Donkey Kong is like a rock star that takes decade long hiatus's before releasing his next album. Old DK starred in one of the most famous arcade games of all time, made two sequels and some kind of math spin off, then disappeared off the face of the earth by 1985. 1994 hits and we're treated to Rare's Donkey Kong Country series, as well as an excellent Game Boy remake of the original. Donkey Kong went mostly absent for Country 2 and 3, reappearing as a playable character in 1999's Donkey Kong 64, and then he spent the forthcoming years starring in spin offs like Jungle Beat, Donkey Konga, King Of Swing, and Barrel Blast. DK was there, but he wasn't the star in the same way that Mario has had consistent stardom. You were more likely to see him in a Mario spin off than starring in a full release that's touted as big of a deal as Donkey Kong 64. Thankfully, after a decade of playing it safe, Donkey Kong came back in a fourth Donkey Kong Country game. This return to form was developed not by Rare, but by Retro Studio's, the guys who brought Metroid back into the lime light with Metroid Prime. Donkey Kong Country was so entangled into Rare's DNA that it just didn't feel right if anyone else made one. So how did Retro take the challenge given to them? The short answer: They didn't make a Donkey Kong Country game.
Make no mistake, much of what you would expect from Donkey Kong Country is here. You play as Donkey Kong, platforming through various stages on DK island. There's banana's to collect, letters that spell put K O N G to find, bonus rooms to explore, and mine cart levels that'll make you want to pull your teeth out. But that's all the Donkey Kong Country themed decorations on this cake. It looks just like Donkey Kong Country, with Donkey Kong, Diddy, Cranky,and Rambi all having a blast on the surface. But once you take a fork and cut through it, you find something else on the inside. It's still delicious, and maybe you were expecting that delicious cake, but there's still a disconnect from what you see on the cake than what's actually inside.
You will feel it first. Donkey Kong Country Returns does not feel like the Donkey Kong Country trilogy on the SNES. It doesn't feel like any one game you've played. It simply feels like its own thing. And it's a very good thing. DK is smooth and responsive, allowing him to bounce through levels gracefully. The SNES games were much more rigid, where jumps felt more calculated and weighty. Returns doesn't have that same impact when you land on the ground and then figure out your next move. Rather, landing feels like it leads into another action. But what good is organic character design if the world isn't built for it? Thankfully, it is. Stages in Returns act like one flowing work of art rather than individual set by set challenges. Just like the character, one part of the stage flows right into the next, rarely showing the seams that stitched it all together. Both the feel of the character and the way the stages are designed are not Donkey Kong Country. But that's not what's important here. That goes to the game being fun to play. And it truly is fun to bounce around, jumping into barrels, and dodging angry Tiki drums.
There are, of course, plenty of other new stuff to indicate that this ain't your Cranky's DKC. The partner system, where you switched between two character either at will or when one dies, has been completely axed. Instead you always play as Donkey Kong and getting Diddy acts like a power up that lets you hover for a bit with his jet pack. DK can take two hits by himself and four with Diddy attached. Unless you're in a mine cart or a rocket, then you're dead in one hit regardless. Aside from platforming and finding bonus rooms, mine carts returned, and their new cousin, rocket levels. It plays like, in essence, Flappy Bird. You must rapidly tap the A button to keep the rocket on the right path, making sure to guide it higher or lower so you don’t hit anything. And boy oh boy do those designers think of clever ways to give you small heart attacks on each and every one of these levels. Playing one of these was like running into a brick wall of frustration. Out of all the stages in the game, I spent the most time on the last two rocket stages: Gear Getaway and Hot Rocket. These demand precision timing, and will connect their figurative knuckles to your possibly figurative teeth for every time you are even debatably close to an obstacle. Not that the platforming stages were a springtime walk, but I could at least wrestle those to the ground after eight to fifteen tries.
It may sound like I’m complaining about the difficulty, but that’s farthest thing from the truth. We tend to think when people talk about a part of a game being frustrating that it’s automatically a negative. There is such a thing as difficult to the point of being not fun, but Returns hits that sweet spot of being hard but fair. It’s not the Mega Man X6 kind of hard where the difficulty lies in overwhelming the player with things they have little to no control over. Returns wouldn’t be caught dead putting up a wall of enemies that you’d have to stop moving to deal with. It simply responds to any attempt I make to breeze past a challenge with a well-deserved death. Which puts the difficulty in line with the older titles. Maybe Returns and the Rare trilogy have more in common than I give them credit for. But I still don’t think Retro Studio’s made a Rare style DKC game, nor did they set out to do that. They made something fantastic without worrying too much about staying faithful to its source material. What they made was, simply, a dazzling Donkey Kong Country themed delight.
FINAL VERDICT: Outstanding
ONE SENTENCE REASONING: Donkey Kong Country Returns is a wonderful, challenging, and downright fun platformer that isn’t what you expect.