The original iteration of Donkey Kong Country was the first game I ever owned. I had been gaming for some time before then, but it was on an NES passed down through three cousins. It made an odd clunk sound when you turned it on. I can remember the Christmas morning when my sister and I unwrapped our brand new Super Nintendo. I forget which game she got, but I remember thinking I had gotten the better end of the deal. Needless to say, I've been a fan of the franchise ever since.
Unfortunately, it seems like there hasn't been a really decent Donkey Kong game since then. I thoroughly enjoyed DKC and all of the sequels that followed, but I've never really gotten into the games that lumped DK together with Mario or another Nintendo character. He doesn't need drums or other peripherals and he doesn't need to be anyone's sidekick.
That's why I was happy to discover that Donkey Kong Country Returns offers great gameplay, a decent storyline and the kind of graphics that Wii owners have been waiting for. Praise be to the gaming gods.
The game opens with a cutscene showing a band of musical tiki heads invading Donkey Kong Island after a volcanic eruption. They use their magical music to control the island's animals and command them to begin gathering all the bananas of the island. Unfortunately for our hero, that also includes his much-coveted (and oft-stolen) secret stash.
The usual characters are back for another round. Donkey Kong is accompanied by Diddy and Cranky Kong is still around, selling life balloons and dispensing with salty wisdom from his shop. Rambi the Rhino is willing to cart the great ape around and the mine-cart levels are back and ready to drive you insane.
The game uses both the Wiimote and the nunchuk. The player uses the joystick to control direction and shakes the Wiimote/nunchuk to pound the ground. This stuns nearby enemies, opens crates and treasure boxes and allows the player to interact with the environment. Crouching and shaking allows the player to blow the petals off a flower (to find hidden treasures) or cool off a fiery tiki-head so DK can smash 'em. The Kongs can also roll by holding either left or right and shaking. Using either the Z or B button allows the player to grab and climb along grass or chains to find more secrets. Nintendo was kind enough to give a secondary control option that only uses the Wiimote for those players who don't want or don't own nunchuks.
Diddy's moves are the same as Donkey Kong's, except he uses his peanut popgun to do his ground pound and to attack enemies. He also has a jet pack that allows him to hover. When two players are gaming, Diddy can hop onto Donkey's back, giving player one full control over Diddy's jet pack and essentially functioning as one character. Player 2 can still use the peanut popgun to shoot enemies and can hop off anytime. Each level has two sets of collectables to find. The player must collect the letters K, O, N, G as well as finding a variety of puzzle pieces. Once the level is beaten, the player can go back and do a timed speed run to beat the level to 100%.
The player can also collect bananas (collecting 100 gives the player a life balloon), banana coins (which are used at Cranky's shop), hearts and red life balloons. At Cranky's shop, the player can buy balloons and boosts that will help the Kongs get through a level. As well, he sells keys to unlock special levels in each world.
Graphically, the game can only be described as lush. I was extraordinarily impressed at how stunning everything is. Yes, it's a cartoon, but it is beautifully rendered and the colours really pop. What I found really neat is how, on occasion, you'll jump into a barrel and rather than being shot left or right, you're shot into the background. Instead of presenting itself as a standard side-scroller, the developers decided to add some literal depth to the game.
Adding some soul to the title is the old school DK soundtrack. They've thrown in some new tunes to change it up a bit, but the overall effect is incredibly pleasant. Never once did I have to mute the volume.
The game itself is not as pleasant on your patience, however. I've fallen into the bad habit of being able to beat a Wii game quickly and easily. I consider myself a fair gamer, but I found myself dying quite a fair bit in the earlier levels. There have only been a few levels where I haven't died once. For me, this is a benefit and not a complaint.
When playing with two players, a few things are different from the original Donkey Kong Country. First, either player can die without killing the other. Instead of having to start over, the killed player can press the 1 button to come back into the game for the cost of one red balloon. If the duo are running a little low on balloons, player one can still bring them back the old fashioned way with a DK barrel. The catch with this whole system is that when both players die, the gamers lose two balloons instead of just one. It seriously makes you reconsider how important that bunch of bananas is when it might cost you two lives.
If you're having an extraordinarily difficult time you can press the plus button at any of the level checkpoints. This activates the Super Kong mode, which allows the player to sit back and view the level being completed by a professional. Whether it's help with knowing when to duck or how to get past a certain enemy, the mode is extremely helpful if you happen to get stuck. The downside is that if you're half way through a level, you'll lose what collectables you have and will not be able to collect anything else. You also don't get to keep anything that the Super Kong collects. When a level is completed in this mode, the circle on the map stays red, meaning that it has not really been completed at all. My advice is that if you are really stuck and want to know how to complete a certain part, go ahead and watch it being done and then restart the level. That way you can still go through and collect everything in one shot.
In the end Donkey Kong Country Returns is, in my opinion, a long awaited return to a franchise that needed updating. Fear not, DK fans, this title is for you.