There's a time and place for innovation, but you certainly can't expect a tie-wearing gorilla to lead the charge into unexplored territory. As the name suggests, Donkey Kong Country Returns is a trip down memory lane, and this tightly crafted collection of classic platforming tropes shows that clever level design can be just as engaging as brand-spanking-new ideas. Even without cutting-edge features to distinguish it from other 2D platformers, Donkey Kong's latest adventure is exciting because it constantly messes with your expectations. Dynamically changing levels are the most noteworthy element, and though this idea has cropped up in other games, it's done exceptionally well here. Levels morph before your eyes, and this unpredictability ensures you're continually presented with new obstacles that require sharp reflexes to navigate. A few questionable control decisions are the only problems in this exciting blast from the past. Donkey Kong's return to gaming is definitely a triumphant one.
Donkey Kong has never been mistaken for a noble hero. Instead of setting out to save the world from some unimaginable horror or rescuing a damsel in distress, this starving simian is intent on getting back his stolen bananas. At least he has a companion to help him complete his self-serving deeds. Diddy Kong is just as eager to get his hands on those precious bananas, but you don't get to switch between these two monkeys as in previous games in the series. Instead, you control Donkey Kong during the entire game, and when you find a specially marked DK barrel, you summon your little friend to help you out. He rides on your back and has a handy jetpack to help you across longer jumps or guide you for precise landings.
Diddy is an invaluable contributor because you're so much more maneuverable when he's in tow. If you suffer a couple of hits, you lose Diddy until you find another barrel, and controlling Donkey Kong by his lonesome makes things trickier. Gorillas are heavy animals, and you can feel his weight whenever you move him. It takes a few minutes to get acquainted with his running speed and jumping ability, but things become second nature pretty quickly. The only problem is that you have to shake the remote to perform some moves. Waving the controller to blow out a fire or hand slap the ground is mildly annoying, but it doesn't impede your progress. The problem lies in the rolling command which lets you cross extra-wide pits. Shaking the controller is just not precise enough in such situations, which might result in you dying a few aggravating deaths. This blemish continues through the whole game, and though you get used to it over time, the problem never goes completely away.
Donkey Kong's adventure takes him through a series of locales that recall the classic environments of Donkey Kong Country. You start things off in a leafy forest where toppling statues and flightless birds attempt to end your journey before it really gets going. From there, you navigate the treacherous subterranean world of a dark cave; the dense, foggy air in a polluted factory; and a sweltering volcano that would make even a monkey's uncle sweat. Like the locations, the obstacles have been pulled right out of countless platformers of the past. Bottomless pits, swinging vines, rising lava, and spike-filled traps stand in your path, so don't expect many surprises on this front. Instead, it's the way in which these tried-and-true pieces are used that pushes you through this journey. Take, for instance, the mine cart levels. You ride along a set track, jumping over pits and dodging enemies until you reach the end. It sounds ho hum, but in practice, it's anything but. In one such level, the track breaks before your eyes. You have to jump from one crumbling rail to the next, continually changing your strategy and pushing your reflexes to stay one step ahead of the imminent dangers.
Donkey Kong Country Returns is constantly twisting traditional ideas, which keeps even platforming experts on their toes. Although it doesn't sound nearly as exciting as a groundbreaking new gameplay mechanic, the real joy in this game stems from navigating these deviously constructed levels. You will die often in this game, but it's rarely frustrating. The challenge comes from the intelligent placement of basic platforming obstacles. You can't take jumps for granted because things are rarely as easy as they initially appear. Crumbling platforms are just one danger you have to be mindful of: Enemies spring up in unexpected places, boulders attempt to squish you flat, and spiked balls spell doom with just one touch. There is a never-ending cavalcade of traps in Returns that ensures you're constantly fighting for your life and keeping your eyes peeled for unexpected dangers. The level design is fantastic and it's an absolute pleasure to discover what lies before you.
The wealth of different ideas staves off any feeling of sameness that could potentially derail your fun. In addition to the standard jumping fare, there are vehicle sequences that inject speed into the mix. You may have known that barrels can quickly shoot you across a level, but did you know you can use one as a makeshift rocket in a pinch? Some of the most challenging sections of the game involve riding a barrel at full speed through these ever-changing levels, and they're some of the most exciting sequences as well. Cruising past fireballs, around zeppelins, and between spiked crushers will definitely get your heart racing, especially because one touch causes your temporary rocket to spontaneously combust. And, of course, there's Rambi the rhinoceros. Surprisingly, riding atop your trusty friend is the easiest portion of the game. But even though you don't have to fear enemies atop the horned beast, you still need to be aware of dangers. The best of these is a wild chase through a dilapidated factory, proving once and for all that rhinos are faster than monkeys.
Making your way to the end in one piece is no small achievement, but there are greater rewards if you collect specific items strewn throughout each world. The letters K-O-N-G appear in every level along with a few puzzle pieces, and figuring out where everything is hidden gives this game lots of replay value. But this isn't just pointless busywork. If you nab every letter from every stage in a world, you unlock a secret level. These extra stages are among the best in the game, ratcheting up the difficulty and forcing you to use every trick you've learned throughout your adventure. But even though there's a tangible reward for finding these goodies, the best reason to find them all is that it's incredible fun. The placement of the letters and puzzle pieces are sometimes obvious, but actually getting your hands on them is not nearly as easy. Landing ridiculous jumps and figuring out tricky puzzles is all in a day's work for Donkey Kong. If you want even more challenge, there's a time trial for every level, and getting a gold rank is the most difficult task in the game. This is a content-rich package that will keep you engaged for dozens of hours.
The boss fights throw your jumping and dodging mechanics into single-screen bouts that can be quite tricky until you learn their patterns. Cutting a gang of crabs down to size or introducing an ostentatious ostrich to your fists is as satisfying as any other portion of this game, but the boss fights lack the dynamic unpredictability that encompasses the main game. Bosses go through the requisite number of increasing deadly forms, but they rarely dive into unexplored areas. So, you dutifully dodge their attacks until an opening for a retaliatory blow presents itself, but it feels so sterile compared to the frantic fun of the rest of the game. The boss fights are entertaining tests of skill, but their lack of creativity means they're also a low point in this adventure.
At least every boss looks fantastic. In fact, just about every element of Donkey Kong Country Returns is a sight to behold. Donkey Kong moves with a simian grace, and a few goofy animations, such as when his rocket-powered barrel runs out of fuel, add to the appeal. The backgrounds are particularly impressive, giving you a visual feast to take in while avoiding all the tricks and traps in the foreground. Purple flowers blossom in underground caves, tidal waves crash into the shore, and flying ships foreshadow upcoming dangers. There are even hidden Easter eggs if you have a keen eye. You might see Mr. Game and Watch slaving away in the factory level or a wide-eyed zebra stationed above a secret alcove. The soundtrack is just as impressive. Many of the tracks have been pulled from the original Donkey Kong Country, except in a remixed form. Every song complements the visuals wonderfully, making sure the aesthetic pleasures are able to match the excellent gameplay.
Donkey Kong Country Returns is a great single-player game, but if you want to get your bananas back with a buddy by your side, there's a handy cooperative mode as well. Although the mechanics work just fine when playing with a friend, this game really doesn't work as well with two players. First of all, Donkey and Diddy are separated (player two controls Diddy), which means whoever is in charge of Donkey has stunted controls. Granted, you can still get through every level even if you don't have a jetpack, but it makes things that much harder. Second, this is a really tough game. Getting through alone is difficult enough, but trying to navigate these tricky platforms is downright daunting when two people are trying to synchronize their actions. Cooperative play is still fun, but Returns excels in single-player form.
Make no mistake about it, Donkey Kong Country Returns is a difficult game. But if you do get stuck, you can have the game pass the level for you. You just need to die enough times in each level to activate this feature, and then you can watch a gray-haired gorilla show you how it's done. He won't nab any hidden items, but at least you can continue playing if a particularly nasty level threatens to halt your progress. This feature works in standard levels, as well as boss levels. Sure, it might be anticlimactic to watch the end boss get trumped by a computer-controlled monkey, but it sure beats pounding your head against the wall in frustration. If you would rather pass this game yourself, the game makes it as painless as possible. Extra lives are abundant, and you can always purchase more from Cranky Kong using the currency you collect along the way. Checkpoints are also sprinkled liberally in each level, so you don't have to retrace your steps very far when you do die.
Donkey Kong Country Returns doesn't hide behind any gimmicks. This is a traditional take on 2D platformers, and it excels because the brilliant level design makes old obstacles seem new again. Every level hides a new surprise, and you'll replay them over and over again not only to nab every hidden collectible, but also because they're exquisitely entertaining. Fantastic visual design and a catchy soundtrack complement the core gameplay beautifully, making it a pleasure to enjoy the aesthetic aspects. It's a shame there are some control issues, but you usually have only yourself to blame when you fall into a bottomless pit. Donkey Kong Country Returns is another great game for Nintendo's furry mascot, and it's a must-play for anyone craving an old-school platformer.