs. So while it may initially feel like a slower paced game, it can easily be played at a much faster clip. It goes to show the range of the game where players can approach it with caution, or go through stages methodically to find all the hidden trinkets, or master the art of using every enemy and object to their advantage. Nothing is put into a stage without thought, it all has a reason for being there. The game encourages all these different play styles and rewards them accordingly. Needless to say, players will be playing through the stages multiple times, but always coming at it from a different angle.
Donkey Kong controls nearly identical to how he does in the previous games, though oddly enough Retro has turned what was essentially a two button game into a three button game (counting the waggle as a button). While the roll used to be assigned to the run/action button in the original games, it is now performed by shaking the remote. The game still has an action button, but it’s mainly just used to grab objects. Considering there is no longer a run button, this button feels slightly under used as rolling is what players will be doing the most. At first I tried to play the game with the sideways remote as I kind of refuse to play platformers with an analog stick, but it’s much harder to roll when needed holding the remote this way. Because rolling is such an integral part of the game, I made the switch to the remote/nunchuck combination. I can say that this was likely the method of control the game was designed around. DK has analog controlled walking (that’s why there’s no run button) and pounding and shaking the remote in this way is much easier. For people that want to master the game, this is the way to play.
That said, I wish rolling had a button assigned to it. I died countless times from the remote not picking up on the fact that I’m shaking on it. I’m generally cool with motion control, but in a game like this it’s almost essential to have something as important as DK’s roll assigned to a button. I think it’s satisfying to pound the ground by shaking, but the other actions don’t call for it. I’d say this is a large misstep on Retro’s part, but the truth is that it’s not a game breaker. Watching crazy gold medal speed runs on YouTube prove players are completely capable of kicking ass with the control the way it is. Just expect a few hiccups here and there.
I’m currently more than 90% through the game. I have completed the main quest and now spending my time finding all of the hidden trinkets and eventually going to man up and try out the speed run challenges. I know there is even more stuff beyond just that, and I’m loving the fact there are still several stages I haven’t even played yet. The game just manages to keep on giving, and I’ve easily put on around 20 hours of game time with no sign of me slowing down any time soon. It’s kind of ashame, because I’d really like to go back and finish collecting items in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, play some more Super Meat Boy, or finally wrap up my brothers copy of Dead Space Extraction, but I’m pretty much hooked on this one for the time being and have been playing it exclusively.
So if you have a passing interest in platforming games or have any feelings in your heart about the original DKC, you’d probably do well to check this one out. It’s pretty fantastic.
Just be prepared to die… a lot.