Pros: Varied gameplay, spot-on controls.
Cons: At times inhumanly difficult.
It is hard to fault the platformer Donkey Kong Country Returns, even if you don’t like it, simply because it so clearly is exactly the game it set out to be. Brilliantly designed, beautifully constructed and endlessly creative, this is a lovingly crafted game. It’s also crazy hard, but it is clear that this is a conscious choice of the developers, and as brutally difficult games go, few are so good at making you feel that next time you will succeed even if you’ve failed 20 times in a row.
The Basics: An Imaginative 2D Platformer
KDCR is an old-school 2D platformer in which the iconic ape tracks down bananas stolen by weird little Juju masks that have hypnotized the forest creatures to do their bidding. To retrieve the bananas, Kong has to traverse hazard-filled forests and beaches shelled by pirates, ride mine carts over broken tracks, fly rockets through many dangers and battle myriad enemies.
The basics are quite simple. You can make Kong run, jump, climb and pound the ground. Enemies are destroyed when jumped on, but if they touch Kong he loses some of his scant health. Kong can only take two blows, although if can find and team up with his pal Diddy Kong he can take two extra hits and also gains the ability to jump higher and farther.
Developers Nintendo and Retro Studios (the folks behind the Metroid Prime series) impressively build on these basics. New opponents and other hazards are constantly being introduced. Platforms may be fragile or tilt dangerously. Pounding a pole into the ground will push up a handy platform. Collectable items can sometimes only be grabbed by bouncing off of a foe as you vanquish it. Kong will have to jump through the mouths of giant monkey statues or leap from one collapsing bridge to another.
Kong’s island is divided into sections, each containing multiple levels. Make it to the end of a section and you will face one or more hypnotized enemies. Once again, each battle is original and creative.
The Difficulty: Makes You Sweat
Normally I hate super hard games, but part of the genius of DKCR is that rather than making you want to hunt down the developers and pummel them with bananas for the unfairness of their game, you simply keep thinking that you’ve almost got it. The game is very good at making it clear that it is not asking for anything you can’t do. Levels all begin reasonably. First you are asked to do something that isn’t especially hard a couple of times. Then something a little harder. Then something just slightly too tricky, which makes you think, I can do this. And past that something harder still.
At times the game does ask more than seems reasonable, yet you always know that you just did something almost as difficult as what you need to do now.
The game also never feels like it is accidentally difficult. Sometimes games are hard because the controls don’t work well, or there are random variables that ruin what would otherwise be a perfect run, but when you die in DKCR (which you will, many, many times), you feel you only have yourself to blame.
A Helping Hand: Super Donkey Kong
The developers realize they have created something incredibly challenging, and so they offer a few ways to make the game more manageable. As you travel through levels you collect coins that can be used to buy extra lives or extra health. You also gain balloons by collecting bananas that are strewn about levels.
If you’re hopelessly stuck, you can call in Super Donkey Kong, a magnificent silver-haired ape who will flawlessly finish the level, opening up the next one. You have to fail a number of times in a level before you have that option, but once you do you can either watch Super Donkey Kong to learn how to bypass an obstacle or simply let him finish the level for you so you can continue past your sticking point. DKCR wants to make you work hard, but it doesn’t want you to just give up and play something else.
If you are able to breeze through each level then the game offers extra challenges in the way of collectibles; letters spelling out “KONG” and puzzle pieces that form a picture. Some of these are easy to get while others are a real struggle. Super Donkey Kong doesn’t bother with the collectibles so you are on your own to figure out how to get the most troublesome ones.
The Verdict: A Great Game if You're Up For It
While many game publishers have struggled mightily to move their franchises into the third dimension (like Sega, which took over a decade to publish a solid 3D Sonic the Hedgehog game), DKCR is proof that it is possible to take old-school 2D platforming and create something fantastically fresh and exciting. While you may fail in the game again and again, the game itself never takes a false step.