Anyone who owned a Super Nintendo should have fond memories of Rare's “Donkey Kong Country”, the graphically gorgeous platformer that gave Nintendo a second lease on life in its war against the Sega Genesis. Not only did it show the advanced visuals that the Super Nintendo was capable of, but it was a masterpiece that showcased creative level design and intense gameplay – the very embodiment of the platforming genre.
More than fifteen years after Donkey and Diddy's adventure appeared on the Super Nintendo, the simian duo are back for the Nintendo Wii in “Donkey Kong Country Returns”. Though in the hands of a new developer, “Metroid Prime” creators Retro Studios, and utilizing motion-based controls, “Donkey Kong Country Returns” manages to be a perfect new addition that simultaneously remains faithful to its old-school roots while still being original enough to establish its own identity.
Despite the fact that “Donkey Kong Country Returns” is running on new hardware, is using a new control scheme (that periodically requires you to take advantage of the Wii's motion-tracking functionality), and is no longer being developed by Rare, there are countless elements evident in the Nintendo Wii installment that will make longtime veterans of the franchise feel instantly at home. Swinging from vine to vine, launching yourself from barrel to barrel, commandeering animal allies or stomping on bad guys' heads in order to collect bananas or golden letters feels just like it did on the Super Nintendo. It all feels very familiar, though that'd hardly a bad thing considering the original “Donkey Kong Country” was largely regarded as the pinnacle of platforming perfection. Retro Studios clearly has done its research and has done a stellar job of ensuring “Donkey Kong Country Returns” feels like a genuine member of the “Donkey Kong” family.
But then there's all the new content that Retro has added to usher the “Donkey Kong Country” formula into the next generation. Donkey has a few new tricks up his sleeve, including the ability to cling to surfaces, and Diddy augments Donkey's platforming skills with a useful hover feature. However, you can't actually play as Diddy unless you play in co-op mode, removing the strong but slow vs. weak but agile dynamic between the two characters that was present in the original. The levels are also brilliantly designed, making use of both franchise conventions and brand new obstacles and traps that you'll never see coming.
Speaking of which, unlike some of Nintendo's more recent, family-friendly titles, “Donkey Kong Country Returns” is very, very difficult. There are certain provisions made to aid you if you find yourself dying repeatedly on a certain level, but for the most part, you'll have to rely on twitch reflexes, and memorization of boss patterns and level layouts in order to emerge victorious. There are few stages where the challenge feels artificial or cheap (practice, practice and more practice is usually the key to overcoming any obstacles that the game may throw at you) and, as a result, clearing the game usually feels like a reward for hard work and perseverance rather than raw luck.
“Donkey Kong Country Returns” is a visually stunning game. The graphics adapt an art style different than its 16-bit predecessor, but it's still used very effectively to create a gaming experience that looks as good as it plays. The Nintendo Wii might lack the punch of the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, but if games like “Donkey Kong Country Returns” are any indication of what the aging console is still capable of, it doesn't really need it in order to remain competitive.
“Donkey Kong Country Returns” is a rarity among reboots, as it does almost everything perfectly. It does enough to retain the flavor of its source material in order to appease fans of the original, but it also implements enough new content and imbues the experience with a distinctly look and feel so that it can easily stand on its own as well. Whether or not it's better than the Super Nintendo version is completely irrelevant –it's a brand new “Donkey Kong” game, and just like every one of its precursors, it's a complete blast to play.
Final Grade: Final Grade: A-
"Donkey Kong Country Returns"
Developer: Retro Studios
Platforms: Nintendo Wii
Release Date: 11.21.10