Despite being a) beloved and b) hugely successful, the Donkey Kong Country series feels a little… well… under-rated. Offering a weighty yet fast-paced alternative take on the side-scrolling platformer, it’s always been second fiddle to Nintendo’s flagship Super Mario titles. It’s a surprise that such an overt love letter to Rare’s ape-tastic series has taken so long to arrive; Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair came close, but Kaze and the Wild Masks perhaps goes one better – it's a thrilling, beautifully-designed homage to the SNES Donkey Kong trilogy (with a few elements taken from Tropical Freeze, to boot).
The game makes no secret of its roots, actively inviting comparison with a whole host of features effectively lifted from Donkey Kong Country. For example, there are two well-hidden “bonus barrels” per level in the form of portals leading you to some extremely familiar mini-games; beat all the baddies or collect all the gems. It’s familiar and very polished – rather than dumping you out of the challenge room if you run out of time or take a hit, you’re able to simply press A to restart, reducing repetition and frustration.
Level design is relatively linear, with a focus on forward momentum. Kaze is equipped with ear-based attacks, boasting a sideways spin that acts much like a roll attack from Donkey Kong Country, and you even have the ability to jump out of it if you “spin” off a ledge. You’re also able to ground pound to dig up hidden gems, spin your ears for a slower descent (ala Dixie Kong’s ponytail twirl) and pick up and throw barrels. Sorry, erm, we mean unspecified containers. There are even crossbows that act precisely the same way as barrel cannons.
The “masks” of the title refer to transformations that Kaze can pick up which allow her to take on the abilities of flight, swimming, wall-climbing or running really fast for the game’s take on the series infamous auto-scrolling mine cart stages. The flight is identical to Squawks the Parrot from Donkey Kong Country, all the way to down to the arc of its projectile attack. Swimming is closer to Tropical Freeze, with a full range of movement and a spinning attack that propels you forward. The wall-climbing, air-dashing tiger is more unique, though it calls to mind Mega Man X with its move set. They’re all fun to control and a welcome diversion from the main game’s platforming, as good as it is.
And it is good. Very good indeed. Level design throughout is downright exemplary. The difficulty curve is smooth (with a couple of minor difficulty spikes) and the stages flow excellently. Secrets are craftily hidden and you’ll feel smart every time you find one. The enemies are varied and cleverly used, while checkpoints and extra hits are placed so perfectly that the whole thing feels playtested to oblivion. There's plenty of polish here; clear design chops made by designers who not only love Donkey Kong Country, but also understand exactly what makes it so great.
You could mark the game down for unoriginality, but we think that’s missing the point. It bites Donkey Kong’s style so hard sometimes that obstacles can almost feel directly pasted from the SNES games, but that’s a testament to how good Kaze and the Wild Masks is. And it doesn’t miss a step throughout the lengthy campaign, with no levels outstaying their welcome or lacking in either quality or variety. Like its inspiration, Kaze uses plenty of level gimmicks – gusts of wind, rope-climbing, manic chases – but it does so carefully and in smart, creative ways.
It’s a visual treat, too. Opting to eschew the now-dated pre-rendered look, it’s all clean, attractive and expressive sprites married to clear and easy-to-parse scenery. You’ll never miss a jump because you’re not sure what is or isn’t a platform, and you’ll never fall through a ledge because of any muddy disconnects between visuals and hitboxes. This is especially useful when taking on the challenging boss battles, which are nicely balanced to be testing but not gruellingly overlong. Actually, in a break from the Donkey Kong Country feel, we thought that the bosses here called to mind the original Rayman, though with a much more reasonable level of challenge.
The game is old-school tough but also unerringly respectful of your time – there’s also a casual mode that adds additional checkpoints for those that need it. There’s no lives system, either – you get infinite retries, which can lead to a sense of attrition at times but overall feels like the right decision given how trivial extra lives become in the Donkey Kong Country games. If we could criticise anything at all, it’d be nice if the world map wasn’t quite so linear, but this is in keeping with the source material and we never encountered a stage we disliked enough to want to skip, so it’s a moot point.
An absolute pleasure from start to finish, what Kaze and the Wild Masks lacks in originality it makes up for in the strength of its level design, responsive controls, kinetic move set and attractive visuals. Excellent, action-packed platforming through and through, with great gameplay variety and gimmicks that don’t compromise on what the game is best at – challenging, fast-paced obstacle courses and deviously-hidden secret areas. Easiest sell? Kaze and the Wild Masks is to Donkey Kong Country what Freedom Planet was to Sonic the Hedgehog. Don’t miss this one.