on 29 December 2010
I love platformers. As a big fan of the Donkey Kong Country games on the SNES, I've longed for a modern incarnation of the series for years, but never thought it'd actually happen. So I was really pleased when they lifted the veil on this earlier this year, and that Retro Studios (the guys behind Metroid Prime) were the team to do it. Why? Because the Metroid games were very well designed, with beautiful visuals, great sound, complex levels that made you think, and a perfect difficulty.
Donkey Kong Country Returns, as I anticipated, has those same qualities. The levels are engaging, challenging, and there's often little platforming puzzles to solve situated in the odd spot in a level; in these parts the camera often stops in a fixed view, while you navigate platforms or fire yourself from cannons. In one instance I remember activating switches that rotated parts of the level in the background so I could progress. These are fun to do and help break up the quite often rip-roaring race to the end. I really would've enjoyed more of these actually!
Fans of Donkey Kong Country will recognise:
- Barrel Cannons. These are barrels that fire DK in varying directions. They operate in exactly the same way they did in the SNES trilogy, and, in fact, the variety of barrel types has been whittled down for this new entry (the old entries featured ghost barrels, and even timed barrels). However, the way they've been incorporated into the level puzzles makes great new uses of them - for example, one barrel bobs and tilts around in the sea, making the aiming process that little bit different, as the barrel moves around in a more erratic manner.
- Rambi the Rhino! Available in a select few levels, once you break him out of his crate, you can jump on and stampede your way through the level. Nearly everything he runs into smashes or collapses. Great fun!
- A lot of original tunes and melodies have been remixed, and make the whole thing feel really nostalgic. They really captured the natural-sounding, ambient feel of DKC's music for the most part. And you'll find that the music changes at different parts of the level, as intruments are added or taken away to add extra effect to the moment. It's just a shame that all of the great tracks are new versions of old tunes, though; none of the new tracks really stood out or were memorable to me.
- The return of life balloons, bananas, DK barrels, and DK's moves, such as his roll attack, and ground pound. Both of the latter two are activated by swishing the controller; takes some getting used to, but becomes easy once you've mastered it. The option to do this through a button press would have been preferable, but even so, it never made movement of DK feel any less accurate.
- Other very cool touches, such as DK's treehouse, and the cave where he keeps his bananas!
New to DKC is the ability to hover for a couple of seconds by holding the jump button immediately after jumping. This is fantastic, as Donkey Kong's bulky form makes jumping feel quite heavy; having access to Diddy's hover ability makes landing on the next platform easier. This is the only function Diddy performs, aside from allowing two extra hits. Diddy will always ride upon Donkey Kong's back after being smashed out of a DK barrel, and they function as one whole character.
As a general rule, most of the platforming levels in the game are fast-paced and action-packed. And as you get deeper into the game, platforms often collapse as you jump on them, and parts of the level crumble away. Sometimes whole parts of the background topple over. It's frantic stuff, and you'll definately need quick reflexes later in the game.
I really enjoyed the minecart and rocket rides myself (much like rollercoaster rides on a fixed path, for those new to DKC), but I can understand the complaints. There are instances where you will have to fall off the tracks or crash in order to learn just what you've done wrong, so you can dodge or jump accordingly on your second attempt. And it does require you to memorise the order of pitfalls and obstacles on the tracks. To the game's credit, it does put you back straight into the action should you die (provided you've got enough continues, but you can buy plenty of life balloons with the plentiful supply of coins that you can find in the levels), rather than take you back to a map screen.
Levels also contain four letters, which spell out the word 'KONG' when they're all acquired. These are always visible within the levels, and pose an excellent challenge to earn, as they are often placed in tricky areas. Finding these letters in each level will unlock up special 'K' levels (no, not the cereal!), which are extra tough platforming levels that require the utmost skill to finish. Finishing each of these 8 'K' levels will unlock one of 8 'character scenes' that you can rotate and admire. They're cute, static scenes that have Donkey Kong and Diddy posed in an amusing situation, either being chased down by enemies or scaling obstacles. These are a nice treat for those that wish to delve deeper into the game, and only help show the attention to detail and care that's gone into creating the game.
I do have a couple of small nitpicks, though. Bonus rooms repeat very, very often, with a different level background swapped in depending on the level theme (jungle, cave, etc.). Fine in the original game where they were used to earn extra life balloons and bananas, but not here, where they're used to win puzzle pieces - the item that allows you to access concept art drawn up by the game's developers, such as enemy designs, and character drawings, etc. Because you'll repeat these bonus rooms over so many times, they become easy to complete to earn you a puzzle piece because they fell like routine. Much of the challenge instead comes from finding the hidden entrances to these bonus rooms within the levels themselves - and trust me, a lot of them are really well hidden.
Another feature I'd rather them have left on the cutting room floor is DK's new ability to blow on things to unearth goodies, such as bananas, hearts, coins, and puzzle pieces. Unfortunately, it never really serves an interesting purpose; levels start with reeds to blow on, with later levels eventually swapping those for objects such as candles, and spinning flowers. Each one requires and performs the same action; if you're trying to find every secret the game has to offer, it becomes neccessary to blow on every reed or candle you come across. Fortunately, they never blemish the fantastic level design, and can be ignored if the player so choses (the end of the level can still be reached without blowing on these items).
It's worth noting that you can completely ignore the 'KONG' letters and puzzles pieces and simply aim to reach the end of each level. You can finish the game and see the ending cinematic without picking up any of these.
I cannot comment on the two-player mode as I haven't tried it, but as a hardened platform game fan, I completely enjoyed this. Highly challenging, packed full of content, often surprising and a visual treat (the animation of the characters is especially gorgeous); highly recommended to those that enjoyed the tougher levels in Mario Galaxy 2 and New Super Mario Bros. Wii, or is simply a fan of the original trilogy on the SNES.