When Rare created the original Donkey Kong Country titles for the Super Nintendo console, the games basically took the system's visuals capabilities to new heights and also offered up one of the best platforming experiences the console had to offer. Now, having spent the past few years resurrecting the Metroid series on Nintendo's home consoles, Retro Studios has turned its attention to bringing back the Donkey Kong Country experience after its rather lengthy hiatus. And while long time fans of the classic 16-bit series will find a wealth of familiar musical, visual and gameplay touches throughout the game, they'll also find a staggering number of new ones to go along with them.
The main game itself is played out on the world map. Much like the originals, you'll progress from level to level on the map until you reach the end of area boss that will have to be dispatched in order to progress on to the next section of the island. While you can basically blow through each level and be able to ultimately complete the game, the real fun comes in collecting the K-O-N-G letters and locating the craftily hidden five puzzle pieces in each stage, and there's even a ton of unlockables like artwork and musical tracks to be had. In other words, you'll have to run, jump, fly, climb and even take a classic mine cart ride or two to complete the game, and even then you'll likely not see everything there is to experience on your first trip.
Since the developer made the decision to include a little Wii Remote shaking in the gameplay system, using the Classic Controller is out of the question. You can use either the standard Wii Remote/Nunchuk setup or unplug the Nunchuk and use the Wii Remote on its side. Both methods work quite well, but some of the more pinpoint platforming sections tend to feel a bit more precise using the D-Pad with the Wii Remote on its side. You will have to shake the Remote to perform the various barrel rolls and ground pounds, but even they are quite intuitive and easy to execute.
As a single-player experience, the game is played using Donkey Kong as the main character. You'll be able to break Diddy Kong out of his barrel in traditional fashion, at which time he'll ride on your back and offer you the use of his jet pack. He also offers up his own set of health hearts, so not only will he make navigating some of the tougher sections a bit easier, but having the extra health is useful during the game's challenging boss fights.
If you're fortunate enough to have a second player on hand, they can take control of Diddy Kong themselves. Not only will they still be able to ride on Donkey Kong's back, they can also hop off and take on the platforming of the game as well. Since Diddy Kong has the use of his peanut gun he can help you take out some of the more annoying enemies that come your way, even while riding atop Donkey Kong. If one player gets left behind, the game will automatically teleport them back to the other player's side after a few seconds. You'll find that much of what you get out of the multiplayer mode will depend heavily on how skilled your second player is: it can sometimes be a bit distracting when you have someone who's unable to keep up and can end up being more trouble than they're worth.
Smooth controls have always been a staple of the Donkey Kong Country series and this title is no exception. While it takes a little while to get used to the slightly looser feel of the controls, once you do you'll find yourself blasting through the levels like a pro. The hidden puzzle pieces and K-O-N-G letters offers a nice challenge for those perfectionists that like to pick up everything along the way, not to mention an incentive to go back and play through levels in order to pick up what you missed the first time around. Even the boss fights show a lot of imagination and some are downright diabolical in their attack patterns. Toss in the ability to go back and play completed levels in a Time Attack mode to earn medals and you've got about as well-rounded a gaming experience as you could ask for.
It would be an understatement to say that the original Super Nintendo releases set new standards for visuals during the 16-bit era of gaming. While Donkey Kong Country Returns isn't quite as dramatic a step up, it does offers up some of the best visuals you're likely to see on the Wii console and shows just how much attention to detail was paid the game from a visual perspective. Not only does the 3D construction of the game allow for some amazing backdrops, but the animation of everything is perfectly fluid and brings back memories of the crisp rendered visuals of the 16-bit releases. If you think you've seen all the Wii has to offer visually, wait until you get a load of the eye candy in this little beauty.
From the moment the first music track begins playing, you'll know you're playing a Donkey Kong Country game. Not only are there quite a few tracks taken and remixed from the original releases, but the new tracks created for the game are every bit as fitting and catchy as the classic tunes. It's also worth mentioning that there are a huge number of tracks used throughout the game, so you're never going to find yourself tiring of hearing the same song. The sound effects are also familiar in many places, but the developers have still managed to toss in some new touches to mix things up a bit. Much like other facets of the game, it's nice to see the developers making an effort to maintain a nice balance of old and new elements.
Donkey Kong Country Returns is almost the perfect continuation of the series in many ways. It manages to offer the perfect balance of old and new elements to form what has to be one of the Wii console's finest platforming experiences and a game that should challenge even seasoned fans of the genre. The main game itself is easily enough to make the package worth your time and money, but figuring in the massive amount of replay value the game offers up makes it an even more appealing package. It might have been a long wait for a new Donkey Kong Country title, but after a few minutes of playing Retro's new rumble in the jungle, you'll realise it was more than worth it.