|Donkey Kong Country Returns|
|Buy from Amazon|
I’m not sure if we ever needed to return to Donkey Kong Country. The original series is so firmly a product of the Super Nintendo era, with its shiny, Toy Story look that is unique to Rareware, and pretty bad collision detection for a 2D platformer, I would have been okay with having rose-colored memories about my trips with DK, Diddy, and the rest of the forgotten gang.
But Retro Studios, apparently bored with resurrecting Metroid moneybags every few years, was tasked with bringing back the old gorilla in Donkey Kong Country Returns. Surprisingly, this was not another 3D incarnation that Retro seemed to excel at (Remember DK64? No? Good.), but a pretty straight enhancement of the originals. The world was still 2D, but with a bit more depth, and all the old standbys were there: bananas and letters to collect, barrels to get shot out of, and obnoxious boss battles.
Released in 2010, Donkey Kong Country Returns has already earned a prestigious 10 from Jonathan Ramundi, and while I would have written a review no matter how much I agreed or disagreed, I have a rather differing opinion about the game.
I’m having a difficult time getting this review down on paper. This is a good game, and there’s a lot of fun levels and the graphics are lovely and the music is amazing, but so many things just bug the heck out of me. I stayed away from it for a week after beating the final boss to see if my opinion changed at all, and it hasn’t. I gave Donkey Kong Country Returns one more hour tonight and was reminded why even great platformers can have a lot of flaws.
My biggest problem with the game is the hit detection. I feel like I’ve played enough 2D platformers over the years to be able to recognize when there’s something... off about them. In Donkey Kong Country Returns, the collision detection just seems wrong. Not incredibly broken by any means, but just unforgiving enough to make the game more obnoxious and difficult than it should be. And I’m not trying to say it’s “too good” that it’s unfair, I played all the way through Super Meat Boy and that was always pixel perfect but never felt like it was the game’s fault you just died.
I believe part of my issue with the game’s collision detection is that I expected Donkey Kong to be able to kill enemies from a lower angle of attack than possible. You really have to land flat on top of bad guys to knock them out, and while I can’t confirm this in any way, it seems like the enemies’ hit boxes are rounded on top in such a way that if you land on their nose instead of their forehead, you’ll be hurt. I’m honestly very frustrated now that I can’t quantitatively describe my main beef with Donkey Kong Country Returns, it’s boiling down to one of those “feel” things and the game just feels off.
Oddly enough, collision detection has always been a problem for the series, I remember tossing my controller down in anger as a kid when Diddy was knocked out by one of King K. Rool’s Kremlings. Maybe Retro Studios was trying to intentionally imitate that idiosyncrasy from the mid 90’s? If that’s the case, congratulations on succeeding.
Donkey Kong Country Returns also retains the awkwardness of controlling Donkey Kong. This is a platformer, so there are lots of jumps, gaps, moving platforms, obstacles, etc. in your way at all times. But in this country the gravity has always been tweaked in such a way that DK is pulled down far too quickly, at least compared to other games in the genre. It can be very difficult to gauge jumps due to the way horizontal momentum is quickly loss in favor of being sucked into the abyss. You’re constantly trying to adjust mid-air, but I would often forget that Donkey Kong couldn’t jump as far as his initial take-off indicated, and fall way short.
Diddy Kong is in the game, but is only playable directly if you play two player mode. Thankfully, in single player he hangs off Donkey Kong’s back and gives you a bonus hover jump which is a godsend in a game like this. Suddenly, jumping is a breeze, leaping gaps is easy, and directly landing on bad guy heads is simple. But get hit twice and lose Diddy, well, let’s just say you might as well commit gorillacide right then and there.
And while in some ways I can respect this design choice, the decision to give both Diddy and DK only two hearts each seem to break a cardinal rule of game design. Either you get hit once and die immediately, or you can take three hits before going down. Two, now that’s just asking for trouble.
Before I continue with my complaints, I really did enjoy most of my time with Donkey Kong Country Returns. Some of the level design is genius, and after Nate pointed out that there are no “floating” platforms, I was amazed with the detail the artists put into shaping the background and foreground together. And while I didn’t really like the excessive number of mine cart levels, they were also some of the best set pieces in the game. Successfully jumping over a dozen times in a row inside a rolling U-shaped track made me feel so awesome.
The game also has some fun with pushing you into the background of levels at times, shrinking our hero onscreen to just a few pixels as the camera doesn’t follow. It’s a neat trick that my son loved, getting excited any time a barrel tossed us behind the main action. There are also a few NightSky-like levels where all you can see is Donkey Kong’s silhouette against the background, super impressive art design there.
Not as impressive are the new bad guys, who are basically just some floating tiki torches that cast evil spells on animals. Guess what? They steal your bananas at the beginning, but what the heck is a wooden totem going to do with a banana? Bizarre stuff, and just uninspired. I’m not trying to defend King K. Rool as some bastion of badguyness, but this just screams lazy.
And while the Jetpack Joyride levels are annoying (who thought that strapping Donkey Kong to a rocket barrel where pressing A for longer than half a second would shoot you straight to a ceiling death was a good idea?), the game’s worst aspect after the hit detection is the waggle. Hard to believe that four years after the Wii was released, Nintendo was still seemingly forcing really obnoxious Wiimote shaking for critical aspects of a game’s control.
Waggle is required to hand slap (sort of makes sense), blow air (sounds as dumb as it is), and roll! Yes, you can’t even roll along the ground unless you shake the controller in your hand that is also trying to pull off precise jumps. Ugh, the whole thing just ticks me off because it’s totally unnecessary, but because it’s the Wii and it’s a Nintendo game, it has to be there. It is a guarantee that sometime during the game, the waggle will fail and you will die because of it. If that’s a feature of this generation, well, I’m glad it’s over.
I apologize for focusing so much on Donkey Kong Country Returns’ negatives, but since Jonathan Ramundi already laid out an excellent review on what makes the game so great, I felt no need to retread that ground. It’s still fun though, and while my three year old son isn’t very good at the game due to its difficulty, he had a blast with it. This may well be my last Wii game if I never get around to Xenoblade or The Last Story, and I won’t regret it at all.