When Retro Studio finished their work on the Metroid Prime series, they went silent for a very long time, working on a secret project. Speculations ranged from non-Metroid based side-stories within the Metroid universe to the revival of one of their original titles before production of Metroid Prime 1 to a totally new IP. No one was expecting the announcement at E3 2010 that they were working on a retro-revival project, Donkey Kong Country Returns, a reboot of the SNES franchise originally developed by Rare.
As with previous entries in the series, Donkey Kong Country Returns begins on the island, with all of Donkey and Diddy Kong’s bananas being stolen. Only this time, instead of the reptilian Kremlings being the thieves, a meteor falling from the sky releases musical tiki creatures from the island’s volcano that brainwash the animals to do it for them. They even try to do it to the heroes and get pummeled for it. That’s all anyone needs to know about the story, the rest is unimportant.
Graphically, DKCR is impressive. The same general art style as the original series is kept, while successfully making the transition from pre-rendered sprites to full 3d characters and environments. Each section of the island has its own general theme, from the starting jungle stages, to the beach, factory, and volcano, to name a few. In keeping with each style, the backgrounds often have a lot of activity in the main area, as well as in the background, some areas even using the backgrounds to create multi-plained stages. Often the scrolling nature of the 3d backgrounds allows for some interesting perspective shifts, and there are several easter eggs hidden there too.
Sound design is adequate. Basic sound effects seemed to be pulled from the original series and rerecorded. Music are modern remixes of the original music as well. There really is not anything to say, good or bad about it.
Gameplay is standard platforming. Running, jumping, navigating through stages designed to test the skill of players. As with the original, Donkey Kong still has his roll maneuver and ground slap abilities, which can allow longer jumps, stun enemies, and solve some basic environmental puzzles. Diddy Kong comes along too, this time riding along Donkey Kong’s back instead of running behind him. Diddy Kong has a jetpack which serves as a way of extending jumps for an additional second or so, and as a safety net as jump distances often seem to be a bit deceiving. Diddy also has a peanut gun, but it is only usable in 2-player mode, which this reviewer did not play, as the player cannot switch control between the two anymore.
Additionally, there are more collectibles this time around. Originally, there were only bananas, which served the same function as coins in the Super Mario series (collect 100, get an extra life), balloons (extra life), and the K-O-N-G letters (collect all four letters in each stage for an extra life). Added in DKCR are banana coins, used for buying items at the shop, and puzzle pieces. The K-O-N-G letters no longer grant extra lives. Instead, should all the letters in every stage in an area be collected, they open a temple (bonus stage) in that area. Completing the temples in every area opens a final bonus temple after game completion, which itself unlocks a Mirror (read: Hard) Mode after completion.
All of the K-O-N-G letters are placed out in the open, but are often placed in difficult to reach places. Death causes the player to lose any they collected since the last checkpoint reached in the stage. The jigsaw pieces, however, are always hidden. Often they are hidden behind often obvious foreground scenery, poundable objects, from collecting a specific set of bananas, and as a reward for completing the secret rooms. The secret rooms make a return, but they are not as interesting, as there are only about five or six rooms that are repeated throughout the entire game. Thankfully, the jigsaw pieces do not have to be recollected after death, as long as the stage is completed without having to use a continue.
As mentioned, there are now banana coins, which are used at the new shop. Aside from Donkey and Diddy, Cranky Kong is the only other Kong character to appear, the rest seeming to have been excised, and he runs this shop. The coins can buy multiple balloons, and single use items such as the parrot (finds jigsaw pieces), a heart container (additional health point for the stage), banana juice (10-hit invincibility), and a key (unlocks an alternate stage in each area). Aside from the banana juice, which can potentially kill the difficulty of the bosses, there is nothing game breaking, as the balloons can be lost quickly, and the other items are one-shots. Coins are plentiful enough that any used item can be replenished easily.
If there is one word this writer had to describe DKCR, it would be “hard”. DKCR has long stages that can have long difficult sections between checkpoints, with several seconds and sometimes long stretches of progress lost. It’s often difficult to tell how far into the stage the player is aside from the ever present K-O-N-G letters. Some stages have one checkpoint, some two, and the distance between them is often inconsistent. As well, a Diddy Kong barrel is usually placed near the checkpoints, but sometimes there is some platforming between the two, with the problem being that the platforming difficulty seems to be tuned to having Diddy with you at all times, the additional safety net of his jetpack making difficult jumps slightly safer.
Also, the minecart stages return, and are accompanied by new rocket-barrel stages. There are many difficult portions of the game, but often times that difficulty is increased from trying to reach the collectibles. The minecart and rocket-barrel stages break from the basic platforming gameplay and into automatically scrolling areas of rote pattern memorization, where a single miss is an instant death, and the uneven spacing of checkpoints truly becomes noticeable. There are some minor branches that can be taken, but there is basically one critical path that must be followed, or the player is thrown back to the checkpoint. These stages, while the most dynamic, are also among the most frustratingly difficult stages in the game.
One of the other iffy things about the difficulty is the controls. This is a game where the inclusion of motion control is particularly contentious. Simply, it is required where it should not be. DKCR is supposed to be an homage back to the original SNES DKC, and that was a three-button game, this is a two-button-with-waggle game. Where in the original, important moves like the roll and ground pound were mapped to the d-pad and button, those moves are mapped to d-pad and waggle. While it works okay for the ground pound, it is impractical for the roll, and consequently the roll-jump, which is an important move for grabbing collectibles in each stage.
There is no Classic Controller support. Every major outlet, when DKCR was shown off at E3, told Retro Studio that support needed to be included. The fact that they did not was probably a choice made by Nintendo and its want for a consistent marketing message with the string of 2D retro-revival games for the Wii, despite DKC having been an SNES game as opposed to NES. Wii-remote and Nunchuk combo is also a control option, but this reviewer did not use it.
Being a retro-revival, the purpose is to restart a franchise by catering to its original fanbase, while at the same time creating a new take on the franchise. After their work taking Metroid from 2D to first-person 3D, going for a 2D game is an interesting choice, but I have to say that they were generally successful with their efforts. I say generally because despite being a reboot, at times it feels like a retread. Everything is done well, but there are places where it seems to be missing that intangible thing that makes it all fit together.
The game often feels more like a retread than a reboot and there's no Classic Controller support, but strong, consistent art style and great use of multi-plained stages for level design make this one worth playing.