Donkey Kong, much like Nintendo's Mario, is one of the most recognized and versatile characters in platform gaming. So, naturally when looking at his triumphant return to gaming (that doesn't include a go-kart or other gimmick) one would expect the same treatment that Mario has gotten over the years: Classic mechanics that blend in with new gameplay elements to create brand new experience that reeks of nostalgia. In the case of DK's line of games, nostalgia means difficulty. Donkey Kong Country was a series that was fun, but challenging. The secrets hidden were well thought out, the bonus objectives were always fun and the mini-games were both a nice surprise to find and a rewarding challenge. Knowing full well that Nintendo has nailed down the platforming genre this holiday season with Kirby and Mario, is it fair to say that they gave gaming's most recognized ape the same celebrity treatment?
Absolutely, and everyone from old school fans to brand new players should find this very easy to see from the moment they pick up the controller. Donkey Kong alone has the ability to run and jump the same as any other platforming character out there, and all of his special moves are assigned to some extremely simple motion controls. Shaking the Wii Remote while motionless will cause DK to slam the ground, while shaking during a run will make him roll. It's all very simple stuff, with a mid-air hover and extended roll attack coming into play whenever Diddy Kong is available.
This lack of 'moves' would be a bit of a downer if it wasn't for the fact that the Donkey Kong Country series has always been a game more about level design and exploration, as opposed to general bad-guy stomping. Every single level is filled with multiple secret locations, hidden bonus items, extra lives and mini-games, all of which the player can unlock in a single run and some of which are extremely difficult to find. Not to mention the fact that some levels can be extremely difficult to navigate in the first place.
This difficulty is due to the fact that every single level in Donkey Kong country is so different from the next (apart from the boss fights). Avoiding enemies and making well timed jumps is part of the battle, but many of the game's events don't occur at the player's own pace. Mine cart or barrel shooting portions for example, only leave the player a quick moment to decide when to make a button press. Mix these in with quite a few companion-portions (such as the rhino riding) and it's easy to see how a single level can encompass so many different things. Failure means simply starting all over from the last checkpoint, which the game is kind enough to provide a few of at critical locations.
Fortunately this shouldn't really have any effect on players that are just getting used to the game, as the Super Guide feature from New Super Mario Bros becomes available after a few deaths. Once it becomes available any frustrated player can choose to activate it at the nearest checkpoint and watch an AI controlled character beat the level for them, letting players progress on and go back to that level at a later date. It's a handy feature that not too many older players will take advantage of, and will give quite a bit of aid to any struggling younger players.
As players progress through the game they'll also be collecting two forms of currency, bananas and banana coins. One acts as a way to get extra lives during the course of the game, while the other serves as a currency for shops. Additional lives, single use items, and keys to open up new secret levels are all available for purchase at the shops, and one is featured in each zone leaving players something extra to look forward to seeing.
Graphics and sound wise Donkey Kong Country Returns is an absolute treat, offering a fantastic blend of old and new. Veteran players should recognize a large portion of the original game's soundtrack, which has been remixed brilliantly across a very wide variety of levels. Likewise players should absolutely love the amount of style and detail poured into every level, it's a completely different feel from Nintendo's other side scrolling platformer IPs, and that's a very good thing.
It's hard to imagine who exactly wouldn't find some kind of enjoyment from visiting Donkey Kong Country, particularly considering the series' most notorious feature (it's learning curve) is balanced out with the addition of the Super Guide. Easy to learn controls, phenomenal level design, two person multiplayer, and a memorable tale of a gorilla searching for his bananas all come together to make this Wii title a fantastic experience. Older DKC fans should be right at home in a game that feels perfectly in tune with the classic NES series, while newer fans are able to find out everything they missed simply by being born at the wrong time.