Back in the days of the SNES, Donkey Kong Country wowed just about everyone with its graphics, gameplay and downright fun factor. We’ve seen plenty of Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong since then, but it’s primarily been in secondary roles such as in Super Smash Bros. or in arguably obscure titles like Donkey Konga. Yes, we were among the unfortunate gamers who bought the Donkey Bongos. But Donkey Kong Country has been a relatively quiet franchise for one reason or another, and with all the attention paid to high-definition graphics on the current generation of consoles, it was starting to seem like a new graphically gorgeous Donkey Kong Country was a long way off. It’s actually a heck of a lot closer than you might think.
During our visit inside the Nintendo Airstream, the reps from the company Miyamoto made famous gave us one last chance to get hands-on with Donkey Kong Country Returns before its November 21 release on the Wii. At this point in development, the game’s content complete and being mass produced, so for all intents and purposes this is the last chance for hands-on impressions prior to Donkey Kong smashing onto store shelves. And let me tell you, based on what we played, you’re probably going to have to do some smashing of your own if you want to get your hands on it. Donkey Kong Country Returns is just that fun.
If the game feels immediately familiar, it’s because Nintendo had a winning formula when the original DK Country released for the SNES. That’s not to say Donkey Kong Country Returns is tired, though. Amid the fast-paced gameplay are sprinkled a host of new touches that give the game more dimension, sometimes literally.
We played two levels in Donkey Kong Country Returns, Jungle Hijinks and Rickety Rails. Jungle Hijinks feels immediately familiar to the classic levels from the original DK Country, with bananas to be found, enemies to be jumped upon, ground to pound and barrels to smash. The gameplay’s incredibly smooth and polished, and after spending the past few months playing shooters and RPGs in fully realized 3D worlds, it’s a refreshing break to play a two-dimensional platformer that not only holds a candle to those “more advanced” games but also outperforms many of them.
But calling Donkey Kong Country Returns just a 2D game is a bit of a misnomer. New cannons have been added that allow Donkey and Diddy to blast from the foreground to the background, playing on some of the platforms and smashing some of the enemies in the far-off distance. During these sequences there’s plenty of action, and because the camera doesn’t pan all the way forward, you really have a sense of playing in the background as DK, the enemies and all the setpieces appear smaller. There didn’t appear to be any instances where players could choose to cannonball themselves into the background or the foreground — all of the cannons were placed in locations that would otherwise be a roadblock to advancing — but the added dimension is a nice touch and gives a real sense of depth even if it is more of a gimmick than a gameplay choice.
Other small touches lend a sense of freshness to Donkey Kong Country Returns, such as the ability to blow on dandelions to discover secret bananas, or bash open a barrel and have Diddy Kong hop on DK’s back and let him hover by using Diddy’s jetpack. The franchise’s move to the Wii and its motion controls also adds a lot to the game, particularly its sense of immersion. No longer do you just press a button to make Donkey Kong pound the ground; you actually move the Wii Remote and Nunchuk up and down as if you’re pounding yourself. To do a barrel roll, you don’t just press a button, you press a button and then push the Nunchuck forward to start him rolling (if Diddy’s on your back, you can even barrel roll your entire way through a level). Even the aforementioned ability to blow on a dandelion is achieved not by a simple button press, but by pressing down on the Nunchuck’s thumbstick and then shaking the Wii Remote.
The second level we played, Rickety Rails, harkens back to the good old days of a mine cart sequence, Donkey-Kong style. Set inside a cave, this level is quite different from Jungle Hijinks and shows just how hard Donkey Kong Country Returns can be in a fun way, not a controller-throwing way. Everything about this level screams “fast,” from the mine cart and enemies to the required reaction time. If Jungle Hijinks was a chance to reminisce, it’s only because Rickety Rails was so fast-paced and intense with its platforming that we needed a breather to gather our wits. If you never played Donkey Kong Country, or if you did but forgot how surprisingly hard the SNES title really was, Rickety Rails will show/remind you within the first 15 seconds. It’s certainly not Battletoads hoverbike hard, but prepare to grit your teeth a few times. Where Jungle Hijinks experimented with only foreground/background depth, Rickety Rails also introduces extreme verticality, adding an extra layer of intrigue to the interior map.
The last thing worth mentioning before Donkey Kong Country Returns releases for the Wii is just how good the game really looks. Sure, the original impressed people in the SNES days; games were still new, and there weren’t many competitors. But even where the current generation of games is concerned, Donkey Kong Country Returns looks fantastic. Like most first-party Wii titles, Donkey Kong Country Returns never suffers from slowdown regardless of how fast the action moves on screen, and its vibrant graphics allow you to keep tabs on all the enemies, platforms and special items without testing your vision. I never would’ve blinked twice if you’d told me Donkey Kong Country Returns was an Xbox 360 or PS3 title. No, it doesn’t have normal mapping or half a dozen light sources, but the attention to detail and the sheer amount of “stuff” going on on-screen at any one time shows that the Nintendo Wii, for all the heat it’s getting with the Kinect and PlayStation Move in retail, still has plenty under the hood. If the rest of the game stands up to the excellent standards these two levels have set, Donkey Kong Country Returns is one game you absolutely must own this holiday season.
Click here to pre-order Donkey Kong Country Returns from Amazon.com to ensure you get it on launch day for the best price.
— Jonas Allen