Tuesday 28 December 2010

Donkey Kong Country Returns

"How dare he have teeth" say the hardcore Donkey Kong squad. "DK should not have teeth - he should suck his way through life like in 1994. These new bones have ruined the franchise!"

And the Squirrel says, heed not what these simpletons speak of. And that's not just because you can see Donkey Kong's toothy grin in his 1980 arcade debut, but because teethy Donkey Kong Country Returns, despite not being born in Leicestershire and despite it's unhealthy obsession with Wii Remote waggle, is a great game. It's a welcome change from bongos and shoulder buttons, and one of the few Wii games worth bothering about in the near future.

It's been a while since I've sat down and played a Wii game. The last disc in the machine was Metroid Prime Trilogy, but seeing as 66% of that is of GameCube origin (and I was still spending my days wandering around Prime 1), that doesn't really count. Super Mario Galaxy 2 stands as the last truly exclusive disc-based Wii game I had played, but you might notice a trend - I'm jumping between first party Nintendo games, with only the WiiWare release of Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth standing in my way.

But let me not bore you with the long stories of how the Wii is only a repository for Nintendo titles... or hint that it desperately needs an upgrade to bring it up to spec. They might only come out once every six months but there's still good games for this system and Donkey Kong Country Returns is one of them.

The latest attempt at re-imaging the Kong has fallen into the hands of Retro Studios, fresh from saving the Metroid franchise. Gone is the gimmcky Japanese garbage from Nintendo EAD, Namco or Paon, and in its place, a full Donkey Kong platformer, where the primate is allowed to roam free in the Donkey Kong Countryside like the Rare days of old. The result is a return to form for Donkey Kong in Donkey Kong Country Returns. Retro Studios ignored most of the last ten years and have built upon what Rare left us in 1999... sort of.

Well okay... it's not one for the purists. Key gameplay changes have taken place and in many ways it undeserving of its "Country" title as a result. Whereas it's quick to acknowledge Rare's work, Retro have decided against simply souping up what we saw on the SNES, instead making a brand new platformer with Donkey Kong thrown in. For some parts, it works well... for others, less so.

But it's fair to say it isn't a "Donkey Kong Country 4". In fact, it may be wise to adopt the Japanese title which simply calls the game "Donkey Kong Returns", because although he's "returning" to his traditional platforming roots, he's not returning to Rare's mid-90s way of life.

Player one controls the titanious Donkey Kong, who can run about and jump, as expected. But straight away fans will notice a missing ingredient - the Nintendo-style run button. It's an interesting omission, as even though I grew up without Nintendo (and have played more platformers without a run button than ones with one), its absense is noticeable here. Things don't feel right, as if life has suddenly became very unsafe for the ape. But that's just the beginning.

For four years now we've been telling Nintendo and chums not to use the Wii's motion control abilities as substitute for a good old-fashioned digital button press, but Donkey Kong Country Returns did not listen to our advice. Big chunks of the game are played by waggling the Wii Remote and Nunchuck up and down, to simulate that oh-so-unnecessary ground hitting move that Miyamoto loves so much.

Fair enough though, we're trying to be different, and to not include the move would be some form of Nintendo-related treason. It's used to unlock various new routes and uncover secrets, and at least the waggle control isn't taking on the role of jumping. Yet I can't help but think the best plan would be to not use it at all.

Perhaps its inclusion is to justify the Wii's existence as a console. Without any forms of motion control I guess there's not much the Wii has to offer over its rivals. The graphics, though brilliant for a Wii game, pale in comparison to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, as expected. The music is a little drab too, and lets face it, nobody's going to buy Wiis for Donkey Kong Country Returns. It merely brings in the SNES fans and gamers - this isn't one for your gran, so it doesn't need this extra tat.

Then you realise that large parts of the level rely on this move. It becomes the second most useful tool in your arsenal after jumping, a rank that was once given to ye olde run button. Donkey Kong can still roll like in the SNES days... but again this is mapped to a Wii Remote action meaning you won't be using it unless it's necessary (or are speedrunning the game).

Donkey Kong blows. Literally. By ducking and waggling Donkey Kong can put out fires or clear the ground with his breath. It's a move that seems tagged on for good luck and serves as more of a hindrance than a innovative gameplay feature. There's a few weird addtions like this which I struggle to get behind. It really doesn't seem to be a game that requires motion control, yet it's forced upon us throughout and it's tedious to get used to, slowing down gameplay and occasionally failing to respond altogether.

Diddy Kong tags along but only serves as extra hit points. Playing as him is almost impossible unless you've got a friend. He has some uses of course, such as the... jetpack move allowing DK to cross wider gap- no wait, jetpacks? Why? Yes its origins can be tracked to Donkey Kong 64 and yes for one reason or another Diddy's been paired with it since, but it was very un-Donkey Kong like. Why not give DK his coconut gun to fire in spurs while you're at it?

Furthermore the results are nearly identical to what you may have seen fifteen years ago with the running jump. You don't need Diddy Kong to complete the game so there's never any reliance on the feature. It's just a very strange addition and raises questions about why this was chosen over the many partner moves the Kongs could perform back in the day.

The collision works against you in Donkey Kong Country Returns. The jumping mechanism doesn't give you a lot of leeway when it comes to safe landing spots, and the camera paired with the "2.5D" levels constantly makes you question your skills as a gamer. Can you reach that ledge? Can you hit that enemy? Questions that usually have "no" as the answer. It is very easy to be hit, as even the slightest touch from an enemy can cause damage.

Yet because of Diddy Kong's intrusive jetpack move, it's also difficult to get that extra height after rebounding off an enemy. These are basic platforming features, yet you struggle to pull them off, and though you have more hit points than in the SNES classics, it's still not enough to casually waltz your way through a level. All of this should be a lot more fairer to DK these days too, because he has to contend with the motion controls which can be unresponsive and can slow down your progress considerably.

I also think Retro have been incredibly unimaginative with some parts of this game. Mid-way through playing the game I got to a stage where I could guess which level themes would come next, and hum the music before it came out of my speakers. So much has been lifted off the SNES Donkey Kong Country it's almost embarrassing. Yes it makes improvements, but in the music department these improvements really struggle to shine through a lot of the time and these jungle, ruins, cave and factory scenarios have been done countless times before. Though perhaps it wouldn't be so bad if the game hadn't recycled so much music.

As I've hinted at altready, there's a lot taken from Donkey Kong Country, but strangely not much advice taken from Diddy's Kong Quest or Dixie Kong's Double Trouble. A few DKC2 tracks make it into DKCR, but not many and nothing comes from DKC3 (despite the fact this game had forest and cliff levels too).  There are no underwater stages, no animals to ride apart from Rambi (Squarks makes an appearance as a non-ridable helper but it's nothing special) and nobody to talk to other than Cranky Kong, who simply runs a shop selling items you won't need (bar the keys to open new pathways... whose role could have been reprised by secondary exits).

And it's certainly a shame to go back to the boring linear routes of the first two games rather than have the big map of DKC3. I always felt more could be done with the hovercrafts. It also could have dug into the Game Boy's Donkey Kong Land, which put Donkey and Diddy in the city at one stage too.

There are still many collectibles and so plenty of replay value, but also lots of wasted opportunities. Banana coins for example - there are tons but you only need twenty per world to open the secret route. The bonus levels only seem to come in two or three varieties (and are sometimes identical) and the puzzle pieces which need to be collected are sometimes stupidly easy to find. Almost as if they were an afterthought.

But perhaps this is dedicated in Rare's honour. They were fans of jigsaw pieces, and one of the only "original" worlds, "Cliff" does look an awful lot like a certain Banjo-Tooie level.

But the big concern of Donkey Kong Country Returns for many is the state of the music. Though it does throw in some new tracks, most of the game recycles its content from the first Donkey Kong Country game. Problem is... it doesn't sound like it's been improved in any way. You might even struggle to tell the difference between these tracks and their SNES counterparts. I don't understand why there isn't a new musical score when everything else has been built from the ground up, but who knows, maybe they'd run out of money by this point.

Still, the game has the advantage over the original Donkey Kong Country, which despite being pretty does have a habit of boring the hell out of me in the middle section, when the scenery has lost its shine and the ambiance starts sending you to sleep. DKCR never gets boring and that's something to be thankful for, though it can be a frustrating experience with the Wii Remote and there are many questionable design choices.

DKCR also lacks crocodiles. Retro went out of their way to ensure it was croc-free and although I'm prepared to say it doesn't hurt to do so, I think the idea of giant wasps is a bit more plausible than floating frogs. Every enemy has been re-invented here which seems a bit excessive, and builds on that theory that Donkey Kong's been thrown into a completely different platform game.

I don't mind it so much - I think Retro's creations look quite nice, but I'm under the impression that Nintendo EAD invented a set with Jungle Beat, and we'll probably never see them again. Same will probably apply here unless Retro are commissioned to make a sequel. Though I can understand the idea that King K. Rool isn't the big bad guy, the series used to have reoccurring enemies with no relation to the reptile and they've all been ousted for unknown reasons. I don't know if that's good or bad but there could have been a mix, surely.

There's some very nicely executed ideas which simply would have been impossible to do on the SNES. Donkey Kong Country returns pulls out all the stops in an attempt to look great, and for the most part, it succeeds. It's just a shame that no matter how hard it tries, it will always look a bit out of date thanks to the hardware. And of course it also has to do battle with its past - it's not as big of a step up compared to the relationship between Super Mario World and New Super Mario Bros. Wii, because DKC was ahead of its time when it was released, and Super Mario World is very poor in the graphics department.

The game has habit of getting visually busy. There are a lot of fancy backgrounds and special effects but it does sometimes go overboard, leaving you confused as to what's happening. It's not something that usually happens with a game in a Nintendo series.

It doesn't quite have that usual Nintendo level of polish either, but generally the franchise is much safer in Retro Studio's hands than in those of Nintendo EAD's, who are still desperate to keep the series completely canon with Mario. This is the first time in years where we've seen a worthy successor to the likes of Donkey Kong 64, and even though it has its issues, at least the focus is where it belongs.

Other problems? Well Nintendo's patented "we'll play the game for you" system is here in the form of "Super Kong". Because the physics and collision are sometimes not quite up to spec, death is quite common on the later stages, so I could do without the notices. But at least it's keeping true to the SNES series, because lord knows they were pretty unforgiving at times too.

But to claim that this was a bad game would be wrong. The SNES games were hardly flawless and though this may not top the likes of Donkey Kong Country 2 and 3, I'll happily claim it's a better product than DKC1. Rare would have done it better but this is the closest second-party developer to Rare Nintendo have these days.

Though it's nice to see the Donkey Kong series back on track again, I'd still be lying if I said I didn't want to see something "new" out of Nintendo. This franchise is sixteen years old (older if you include the arcade classics), Kirby who just saw a release in Kirby's Epic Yarn is eighteen, and Zelda that gets another entry next year is twenty four. These are all old games and though it's amazing that they're still relevant, it would be nice to see something a bit more fresh.


  1. I still cannot see why Super Guide is bad. It's not like the player is literally forced to use it and there are far more annoying things than its alerts for you to use it.

  2. Just yesterday I finished playing the last of the bonus levels after completing the main game Sunday. I heartily agree that the waggling is a serious flaw, and not just in the spirit of anti-waggle activism. It really does not only interfere with graceful play control, but it feels unjustly used for things like blowing. However, waggling to ground pound feels like a good use.

    Other than that, you seem to see a lot more flaws in it than I do. You picked up on the unforgiving hit detection which I also noticed, but pretty much all of your other criticisms seemed excessive to me. It's about as close to ideal for a Donkey Kong Country reinterpretation as I could hope for, and there's no doubt in my mind that Rare couldn't have lived up to it.

    Anyway, I'm glad you also seemed to enjoy the game, despite your many gripes. Do you have any plans to play Kirby's Epic Yarn?

  3. Not too fussed about Epic Yarn to be honest. I do enjoy the Kirby series, but sometimes I find it difficult to justify even to myself why I'd pick up a frilly pink game when I have three or four years of Xbox 360 games to catch up on (and more normal Xbox ones).

    I've also heard it's incredibly easy. It looks great but I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to see that cancelled GameCube platformer instead.

  4. It seems like pink-and-frilly might provide a refreshing alternative if your back catalog is largely Xbox based, but to each his own.

    If you equate difficulty with dying, yes, it's very easy. On the other hand, I felt like it put up just enough fight for me. You do need beads to advance in the game, which are easy to come by, but also easily spilled gratuitously. More than that, just making your way through levels can sometimes feel like a moderately cerebral ordeal, which simultaneously tests your button pressing skills. Death is impossible, but it strikes me as a bit silly when I see someone genuinely complain that it's easy. Besides, must every game really be strictly about difficulty? It's just immensely fun to play. That seems like it should count for something.

    Not that I'm trying to persuade, you. By all means, follow your gut, but it's a truly great game that deserves some words in its defense.

    Likewise, I find it curious to hear about how difficult Donkey Kong Country Returns is supposed to be. I died A LOT; easily several hundred times. However, I never even remotely felt the least bit threatened by the finality of a game over screen. Any game that allows you to grind for convenient items to keep you going is -- by my definition -- pretty easy.

  5. MFGG question- if your account is deactivated because you don't use it for a while, can you make a new account?

  6. Yes. Though we don't tend to deactivate accounts (though perhaps you're getting confused with the recent forum split?)

    And this isn't really the place for MFGG questions.