Donkey Kong Country Returns Hands-On

Flying bananas, hidden rooms, mine carts, tropical sunsets, and a giant octopus await you in Donkey Kong's newest adventure.

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Let's get this out of the way: Donkey Kong Country Returns is not a remake of Donkey Kong Country on the SNES, nor is it a remake of Donkey Kong Country 64, the existence of which seems all but disavowed at this point. No, a more accurate description would be that Donkey Kong Country Returns is a game that draws upon the foundation of the original series. After all, they're both side-scrolling platformers; Donkey and Diddy have some of the same moves; animal buddies can be found to help get you through a level; and even some of the music pays direct homage to tunes found in the very first Donkey Kong Country. But the two separate themselves in some pretty distinct ways.

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First and probably the most obvious is the visual style. While the original Donkey Kong Country and its sequels presented everything in a (new-back-in-the-1990s) prerendered style, this new Donkey Kong is all polygonal, but it retains the distinctive style and detail of its predecessors--if anything, presenting everything in real time has given even greater flexibility and personality to the game's characters and its environments. In fact, one of the most memorable aspects of Donkey Kong Country Returns--in our brief play-through, at least--is how much the levels themselves factor into the game, serving as much more than just a platter for the main Donkey Kong meal.

We saw and played through a few of these levels, including one that drew a few gasps from the audience that saw it in the E3 trailer. It's called Sunset Shore, and in this level Donkey Kong and Diddy are viewed in silhouette--with only the red of their clothing visible--as the massive sun sets in the background. Naturally, you may think this is just a cosmetic difference from other levels, but we found that we had to take things a bit slower and approach the level more methodically because enemies are in silhouette as well and so is the foreground itself, making enemies difficult to see. Plus, it's just easy to get distracted by how stylized the entire level is.

There are other moments in Donkey Kong Country that are similar to the hijinks in Sunset Shore in terms of adding a bit of extra zest to the experience--one such level is called Stormy Shore. In this particular stage, Donkey and Diddy have to navigate their way across coastal waterways under siege by a terrible storm, all the while jumping across wooden platforms and planks from ships rolling up and down on massive waves. And if that's not enough pandemonium for you, there's also a particularly cranky octopus to deal with. At first, he just pops up in the background to let you know he's there, but it's not too long before his spiky tentacles start slapping away, creating even more obstacles for the duo to deal with.

Of course, there are also plenty of levels reminiscent of those in the original Donkey Kong Country games. Crazy Cart has Donkey and Diddy racing through a stage in--you guessed it--mine carts. Just like in the old mine cart levels from the original Donkey Kong Country games, you have to navigate a series of tracks with numerous gaps that you need to jump over with precise timing. In Button Bash, our heroes traverse an underground temple via sections filled with barrels--to be more specific, barrels that require you to time a button press, which in turn shoots you to safety (or peril). Then there are the barrels that automatically shoot you out. This is all old hat to longtime Donkey Kong Country fans, but much like everything else in this game, there are variations on the original formula--in this case, statues at the end of the temple where you have to time your barrel blast to make Donkey Kong land in the mouth of the statue.

This latest Donkey Kong Country wouldn't feel quite right if it didn't have some kind of animal helper friends, but thankfully, it has those as well. In fact, we played through an entire level with Rambi the rhinoceros. Like in the previous games, Rambi can run and barrel through just about anything, but in the stage we played, you have to be careful--columns collapse under your weight, forcing you to make quick decisions and equally quick movements while riding atop the powerful rhino. At certain points, you also have to manually make Rambi go into a sprint (by shaking the Wii Remote) in order to safely make jumps across large chasms in the underground temple area.

And speaking of the controls, they're probably the second most significantly different aspect that separates this new Donkey Kong Country from the old. Yes, the simple fact that you have to use a remote and nunchuk makes it different by default, but there's a bit more to the whole control process and what the monkey duo can do. For starters, when playing in single-player, you only really have control over Donkey Kong (it's never Diddy by himself, since he's always the first to go when you lose two health hearts, and he generally clings to Donkey Kong), but you can use Diddy's coconut rocket pack for some gliding action by holding down the jump button. In the two-player cooperative mode, either player can completely control a character separately, but you can also make Diddy jump back onto Donkey Kong's back if you're playing in a difficult part with an unskilled partner. To make either character do their version of the ground pound (useful for flipping armored enemies or opening entrances to hidden areas that might contain puzzle pieces, timed banana grab sections, the infamous K-O-N-G letters, or a combination of the three), you simply hold still and shake the remote, but if you move and then shake the remote, that performs either character's roll. Donkey Kong and Diddy have a move that allows them to blow air--another useful skill for finding hidden objects as well as attacking enemies engulfed in flame.

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At any rate, the controls feel pretty sharp at this point, and the game looks absolutely great, packing all sorts of detail that you would probably expect from the developer behind the Metroid Prime series of games. We're eager to see just how more creative the levels get as well as find more hidden areas and discover more animal buddies. Donkey Kong Country Returns is scheduled for release on November 21.

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