Donkey Kong Country Returns (2010)

Donkey Kong Country Returns (2010)

The Donkey Kong Country series was halted thanks to two major factors, one being Donkey Kong 64, a truly awful game, and the second being Microsoft purchasing Rare and really doing a poor job letting that company thrive. Rare’s demise is a story for another time, but the Donkey Kong Country series seemingly ended without much fanfare. It’s a true shame that it took so long, but over a decade later we did end up getting a fairly good followup to the series with the Wii’s Donkey Kong Country Returns

The game itself, made by Retro Studios, is probably the perfect studio to bring the long dormant series back from the grave. Their focus on making good and tight platformers with an emphasis on bright colorful really good looking graphics are just the type of thing to make Donkey Kong Country Returns appeal to both older generations who grew up with the franchise, and people who only know about Donkey Kong thanks to a meme. Retro Studios, known for their Shante games, really did a number on this game and jammed it full to the brim with extras, which sadly I’ll get to in a moment.

Before I gush all over about how great it is that there is another Donkey Kong Country game, I do have quite a few issues with it as well. None of which are deal breakers, or make me hate the game, but did really hinder my enjoyment of it.

First off the game just doesn’t feel great to control. The movement felt jittery and watery in a way that I never felt like I had good precise control of Donkey Kong. The slight tap of the left or right directional button resulted in several animation frames of “getting started” where I don’t move, but Donkey Kong is clearly doing something. After what felt like over a second, Mr. Kong does finally start to move and all is well. Quick changes in direction, or air controlled jumps also just didn’t feel as precise; and that is such a major part of platformers. Don’t even get me started on the Rocket Barrel levels that have an awkward feathering accelerator and have a weird gravity being applied to it.

Along with the platforming, the other aspect that I didn’t really care for was the fact that while each and every level was jam packed with extra and collectable stuff, none of it really felt enjoyable to get based solely on the fact that it is missable. Meaning that it is a “You get a single shot, and if you fail (be that you didn’t understand the mechanic, couldn’t see it in time, didn’t react with split second timing) you might as well just restart the entire level over again. A solid majority of the levels are actually fairly difficult, and took me well over 20 lives just to finish some of them. At the end of the day, most items are going to cost you several lives to try and get, and only result in a single extra life balloon at the end of it. Making it not worth it to even try and get. A lot of the bonus stuff is also locked away in the new weird background items (where you walk right in front of a flower or pot) and have to stop, crouch down and make Donkey Kong breathe out and blow or slam his fists down. It kills any and all momentum and most are either single bananas or nothing at all. Only a few times I found it worth doing for a coin. Around three fourths of the way through the game, I ended up bypassing all items all together because it was pointless and would only result in many MANY more deaths.

But on with the good of the game! Seeing the series return was and is the highlight. The “Country” series definitely means something special, and is welcomed. New studios can take a dormant brand and revitalize it in a way and bring a whole new group of people in to appreciate it.

It’s interesting seeing them switch from K. Rool as the antagonist to the new Tikis. Having each one be a different instrument was something I only picked up on after the second or third world boss.

The special unlockable levels, only able to be done by purchasing a key at Cranky’s Shack is the real ultimate reason to play this game, and I really wish more levels were in the style of what they showed off. These levels are set up to be more stylized than anything else, not particularly hard, but more showoff cool ideas. My favorites are the one where Donkey Kong and all the foreground is silhouetted, and the only color is the background, usually a really beautiful orange creamsicle colored sunset. With Donkey and Diddy only being able to be recognized by their red tie and baseball cap as well. It really brings out the creativity of the game and is memorable all these years later. I would have loved much more of these types of levels, even having a whole world be in that style would have been great.

The levels themselves are enjoyable with some memorable sections and settings. The beach/ Pirate ship, the forest and even oddly out of place dinosaur graveyard/cliff area. I however think I loved the mine cart levels most of all. They are a staple of the franchise and I welcomed it back with open arms. Both the mine cart and rocket barrel levels did feel exceptionally tough to complete, as there were so many pixel perfect sections where the slightest miscalculation would result in instant single hit deaths. The game is really bent on being that “tough as nails” type of game that just seemed to be at odds with the visual presentation. It feels like it was made and marketed to a wider and more general audience, but only those who grew up with the classic games and stuck with it for dozens of hours would really get through the game.

I guess, looking back on all the games in the series thus far, and being honest, I believe Donkey Kong Country Returns is my least favorite, even behind DKC 3. Mostly due to the fact that it’s whole presentation is at odds with the actual gameplay. So many of the games levels feel vindictive as it’s trying to mess with you, so many jumps that can’t be seen, so many easy deaths that can’t be avoided. It’s only after memorization of all the previous deaths and enemy placements that I can advance, and not based on skill and reaction. That’s what I think the big underlying issue with the game is, and it’s why I hate games like Dark Souls, they don’t want you to naturally be good at the game, it’s just memorization of all the crap being placed in your way.

It’s too bad too, because I think this game had real potential to rocket up the list of the series for me, and it’s the only other game in the franchise, besides 3 that I’ve never completed before. Luckily, capping off the whole Donkey Kong Country series, next up is Tropical Freeze, which I did love when it came out and have finished before. So it won’t be a new experience, but it’ll hopefully be a more fully fleshed out and realized playthrough as I have a much better understanding of the game’s lineage now. And luckily many more Kongs are along for the ride too, which again, is something Donkey Kong Country Returns was sorely lacking.