I wasn’t the biggest fan of the original Donkey Kong Country games. The titles just never resonated with me the way they did so many others. When I saw the initial footage of Donkey Kong Country Returns, I was willing to give the game a shot. I figured my tastes had evolved enough that I might enjoy the title a bit more than its predecessors. While the game is great looking, has a solid soundtrack, and impressive level design with tons of replay value, Donkey Kong Country Returns is maddeningly frustrating. In fact, I’ve never been happier that I didn’t have to play a game anymore than when I finished playing Donkey Kong Country Returns.
A seemingly vengeful tiki god awakens in a volcano on the island where Donkey Kong currently resides. This volcano deity sends out a handful of its minions, who hypnotize the jungle animals to collect all the bananas they can find. The little buggers try to get to Donkey Kong, but for some reason he’s immune to their powers. Unfortunately for him though, that doesn’t stop them from stealing his cave full of bananas. This sets DK off, and he begins tracking down the miniature musical tiki demons to get his favorite fruit back. It’s as basic a plot as you could possibly have, but you don’t really need more than that. Though Donkey Kong’s adventure takes place primarily on one island, there are a different locations he’ll visit, including jungles, caves, pirate ships, and more. There’s a good deal of variation even within any of the individual worlds, with more than a few different methods used to traverse and complete a given board. Each area ends in a boss fight, which ranges from easy to cripplingly hard, and every level has more than a few secrets and items to find to get 100% completion. If the game wasn’t so stubborn about being a retro platformer with no room for mistakes, traveling the world of Donkey Kong might have been a bit more fun.
The game utilizes two control styles, allowing you to play with both the remote and nunchuck, or by turning the stand alone remote sideways. The sideways controller was all right, but I found the controller/nunchuck combination to be the best way to play the game. Donkey Kong can run and jump, and he can also pound the ground, roll, and blow air on things to earn more bananas or coins. Oddly enough, the roll command is so similar to the blow command that you’ll often find yourself tumbling off ledges you didn’t mean to because you were trying to blow out a lantern or dandelion. All three are just variations on shaking the controllers up and down repeatedly, so it’s easy to mix any of them up, but the roll/blow issue kept me losing lives left and right. You still kill most enemies by jumping on their heads, but some require you to be a bit more creative. There’s not much about the combat that’s very challenging, as most of the game’s difficulty comes from trying to traverse the multitude of platforms without dying.
Though there isn’t much more to the game than jumping, climbing, or swinging, it’s your ability to execute these maneuvers that will result in either your death or completion of a level. You will die. A lot. Ledges will be just out of reach. Mine carts will careen into oblivion. Enemies will perch precariously on platforms you need to reach, preventing you from making a clean jump. You will accidentally jump too far, or roll when you meant to pound, and disappear into nothingness. If Donkey Kong Country Returns is good for one thing, it’s killing you over and over again. Granted, I made my fair share of mistakes, but the game seems to rely on memorization of where to go, and when to jump, rather than letting the player intuitively and reflexively figure out what to do next. Lengthy portions of a board will have to be replayed over and over again after an extremely cheap death, and since the checkpoint system is middling at best, you will have to do this throughout the game. Fortunately, every time you die, you don’t lose any of the items you collected before your untimely demise. Bananas and coins (which can be exchanged for extra lives), as well as puzzle pieces all remain in your inventory when you fall, and they also respawn throughout the level when you try again. Strangely enough, you can also collect the letters that spell out Kong on every board, but they do not stay in your inventory unless you passed a checkpoint. It’s a handy way to replenish the lives you’re going to lose, but it seems to me if the game were a bit easier to navigate, this type of offsetting wouldn’t be necessary. Only a few times did I ever actually run out of lives, though that was due to my own stubbornness getting the best of me during levels where I thought, “I can’t possibly die here again.” It was foolish of me to think this game was going to be forgiving in the least.
Barrel travel returns in this game as well, and it’s just as easy as it was all those years ago. Simply hop into a barrel, and it will shoot you to a previously unreachable platform, or another barrel. A few levels make use of this mechanic in a puzzle, but for the most part, barrels are used simply to break up the monotony of jumping left and right ad nauseum. The mine cart levels in the game are a particular nemesis of mine, as I lost more lives on railway boards than any other level in the entire game. I’ll admit, these are also some of the most fun and fast-paced levels in the game, but because of how quickly they move, your reaction time must be impeccable. There are some portions of the game where you can also team with Diddy Kong, who latches onto your back, and provides a little extra health, and a very helpful rocket pack that boosts jumps. It’s not really necessary, but I guess he’s included so that Nintendo can add a co-operative portion to the game. Yes, you can play Donkey Kong Country Returns with a friend, but it’s probably the most meaningless co-op experience outside of Super Mario Galaxy. You share lives with this second player, so if he dies, you lose a life. If both of you die while Diddy Kong is on your back, you lose two lives. While I can understand that when Diddy is on your back as an option, there are levels in the game where Diddy must be on your back. Diddy also adds nothing to the game beyond the boost jump. Unlike New Super Mario Bros. Wii, which made great use of co-op play, the feature exists in DKCR just so Nintendo can say the game can be played by two players.
As little fun as I had playing the game, I did think it looked good. Vibrant colors pop off the screen with every frame, and even though it’s a 2D side-scoller, there’s a lot of depth to any given level. The game’s animations are also smooth, as DK moves fluidly through every motion. Despite many of the enemy animations merely requiring them to waddle or float back and forth, there’s a pretty decent amount of variation in the types you’ll face. Though I know retro game music isn’t for everyone, I enjoyed the game’s soundtrack. In spite of hearing the same tunes over and over again thanks to repeated deaths requiring me to start a level from the beginning yet again, I never got tired of the music. The simple rocking beats with a bit-tuned flair were still stuck in my head hours after a play session, which hardly ever happens to me. Even though the complete package isn’t as sound as something like Super Mario Galaxy or New Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong Country Returns’ best aspect is clearly the presentation.
Games don’t typically annoy me. I consider myself a very even-tempered gamer. That said, Donkey Kong Country Returns was one of the most frustrating and aggravating video games I’ve ever played. Its refusal to leave archaic design elements of yesteryear behind left me defeated and broken. I don’t think there’s been a game this generation that I’ve disliked more than Donkey Kong Country Returns. Even so, I know that there is a rabid fan base of platformer fans that have been salivating the release of a game like this for a long time. The design is great. The music is terrific, and the graphics are impressive. Unfortunately, playing this game felt like a chore, and reminded me why I didn’t enjoy the original titles. Donkey Kong Country Returns is an unforgiving experience with very little reward, and only the franchise’s fans should even consider checking it out.