It's been a long time between drinks for Donkey Kong Country fans, fourteen years in fact. First conceived in 1994 as Nintendo's belated answer to the fast-paced gameplay of Sonic the Hedgehog, Donkey Kong Country became the best-selling non-bundled Super Nintendo title of all time. In the mid-nineties, the pre-rendered 3D graphics were considered top of the line.
Donkey Kong Country Returns is the fourth instalment in the series, the first for the Wii and the first to be developed by the appropriately titled Retro Studios.
Original developers Rare were purchased by Microsoft in 2002 and continued to develop for the Nintendo DS, but following Microsoft’s cancellation of a Donkey Kong racing game for the Gamecube, they ceased to use Nintendo intellectual property.
Happily, new developer Retro includes some original members of the Donkey Kong Country development team and that heritage definitely shows. The game marks a significant departure from the studio’s much lauded Metroid Prime series.
It’s an uncomplicated and loyal throwback to an old-school style of gaming that has only recently come back into favour. Returns’ side-scrolling platform gameplay is varied enough so as not to become monotonous without ever carrying out dangerous experiments with a recipe that works.
Graphically, Returns is lush, with the detailed backgrounds off-setting the simple foreground. Retro make the case for the freedom of a tight brief, or that creativity is taxed to its fullest when working within strict limitations – in this case, the underpowered Wii console. The game features a deceptively simple cartoonish style with such a fizzing, vibrant palette that it’ll rekindle memories of pop rocks and coke chasers.
These levels are broken up with various visual plane changes. Kong is launched into a level's background or mid-ground, then back again. The perspective can shift slightly in order to reduce reaction times or simply to provide visual variance.
Like so many of Nintendo’s proprietary titles, the game is light on storytelling. Bananas have been stolen, you like bananas, go forth. Returns contains enough character in pantomime comedy during pre-boss cinematics or in the random cantankerous lines uttered by shopkeeper Cranky Kong.
Nintendo fans hoping for a little more in the narrative department need only cast a backward glance to September’s Metroid: Other M to remind themselves of what happens when writers try to flesh out Nintendo’s hallowed portfolio of characters.
The game is controlled by using the nunchuck and wiimote in combination, or by holding the wiimote sideways. The lack of classic controller support is disappointing and confusing, especially given the game’s nostalgic appeal. If the new Golden Eye 007 gets its own branded controller, surely it should be on for Kong?
Motion control on the Wii has been much criticised when it comes to titles like this one and is usually written off as a mere novelty in place of mapping an action to a button. The same criticisms will certainly be levelled at Returns. Using a drumming motion you can perform a number of special moves. The game isn’t the kind of shakefest we’ve seen elsewhere and motion control usually adds rather than detracts from the gameplay, but if you’d rather avoid waggling altogether, you’re out of luck.
The two-player co-op mode is largely enjoyable. A second player is able to drop in and out at the start of a level. They control Diddy Kong, who comes with his own range of abilities. His contrasting playstyle is a welcome counterpoint to Donkey’s smash-and-smash style and the format will be familiar to the Super Smash Bros players out there. Diddy's guns can also be incredibly useful. However, it’s worth noting that a second player can be as much a hindrance as a help, particularly in the latter, ruthlessly difficult levels.
The game’s sound recalls the popping chiptunes of the cartridge era and attempts to bring them into the modern era. It’s largely composed of remixes of old Donkey Kong songs and if the fake electronic horn section will haunt me for days its naff-ness is all part of the nostalgia.
Funnily, Returns is a better game than the ones it relies on for its nostalgia credentials. It may even eclipse New Super Mario Bros Wii as the best side-scrolling platformer of the current generation.
If you are an old SEGA fan who missed out on Donkey Kong the first time round, or a new fan of vintage gameplay, you will adore this.
Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another fourteen years to be served up this kind of game again.