Balancing between nostalgia and innovation has always been a challenging equilibrium for developers. Stray an entry of a popular series too much and you risk losing scope of what made the original a masterpiece. Stay too close to the formula and the game lacks the imaginative surprises that made people love the first game. Donkey Kong’s latest outing mostly succeeds to marriage the new and the old, barring a few slip-ups. While Donkey Kong Country Returns provides a fresh breath of air to platformers through creative level design and spectacle gameplay, Retro Studios’s overreliance on homaging the original Donkey Kong Country at the expense of its sequels creates a de-evolution that prevents this new entry from becoming the best in the series.
By focusing on fast-paced mechanics that span over the usual confines of 2D side-scrollers, Donkey Kong Country Returns provides that freshness that gamers desire. A sense of rush mixed with exploration helps Returns stand out from other platformers. Players will find themselves constantly running past obstacles, and while this may sound repetitive, Retro Studios manages mix up the speed in many ways to prevent the gameplay from getting stale. From chases to collapsing platforms to speeding vehicles and avalanches, Returns always finds new ways to provide that rush. What makes the game stand out even more, however, is how these spectacles tend to break out into the z-axis in what is normally a 2D genre. The backgrounds and foregrounds, which normally only serve as the art to immerse the player into the game world, lend a hand in the action. Obstacles launch from behind and in front of the player over the course of several planes when they least expect it, leading to surprises around every corner. In addition to the adrenaline-pumping action, hidden collectibles litter the levels, creating an interesting complex where players want to simultaneously take it slowly to explore as well as run to survive. Such a play of emotions coupled with a marriage between gameplay mechanics and visuals make Donkey Kong Country Returns a standout experience for every platformer aficionado.
Unfortunately, the thrill ends at the Bonus Levels. By taking inspiration from the original Donkey Kong Country’s straightforward banana-collecting Bonus Levels, Retro Studios ignores the evolution of the sequels’ Bonus Room designs. Donkey Kong Country 3 features four types of Bonus Levels over the course of more than seventy unique Bonus Rooms. Returns becomes a letdown in comparison with only one type of Bonus Room and a handful of layouts. Whereas in Donkey Kong Country 2 and 3 finding a new Bonus Level always provided that excitement in uncovering a new challenge, in Returns players complete a World 8 Bonus Room in the same manner as they did in World 1. Thankfully, the game still provides replayability in hiding secret items within the levels themselves, but the simplification of the Bonus Levels prevents this new Donkey Kong Country from reaching its full potential.
Sometimes de-evolution comes through evolution. In the case of the Wii’s fancy motion controls, shaking the Wii Remote to roll Donkey Kong works most of the time. Unfortunately, most of the time is a step down from the always-reliable Y-button. While shaking to occasionally spin jump and tilt platforms works well in New Super Mario Bros. Wii, in Donkey Kong Country Returns rolling becomes such a constant part of the action that programming it to motion control as opposed to the immediacy of a button press is questionable. Especially in the infuriating Time Attack mode, where precise rolling turns into a required tactic, the rush of beating the stage as fast as possible makes it more likely for players to hastily shake the controller, leading to losses caused by the motion control failing to register. Though the occasional blunder doesn’t break the game, the use of motion only hinders rather than adding to the gameplay.
Another de-evolution in Donkey Kong Country Returns lies in the personalities. By minimizing the roles of non-playable characters, Retro Studios diminishes the trademark atmosphere of Donkey Kong Country. A significant part of what made the series rich in their day rested in the quirky cast. From a treacherous tollbooth pirate to a spunky girl who was neither a damsel in distress nor eye-candy for male gamers—a rarity in the 1990s, to a wannabe game show host, the old games feel like a living, breathing world as opposed to an arbitrary collection of platforming challenges. Retro Studios unfortunately took the minimalization approach, diminishing the game’s full potential in both gameplay and atmosphere. What does Returns gain by lacking the occasional Swanky Kong mini-game? Why downplay Diddy Kong from a playable character into a mere power-up when his inclusion could potentially include multiple play styles and exclusive areas? And while the new Tiki villains provide a fun fresh breath of air to the series, why have a Donkey Kong clone act as the Super Guide when Wrinkly Kong’s ghost could have filled the same role by possessing DK and leading him to safety? What is the point of having a generic pig host the Time Attack mode while Funky Kong remains unused? As Donkey Kong Country Returns’s multitasking of the scenery as both immersive art and interactive obstacles illustrates, atmosphere and game design can come together to form a synergy. As a result, such omissions not only diminish the game’s charm, but also eliminate certain gameplay possibilities.
But beggars can’t be choosers. Criticizing Bonus Levels and the use of characters only serves as nitpickings in the greater scheme of excellent game design. Despite a few steps backwards, this latest entry still provides a heart-pounding return to Donkey Kong Country, even if the innovation and nostalgia balance isn’t quite right. Donkey Kong Country Returns offers a must-have experience for the old fans who have been waiting so long for a new adventure as well as for platforming enthusiasts in general. Just don’t expect the best in the series.
No one has commented