BY NICK McCOY
Nintendo is easily one of the most famous and influential gaming companies on the market. While many of their business practices nowadays are…questionable at best, there’s no denying the quality of their titles and just how many iconic franchises they’ve introduced to the world. After all, Nintendo and their landmark “Super Mario Bros.” is one of the big reasons why the gaming industry was able to recover following the 1983 crash.
However, with so many iconic franchises under their belt, from Mario, “The Legend of Zelda,” “Metroid” and “Kirby” (just to name a few), there are going to be series that will, unfortunately, be left in the dust. “F-Zero,” their high-speed racing title, hasn’t had a new release since 2003, and it’s unlikely we’ll ever get another “Star Fox” game. For a while, it seemed that the next franchise to fall into this trap was the “Donkey Kong Country” series.
First introduced as the eponymous main antagonist of the classic 1981 arcade game, Donkey Kong would later appear in his own series of games, starting with the SNES title “Donkey Kong Country,” produced by British company Rare. The game was a commercial and critical success and cemented Donkey Kong as another in Nintendo’s iconic lineup. The game would also be the first in the DKC series, followed by “Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest” in 1995, “Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble” in 1996, and the N64 title “Donkey Kong 64” in 1999, the series’ first full transition to 3D platforming. Donkey, his friend Diddy Kong, Diddy’s girlfriend Dixie, their grandpa Cranky Kong (who is the original Donkey Kong from the arcade title) and the rest of the Kong family would become fan favorites amongst Nintendo’s community.
However, following the release of “DK 64,” the franchise went dormant, although this is not necessarily the fault of Nintendo. Rare, the company behind all of the Donkey Kong games, as well as other Nintendo classics such as “Banjo-Kazooie” and “Goldeneye 007,” was acquired by Microsoft in 2002. With Nintendo no longer having Rare by their side, the series quickly came to a halt. It seems like Donkey would be left to the wayside…that is, until Austin, Texas-based company Retro Studios teamed up with Nintendo to release “Donkey Kong Country Returns.”
As the first game to be released in the DKC series in 11 years, fans of Donkey Kong were eager to see how the iconic ape’s adventures continued. And when it was finally released, the game proved well worth the wait. With incredible level design, difficult yet fun platforming gameplay, vibrant presentation and an amazing soundtrack, “Donkey Kong Country Returns” is an amazing side-scrolling platformer and an incredible comeback for one of Nintendo’s oldest mascots.
“Donkey Kong Country Returns” was released on November 21st, 2010, in North America, with release in Japan and Europe the following month as an exclusive for Nintendo’s landmark Wii console. Following the fully 3D, collect-a-thon style gameplay of “Donkey Kong 64,” “Returns” makes a return to the side-scrolling platforming of the original SNES games. Following its release on the Wii, a port for the Nintendo 3DS, entitled “Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D,” was released in 2013. “Returns” follows the titular Donkey Kong who, along with his best friend Diddy Kong, seeks to recover their banana stash and rid the island of the Tikis, a group of living Tiki masks who have hypnotized the island’s animal population.
This journey takes the Kongs through eight different areas of the island, along the way dealing with the Tikis and various boss battles. They also receive assistance from certain animals on the island, including Rambi the Rhino, who returns from the original games, and Cranky Kong, who offers Donkey and Diddy various items in his shop. The game can be played either solo or with a friend, who controls Diddy. The game would earn a sequel, “Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze,” released in 2014 for the Wii U and in 2018 for the Nintendo Switch.
In all seriousness, the plot of “Returns,” and pretty much the entirety of the Donkey Kong series, is so simple it can pretty much be summed up in a single sentence: A monkey wants to get his bananas back and save an island. However, to me, that’s the beauty of Donkey Kong as a whole. Other Nintendo franchises, with some exceptions, usually have a lot deeper stories or at least have a lot more going on.
“Metroid” sees Samus Aran fighting various alien threats, “The Legend of Zelda” follows Link as he attempts to save Hyrule from the evil Ganondorf and save Princess Zelda. These basic summaries hardly even do the plots of those franchises justice. But Donkey Kong? All he and his friends want is to get their bananas back. It’s so hilariously simplistic, and I love it.
The real magic of Donkey Kong comes from its gameplay and presentation. Now, “DKC Returns” definitely isn’t the most gorgeous game out there, which can be blamed on the Wii’s limited hardware. However, the art style and overall aesthetic are so full of charm that it’s easy to overlook the game’s mediocre graphics. Each of the game’s eight areas are full of vibrant colors, unique and fun enemy designs, and a love of polish and charm that is impossible to hate. Plus, the levels themselves are full of superb amounts of detail, and the care put into them is so apparent. From the mushroom-filled caves to the tar pits of the cliffs, it’s genuinely amazing to me how much love and effort were put into these stages and the game as a whole.
The actual gameplay and structure of “Returns” is nothing short of phenomenal. To put it simply, in terms of platforming and level design, it’s one of the best in the genre. The game’s eight individual stages; the jungle, the beach, the ruins, the caves, the forest, the cliffs, the factory, and the volcano, each feature some incredible layouts and level design. Donkey Kong’s movement feels weighty yet incredibly smooth, and it feels amazing landing some of those tough jumps or swiftly rolling through a series of obstacles. Diddy also provides a helpful assist.
During solo play, Diddy is strapped to Donkey Kong’s back, and provides a jetpack that allows you to hover for a short time. This is excellent for correcting last-minute mistakes or just getting some extra air. The game also makes use of the Wii’s motion controls; by shaking the Wii remote (and Nunchuck if you’re using it), he performs his signature ground pound. In addition to the traditional side-scrolling platforming, there are also minecart and rocket barrel levels.
The former sees DK navigating a series of rails in a minecart, dodging obstacles and enemies, while the latter has you riding a rocket-propelled barrel across an auto-scrolling map. All of these gameplay mechanics make for an incredibly fun experience, as well as their own challenge. Each zone also ends with a boss battle, all of which are memorable in one way or another, and while they may not be the hardest bosses ever created, those in the later stages of the game will certainly give you a challenge.
At each level, there are also various collectibles for you to gather. The two most important are, of course, bananas and banana coins. Bananas are scattered everywhere in each stage, and are the life essence of the Kongs; collecting 100 of them restores one life. Banana coins, on the other hand, serve as the currency for the Kongs; they are used in Cranky Kong’s shop in order to buy items such as extra lives, extra hit points, and power-ups. Aside from these two, there are also some additional collectibles you can optionally go for: Kong letters and puzzle pieces.
Puzzle pieces unlock new images for the game’s art gallery, and can be found in secret areas or by completing bonus stages. Kong Letters are arguably more impactful. Collecting all four Kong letters in each level of a particular stage will open a bonus level. By completing these bonus levels, you gain access to the golden temple at the end of the game. These collectibles add plenty of replayability, and give players a good reason to play through the game’s excellent levels a few more times.
There is one important aspect of “DKC Returns,” the game is incredibly difficult. Even with its charming presentation and top-notch design, “Returns” requires an insane amount of precision and timing in order to avoid obstacles and make it to the end of a level. Now, you might be able to breeze through the first three areas, but the cave is where it truly begins to get difficult. From that point onward, you will need some incredible platforming skills and a considerable amount of patience if you want to get past some of those levels. I remember when I first played this game a while back, I completely gave up on the Cliffs area, as I struggled so much on one level. Going back and trying to beat the game, I can tell you with full confidence, the Cliffs have nothing on the last two areas. The volcano, the last area in the game, has sections that will make you want to pull your hair out. The boss fights can also be incredibly tough. The final boss in the Factory zone was the bane of my existence for a while.
However, this level of difficulty only makes completing each level that much more satisfying. This is especially true for me – as much as I love the genre, I am often terrible at platformers, usually due to a combination of impatience and terrible depth perception. Basically, it could be the simplest jump imaginable, and I’d find a way to mess it up. Combined with the game’s difficulty, it only made the experience harder. At the same time, I genuinely had fun playing this game.
Despite messing up countless times, and several game-overs, the game’s level design and frantic platforming just made it so much more cathartic when I finally made it to the end of a level. Being able to make all those tight jumps, hop across the enemy’s head and bunch the final barrel is just an amazing feeling, especially after a game-over. While I can’t promise you’ll enjoy how difficult this game is, I can assure you that you’ll have a great time just scrolling through each level and listening to that soundtrack.
Ah, yes, the soundtrack. Nintendo games are known for their iconic music, with the Super Mario theme ingrained in everybody’s heads. Donkey Kong is certainly no exception to this rule. From the track that plays when you boot up the game, to the iconic “Donkey Kong Country” theme that you hear as you traverse the first level in the Jungle, there is a lot to love with the music. The music was composed by famous video game composer Kenji Yamamoto, Nintendo’s music director, along with composers Minako Hamano and Masaru Tajima. Bumping basslines, excellent percussion, and fantastic use of woodwind and brass instruments makes for music that is charming as it is groovy. The themes for Jungle Hijinx, King of Swing and Krazy Kart are just a few of the stand-out tracks. Seriously, the soundtrack is an absolute treat to listen to, even when you’re not playing the game.
Even with my limited skill set with platforming games combined with the game’s difficulty, “Donkey Kong Country Returns” still earns its place as one of my favorite platformers. Its incredible level design and presentation, satisfying gameplay and amazing soundtrack propel “Returns,” at least in my opinion, into one of Nintendo’s classics. While it may be hard to get your hands on due to its exclusivity to the Wii and the 3DS, I highly suggest you give it a try. Platforming fans will find endless entertainment with “Returns,” and even those who aren’t big on the genre will still find some enjoyment with how the game looks, feels, and sounds. This was the return to form Donkey Kong needed, and I desperately wish for more “Donkey Kong Country” games.