Donkey Kong Country Returns – IMPLANTgames

It’s hard to believe fans of the Donkey Kong Country franchise would have to wait 14 years for a proper fourth title, but that is how things played out Between the 2D platforming genre dying out as the 90’s marched onward, and Rare coming under the control of Microsoft, it seemed the Country series of Donkey Kong titles had little hope of ever returning But as game development tools became cheap for indies, and the Xbox Live Arcade braking down distribution barriers, it seemed an appetite for hardcore 2D platformers began brewing again, allowing for the iconic ape to make an epic return But in 2010, I wasn’t ready for this revival I skipped out on the Wii all together, and had all but abandoned modern gaming However, despite my own jaded feeling on the state of modern gaming, others had no problems scooping this one up and the title would go on to sell over 6 and a half million units worldwide, and as of today, it is the second best selling DKC game But of course I’m not here to talk about my gaming history or sales figures Instead I want to know, is Donkey Kong Country Returns a worthy sequel, or does it fail to live up to the high standard of the originals? Let’s dive in With the Kremlings seemingly dispatched, there is a whole new cast of villians in Returns The main villains are the Tiki Tak Tribe, a hybrid of musical instruments and old tribal masks They are released when a volcano on Donkey Kong Island erupts, freeing the beings and revealing Tiki Tong Tower Unfortunately they seem to have some beef with DK, and hypnotize the local animals and take off with DK’s banana hoard Much like the original game, the player is tasked with traversing through the various biomes of DK Island and ultimately take down the leader of the tribe, reclaiming the banana hoard and restoring peace to the inhabitants After the opening cut-scene the player is left looking at a familiar hut Unfortunately, the game also asks the player to shake the controller Having skipped the Wii when it was out, this concept is a bit foreign to me, and I’m also bummed there is no way around it But at least the game is upfront about it Anyway, the biggest change to the formula is the waggling In addition to some various bonuses requiring the shaking, the player can press down and shake the controller to perform a blowing action, do a ground pound when stationary, or use it for rolling I can’t say I’m a fan and despite three playthroughs, I never felt confident while attempting a roll This would either cause me to stop and pay extra attention to the input, or just avoid using it entirely Because there were definitely times it just didn’t register, which is a shame But like I said, it’s rarely mandatory because Diddy Kong also returns with a brand new mechanic Instead of the old tag-team gameplay, Diddy now rides shotgun on DK’s back Having the sidekick allows two key functions, first is an infinite roll and second, a brief hover The infinite roll is probably beneficial for speed running but isn’t something I found myself using unless I had already memorized a location The hover jump is as useful as it sounds, allowing for longer leaps and makes for easy mid-jump corrections when necessary Both maneuvers are nice evolutions of the classic formula, removing the momentum enhancing roll and tag-team mechanics of the original, and replacing them with something just as useful While not exactly the same, I do find the running and jumping controls in Returns are rather excellent Donkey Kong manages to feel both hefty, with a real sense of weight in changing directions and acceleration, but also with his jump arc He seems to crash down to the ground with just the right velocity to make him feel big, but everything feels floaty enough to allow for plenty of mid-air precision Classic mechanics like grabbing vines, bouncing off tires, and landing on small platforms still feels precise and I found the controls to feel natural and fluid, while still feeling distinct However one thing which never felt fluid and natural was bouncing off enemies Donkey Kong can gain some extra height when bouncing off enemies while holding down the jump button just before landing on an enemy This actually seemed far more forgiving when DK was flying solo, however when equipped with the sidekick, it wouldn’t always engage giving the player no bounce boost It’s not a deal breaker when just trying to beat the game, but can be problematic when going for completion A great addition to the formula is the ability to climb along ceiling and walls on designated surfaces By holding the action button, DK will effortlessly traverse along these surfaces While a simple mechanic for sure, it did allow for the designers to introduce new enemy patterns to avoid as well as some alternate jumping angles, doing a nice job adding variety without straying away from the core platforming In short, motion controls aside, Donkey Kong Country Returns’ controls are as satisfying as ever Structurally DKCR sticks with the classic formula of an overworld map, where the player selects levels connected by pathways, with new pathways unlocking as levels are beaten

Unlike past entries to the series, some levels can be skipped, but the journey remains a linear trek from DK’s Hut through to the final boss As DKC Returns revisists DK Island many of the set-pieces from the first game make reimagined appearances, including Jungle, Ruins, Cave, Forest, and Factory New environments include Beach, Cliff, and Volcano This of course means Gorilla Glacier is now gone, presumably melted by the erupting Volcano Each of the eight worlds also concludes with a boss fight These bosses follow the same formula used in the first King K. Rool encounter During the original final boss, the player was tasked with striking the boss three times Then a second phase would start and the player would hit the boss three more times The process would repeat a third time And this is how most of them operate in DKCR The player must jump on Mugly’s back when he retracts his horn, and avoid various attack patterns when the horn is visible The scurvy crew is the same The player must avoid the claws, and eventually knock the crew into the sand, and then hop on them Like before, the game does a nice job communicating to the player what can and cannot be hit It’s obvious horns and claws should be avoided Colonel Pluck alters this formula, with just 2 phases and 6 hits required for completion However the two phases are drastically different, and really take advantage of Donkey Kong’s new moves First, the player needs to avoid attacks and wait for the Chicken to flip it’s belly, revealing a climbable surface By shaking the wii mote the player is able to dish out some damage In the second phase, Cluck will launch out a wave of eggs, which can be mowed down with the new roll Good stuff However, not all bosses follow this classic formula The Mangoruby boss is bizarre The player needs to use the climbing and punching to engage all of the switches on the screen This is timed too, and the buttons will reset if the player is too slow After engaging all of the switches, the boss will be temporarily vulnerable, allowing the player to strike its body Complete this cycle three times to defeat it I’ve heard some complain the boss fights are all too long, and there are no save points with each phase either, meaning the entire encounter must be completed in one go I can’t say I agree with this assessment however It’s simple enough to avoid the attacks of all of the bosses, giving the player ample time to learn patterns and devise strategies without depleting their life stock And outside of perhaps Colonel Cluck who has long patterns between vulnerability phases, all can be defeated in just a couple of minutes Another staple of the Donkey Kong Country series have been animal buddies However, DKCR features just Rambi, and he is only used four times Like before, he can smash through enemies like nobody’s business, but there is also plenty of environmental damage to be done, either required as part of forward progression, or needed to uncover secrets If the player still has Diddy, then a brief float is also available But there are no other animal buddies Well, that isn’t entirely true Multiple collectables also make a return Littered throughout most stages are bananas, banana coins, puzzle pieces, and Kong letters Bananas are the same as ever and nabbing 100 earns an extra life Puzzle Pieces are an optional collectable, and nabbing the 5, 7, or 9 hidden in a level rewards some bonus art Banana Coins are basically unlimited as they can be farmed This allows the player to buy goodies in Cranky Kong’s Shop, which are found in each world This includes extra lives or power-ups like a temporary extra heart container or temporary invincibility However they can also buy one-time use Squawks Squawks hangs out in the bottom left of the screen and squawks as a player nears a puzzle piece To be honest, this is fairly passive and I’m not sure I would really count it as a genuine animal buddy I guess it is cool he is here at all, but it feels underwhelming Another item in the shop is a Map Key This unlocks a level on the world the player is currently on These will be critical if a player is going for a 100% on their save file Also required for 100% are the Kong letters While many stages can be bypassed to simply beat the game, a player will need to play through every level if they wish to achieve 100% If a player manages to grab all of the kong letters on all of the stages, including the unlocked stages from the Map Key, a secret temple stage will be revealed These 8 unlocked stages are among the toughest in the game, featuring no checkpoints and absolutely brutal stage hazards to navigate before reaching the end At the end of each of these is a Rare Orb, which will unlock a final secret level I also find it curious how the developers completely flipped the script on which items are mandatory for completion and which are optional In the classic series, the Kong letters were optional and would reward extra lives, and seeking out bonus rooms was required for completion

Evolution and change don’t stop there either Minecarts make a return and of all the set pieces presented thus far, the mine cart stages probably take the best advantage of the upgrade in console power And by that, I mean the environments are constantly changing Tracks will collapse and shift, and hazards will crash in on the player It’s a good evolution and really changes up the more limited enemy dodging featured in past titles New is the Rocket Barrel While the rocket barrel concept was flirted with in DKC3, it becomes a prominent feature of Returns, appearing more frequently than Rambi the Rhino In a basic sense, these work like auto-scrolling swimming levels Tapping or holding the action button will cause the barrel to rocket upwards and pressing nothing will cause it to drop And like underwater levels, there is a slight delay, attempting to mimic momentum If an auto scrolling level with water controls doesn’t sound appealing, well, it isn’t Graphically, DKC Returns is excellent This starts with the framerate, which is a steady 60 frames per second without a hiccup While I wish the game was in High Definition, the frame rate does help mask the technical limitations, to an extent The polygon models are also generally terrific Donkey, Diddy, and the Tiki Tak Tribe all look great with detailed models, sharp textures, and nice animations The way enemies move about the screen is far more smooth and convincing compared to the sprite based animations used in the classic games More impressive than the technical aspects of Returns however is the overall art direction This is a vibrant game teaming with life The jungle and beach areas look stunning with trees and shrubs swaying in the light breeze The Ruins have received perhaps the biggest overhaul The repeated planes of bricks are replaced with something far more visually interesting There are details everywhere hinting at an ancient ape civilization while there is also tons of vegetation reclaiming the space It really does feel old and foreign and the designers did a great job making DK Island feel like it has a rich history The Forest world is also breathtaking with a ton of different background layers making the forest feel extremely dense, like Donkey Kong really is in the middle of forest, rather than jumping along the edge of a tree line Cliff is an all new theme Rather than an expected mountainside motif, this feels more like an archeology site It does a nice job varying up the set pieces and offering something non-standard Rounding out the worlds are a Factory world, and the volcano world There are plenty of subtle nods the classic series on an individual basis as well Such as a level filled with crystals A scattering of pirate ships And even some docks I also like how many of the textures have a hand-drawn look to them Rather than an ultra realistic look, leaves and rocks will have artistic flair to them with decorative lines and shapes In many ways it reminds me of a mix between Rayman 2 and Sonic Heroes, which is a good thing Another good thing is the Soundtrack, another staple of the classic trilogy And everything that made those soundtracks so great is carried over to Donkey Kong Country Returns Some tracks are quite melodic with hooks sure to get stuck in one’s head Others are very atmospheric, giving a certain air of mystery and ambiance to the world of Donkey Kong Country Part of the reason this unique blend transferred over so seamlessly is because the game contains many remixed tracks The opening one for example, is exactly what one would want to hear after a 14 year hiatus As best as I can tell, the musicians only plucked tracks from the first game though, ignoring the second two, which seems like a missed opportunity However, I must say the track that plays during Foggy Fumes absolutely blew me away It’s a remix of DK Island Swing, but is done in a smokey Jazz lounge style that sounds ridiculously good The rest of the soundtrack is also solid The rocket barrel segments feature a college marching band instrument set which matches the high speed action Furious fire sounds like it was ripped straight of the climax of an Indiana Jones sequel I also love how so much of the music is calm and ambient, contrasting beautifully with the chaos and difficulty often presented, which has always been a DKC staple Another thing I really dig is the emphasis on bass and drums which is present throughout the adventure Honestly, if you’ve got a nice system, turn up the volume and enjoy the plethora of deep notes Outside of shooters or rhythm games, Donkey Kong Country Returns has one of the most satisfying soundtracks in terms of actually feeling the lows A nice system will also reveal a wide range of other subtle sound effects From the slight echo of Donkey Kong walking through cavernous areas, to the subtle splashes of lava, and even the amazing thump enemies make when getting bonked, the overall soundscape found in DKCR is second to none and TV speakers or a smartphone just won’t do it justice

So, with all of that out of the way, we arrive back to the question asked at the beginning of the video is Donkey Kong Country Returns a worthy sequel, or does it fail to live up to the high standard of the originals? On the surface, I think it’s fairly easy to say Returns is a worthy follow-up The new developers did an awesome job capturing the spirit of the originals The controls are tight and responsive, the game is hard as nails while still being fair, and the overall presentation is ace DKCR really does feel like a big budget, AAA release And when I say DKCR is a hard game, I mean it This begins as early as World 2 with Cannon Cluster On the final sprint to the exit, the player must navigate a barrage of cannon fire to reach the exit The firing patterns are random too, so memorization need not apply, one just has to react quickly and skillfully to reach the end In fact the rest of the world doesn’t really let up either In Blowhole Bound the player is barely given time to breath as the whale dives underwater and platforms crumble around the player Only constant forward progress and precise jumps will allow victory Muncher Marathon is one of the few chase levels found in the adventure Here the player must move right quickly avoiding a horde of insects closing in It is a tough gauntlet and the source of many many deaths on my first playthrough Another chase level is Red Red Rising Here the player must navigate up a vertical shaft along narrow platforms, sometimes using enemies as platforms, clearing a dense enemy field, while also avoiding getting crushed Again it’s a difficult stretch of platforming helping Returns live up to the legacy of the original games In my opinion, the platforming presented in Donkey Kong Country Returns represents the most challenging bits of jumping found in the series, period However even I must admit comparing Returns directly to Diddy’s Kong Quest is difficult DKCR features modern niceties lacking in the classics For one, there is no artificial limit of checkpoints Longer stages have no problem offering 1, 2, or even 3 checkpoints based on level length and hazard density Some old school gamers might find this cheapens the challenge and make things too easy But this is an old-school argument I just cannot get behind Challenge is derived from forcing the player to overcome tough patterns, hazards, and obstacles Donkey Kong Country Returns does a nice job of slowly raising the bar as the adventure moves on, requiring more skill and dexterity from the player with more absurd obstacles and patterns to master This is the kind of challenge I enjoy And DKCR rarely wastes the players time forcing them to repeat areas unnecessarily I’m sorry but repeating slow and boring sections because of challenges found later in the stage, seems like a waste of time Instead, DKCR autosaves after every level, life counters don’t reset back to five when loading a save, and checkpoints are placed thoughtfully, assuring a player isn’t replaying large sections of a level unnecessarily Do these changes make Returns an easy game? Absolutely not, the skill required for success does not change with inclusion of these modern touches However, if one is looking for an old-school no holds barred challenge, they can be found in the temple levels These 8 stages feature no checkpoints, no extra health, and require an absolute mastery of the controls in order to succeed But these stages also highlight one of my greatest aggravations in the entire adventure, attempting to get a boost when jumping off an enemy is a real crap shoot It really sucks when the difficulty is derived from hoping an input is recognized by the game, rather than patterns being recognized by the player It creates a stressful feeling and at times success results in a feeling of relief, rather than accomplishment In any case, if one finds all of the Kong letters, and then beats the 8 temple stages, they are rewarded with the 8 Rare Orbs which unlocks a single stage in a new world, the Golden Temple Here a little bit of lore is added to the Country series hinting there might be more to Donkey Kong’s mission to protect the banana hoard than a love for the tasty fruit Beating this stage will unlock Mirror mode and reward the player a 100% on their save file In this mode the player is tasked with beating mirrored versions of the levels with a single

hit point and no assistance from Diddy There is also a time trial mode for the speedrunning types Completing both of these will nudge the player to 200%, which is something I will never do But for those looking for even more extreme difficulty, the options are here I should also mention I did obtain all of the puzzle pieces on my non-recorded run I assumed incorrectly these were needed for 100% Thankfully they aren’t needed because locating them all was a real time suck feeling more like busy work than a genuine adventure Stopping to blow on every single thing in a stage, grabbing every banana just in case a puzzle piece is the reward, and defeating chains of enemies was an extremely tedious task And some of the rewards for grinding through this side quest were lame The bonus rooms are also disappointing Finding a hidden door or bonus barrel whisks the player to a bonus room where the goal is to grab all of the items before time runs out This rewards a puzzle piece so beating them is required if one wants to complete the puzzle piece side quest However, because these are effectively repeated dozens of times, they become gimmies once one devises a successful strategy Again, just more busy work So if you’re wondering why I skipped so many puzzle pieces and bonus barrels during my recorded run, there you go On the positive side of things, I must say being able to play a side scrolling platformer in widescreen is a game changer This is most prevalent during the mine cart sections Being able to see more of upcoming danger gives the player that extra bit of information needed to overcome challenges and plan for jumps The inclusion of extra checkpoints and a lack of BS enemy patterns also made these a real pleasure I can’t say the same for the rocket barrels For some reason, the designers decided the mine cart and rocket barrel should explode in just a single hit Which is weird, because they actually added a health bar to the game Yeah, Donkey Kong no longer dies in a single hit If a player has Diddy, he too has two hearts, doubling the hit points when compared to the classics But none of these matter during the mine carts or rocket barrels It’s certainly less annoying during the mine cart levels, because upcoming obstacles are telegraphed to the player timely allowing a good chance for success with competent play, but the Rocket Barrels are the complete opposite The problem arrives from the delay between user input, and the action happening on the screen It seems a rocket barrel is not the most agile vehicle in the world, but the hazard placement requires near perfect precision to pass The result is not only a massive difficulty spike, but some of the most frustrating moments found in the entire game, easily matching the BS factor found in the iconic Animal Antics Now, for those longing for the days of repeating the same level for hours on end, getting just a little further with each passing attempt, hitting that mental wall where all of a sudden one is doing worse for no logical reason, fighting through the pain, and coming out the otherside victorious, the rocket barrels should offer a nice blast of nostalgia But for me, these areas feel ill-conceived and represent painful difficult spikes in an adventure that otherwise progresses rather nicely And that is something I actually really appreciate in Donkey Kong Country Returns The opening stages are generally easy There are few bottomless pits, enemy placement is friendly, and spike and fire hazards are sparse But as the player adventures through the 8 worlds, the difficulty and challenge ramps up The game becomes less forgiving with jumping, requiring the player to actually stick the landing or face death Returns slowly increases pattern complexity, even throwing in basic physics forcing the player to think about the interaction of the Kongs and the environments, and to plot a course forward with skillful execution Enemy placement can become very tricky, with dense patterns, sometimes erratic, requiring split second reactions and thoughtful inputs to make it through unscathed And this is what I appreciate most about Donkey Kong Country returns The developers did an awesome job easing players into the nuances and subtleties of the controls and design philosophies, and the ratcheting up the difficulty as the adventure unfolds The game never asks too much of the player too quickly, instead each new challenge feels thoughtful and planned with the player having already obtained the skills necessary to overcome new obstacles With the exception of those rocket barrels DKCR does an awesome job taking advantage of the hardware as well The camera zooms in and out as obstacles change, always giving the player the perfect view needed to progress And when Donkey Kong goes off screen, there is a screen indicator, so the player always knows where the Kong is going to land, which is an awesome little touch There are other great design touches as well In Button Bash, there is a section where the player needs to launch the Kongs into a rotating Monkey Tower But before the tower starts rotating, it is stationary letting the player know the proper

position needed for later success The moles on the mole train have a brief period where they will damage the player when they first emerge from the mine cart However their emergence is telegraphed with a little dust cloud, giving the player just enough time to get out of the way before the attack Treacherous track forces the player to jump into a switch, which then engages the next piece of the track, clearly communicating to the player how the stage works Smokey peak begins by showing the player the Kong’s can jump on these barrel platformers, clueing them in they will need to dismount Rambi to grab Kong letters later on From beginning to end the level design is thoughtful, always giving the player the information needed to be successful with few enemies, hazards, or obstacles ever feeling cheap or unintuitive This thoughtfulness is also used to dazzle the player with spectacle as well I love this egg shell moment in Prehistoric Path The way the player and the environment interact with the rotating eggshell looks terrific The designers did an perfect job placing everything just so, to pull off the visual effect There are lots of nods to past games as well, like this little game and watch guy hanging out in the background of Foggy Fumes Actually all of the silhouette levels are rad The concept is certainly not new, dating back to at least Another World Still, it further adds to the overall visual variety and it’s interesting to identify enemies and hazards by their shape rather than their color And this was all the rage at the time While I still wish the motion controls were optional rather than mandatory, it’s hard to be too annoyed when the rolling is rarely required to beat the game, and really isn’t required that often to grab Kong letters if going for a 100% run either Sure it’s a pointless handicap, but outside of speedrunning it rarely presents a problem In fact most of my biggest gripes are regarding optional aspects of the game The blowing mechanic isn’t satisfying to use, the bonus rooms are repetitive, and locating all of the puzzle pieces feels tedious But again optional The biggest flaw then becomes the poor implementation of getting a boost when jumping off enemies Even after dozens of hours, the timing feels elusive and never became second nature The second biggest flaw is of course the rocket barrel stages, with sluggish controls turning the stages into trial and error death fests requiring too much memorization Still, as a whole Donkey Kong Country Returns is a terrific follow-up to the classics and absolutely worthy of the Country moniker The button-based controls are nearly perfect, the visuals are some of the best I’ve seen on the Wii, the boss battles are an improvement, and the level design is great, and I really appreciate the smooth framerate and amazing animations The designers pushed the series forward by changing up the tag-team mechanics helping the game feel fresh and new rather than old and tired They also added sensibilities like a near infinite life supply, thoughtfully placed checkpoints, auto-saving never requiring the player to replay levels already mastered, and even a life bar These of course don’t cheapen the high challenge the series was built on, because Returns is still hard as hell, it’s just less annoying If you’re like me and revisiting games from the beginning of the decade, this is a great place to start This was a wonderful time for side scrolling platformers and Donkey Kong Country Returns does a nice job capturing what was not only great about the 90’s, but also the indie spirit of the this generation of gaming While I’m sure DKCR isn’t what everyone wanted in the fourth game of the series, it’s still a stunning, though flawed, title and an absolute must-play