Saturday, July 20, 2013

Donkey Kong Land (Game Boy) Review

Donkey Kong Land is a video game from my childhood. That "banana yellow" cartridge is very nostalgic for me and I remember quite fondly playing the game on a borrowed copy from a neighborhood friend. I didn't actually own the game (and had almost forgotten about it over time) until a few weeks ago when I ebayed it and decided to relive my personal most-nostalgic Donkey Kong experience. The result has been a game that doesn't quite live up to my nostalgic memories, but is still a fun romp nonetheless.

Donkey Kong Land makes an admirable attempt at emulating the console Donkey Kong Country experience on the limited Game Boy system. The actual in-game story is literally that Cranky Kong doesn't think that the new DK can cut it on an 8-bit system and thus asks King K. Rool to steal the banana hoard again and challenges the Kongs to get it back, but this time on the little Game Boy.

The visuals in the game can either be seen as impressive for Game Boy, as they do a decent job of mimicking the SNES pre-rendered style with realistic backgrounds and "3D-like" characters, or simply ugly, as DKC's unique visual style was just never meant for the Game Boy. The visuals do look quite nice in some areas, but just look blurry or unappealing in others. Games like Super Mario Land 2, that take the Game Boy's limitations into account and work within them without trying to do something that the handheld can't handle, opt for simpler visuals that also look much better. Also, I'm not sure if I just have a wonky cartridge, but Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong occasionally glitch out and get all fuzzy and messed up-looking when playing.

In addition, the view on the GB is much closer to the Kongs than on the SNES and therefore enemies pop up extremely suddenly in front of the player and one can almost never see what's ahead of them or more importantly, what's coming. This drawback extremely hampers the organic, flowing style of platforming that makes the SNES titles so much fun to play; if the player doesn't want to constantly fall into pits or get clobbered by an enemy that they couldn't possibly hope to avoid, than they have to take things slow and inch along most of the time.

A typical scene in DKL

Donkey Kong Land also features versions of many of DKC's classic tunes, but while none of them sound outright bad, with the exception of a particularly nice rendition of the Bonus Room theme from DKC, none of the versions in DKL sound as good as their console counterparts. The game features a few good original songs, but overall the soundtrack doesn't quite measure up. The game does feature at least one stellar track though: by far the most memorable song in the game is the boss fight music (which curiously enough has a more light-hearted remix in Rare's underrated N64 classic, Blast Corps).

DKL's biggest flaw, however, is its core gameplay. The Donkey Kong Country games feature smooth, rhythmic control that makes them a lot of fun to play. While the control is workable in DKL, the physics just feel so wrong and the Kongs simply have little to no momentum and this really hinders the game is several ways. I can't count how many times I'd jump for my life and rapidly fall short of a ledge I had to land on and sink straight into a pit, all due to the piss-poor momentum the Kongs have when running, rolling, and jumping. These deaths did not feel like my fault, but the fault of poor physics, which is a big no-no. As the game went on, I grew more accustomed to the lackluster-feeling gameplay, but it pales in comparison to the SNES titles.

Being on a handheld is no excuse for any of these flaws, as titles like the already-mentioned Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins, The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening, and the Kirby series (which, to be fair, started on the Game Boy) are all stellar games that rival their big-brother NES and SNES titles.

Super Mario Land 2: Like the best Game Boy game ever (besides Link's Awakening)

Despite all this, I don't dislike Donkey Kong Land, not by a mile. The fact is, the game comes together as a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It features four brand new worlds and all new levels from its SNES inspiration, Donkey Kong Country, and despite falling short in many areas, it's still a fairly enjoyable platformer. The game features some neat worlds, like an underwater ruins environment, levels in the clouds, and an industrial city world. While a lot of the level designs blend in with each other and feature many repeating elements (hanging on moving vines while avoiding bees is one of the game's go-to challenges), some are really fun and interesting, like a terrifying underwater area where you have to outrun these gigantic, horrifying nautilus creatures (ironically, the swimming levels control much better than the regular levels as they don't have any physics or momentum to deal with). I do have to say though that some of the levels in the game just drag on for way too long. Sometimes, I'd think I was nearly at the end when I'd only reach the halfway checkpoint marker (some levels even have multiple checkpoints).

This level is scarier than it looks

Donkey Kong Land also features the ability to save after every single level, which is a fantastic and surprising addition in an old-school platformer like this (I didn't mention it in my review, but DKC required the use of save points which were often placed way too far into a world and required the overcoming of several levels before reaching them, which can be frustrating if you lose all of your lives before reaching a save point). The only catch to this consistent save feature is that you must find all four KONG letters in each stage. This is actually never too challenging though, so much so that I didn't even realize that collecting the letters was what was allowing me to save until I was about three quarters of the way through the game; I was getting all the letters in each level with little effort before this. DKL also features plenty of secret bonus areas just like in the console games, except most of them are much easier to find than any of the SNES titles.

Ok, so perhaps my nostalgia for the title is getting in the way of my criticism a bit, but despite its flaws, Donkey Kong Land is still a charming and fun game. I still enjoyed playing it through. It's far from the Game Boy's best platformer and it doesn't feel nearly as good to play as its console brethren, but it is a fair effort of bringing the Donkey Kong Country experience to a handheld and worthy of any Game Boy owner's time.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Donkey Kong Country (SNES) Review

After recently completing Donkey Kong Country Returns for the Nintendo Wii, I decided to revisit the classic that started it all on the Super Nintendo: Donkey Kong Country. This game blew people's minds with its unique pre-rendered graphical design back in the day and to this day it is a beloved Nintendo classic. A lot of people have a big nostalgic connection to this game, but I'm not really one of them. I never owned a Super Nintendo as a kid and thus missed out on all of its fantastic games. I do remember either watching someone else play or playing DKC myself way back when, but I can't recall where this event took place. I remember wanting the game myself, as well as Super Mario World, but for whatever reason a Super Nintendo was never in the cards for me back then. What I did have was my Game Boy and therefore most of my nostalgic childhood Nintendo memories come not from all those SNES classics, but from their Game Boy counterparts. I didn't play Super Mario World, I played Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins. I didn't play The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, I played The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX. And likewise, I didn't play Donkey Kong Country, I played its Game Boy counterpart, Donkey Kong Land. Partly because of my nostalgic connection to DKL, and also for maybe, possibly somewhere briefly experiencing DKC, I do have some sort of nostalgia for Donkey Kong Country.

For whatever reason, Kremkroc Industries Inc. is a world that I remember from my childhood
But really, the DKC trilogy doesn't make me pine for the days of my young childhood, but instead for my college days (damn, I'm getting old), where during my junior year I played all three of the DKC games in full for the first time via the Wii's Virtual Console. I initially didn't have much interest in playing these games, but I had a certain roommate who wouldn't shut up until I downloaded his beloved DKC because he wanted to experience one of his childhood favorites again. After getting the first DKC, I wasn't going to play the sequels, but then the same roommate insisted that while DKC is great, DKC2 is really great and that that one is his true favorite. So I ended up getting DKC2 after finishing and enjoying the first one and eventually got DKC3 to complete the deal. I'm glad my roommate wanted to play these games so bad, because they are all definitely classics and anyone who loves a good old-school platformer should try them out at some point.

Also, he was right about DKC2. I like all the games but DKC2 stands out among them all. It's just a damn fine video game.

But enough about all that. We're here to talk about the first Donkey Kong Country. The original DKC is never a game I've really considered "amazing" or one of my personal favorites. I've always found it to be a fun game, but perhaps a bit overrated by all those people nostalgic for the simpler days of their youth. While I still generally hold to these feelings, I don't deny the game's appeal and can certainly understand why it is so beloved by so many.

While a traditional platformer from a time when the genre was still very prevalent, Donkey Kong Country deserves credit for making a good effort to stand out from games like Nintendo's own already massively popular Mario series. The first and most obvious way it accomplishes this is with its bold, ambitious visual design. DKC was one of the first video games to use pre-rendered graphics, featuring very "realistic" and naturalistic environments compared to the brightly-colored, whimsical fantasy lands that Mario hopped and bopped through. The characters in the game, from the main monkeys Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong to every enemy, like the reptilian Kremling army, snakes, sharks, and those goofy beavers that I've always adored for some reason, are also animated in a more three-dimensional, life-like way than anyone had ever seen before.

A typical scene in DKC

These visuals, while not having aged as well as some other SNES titles (which I'll get into later), still retain much of their charm today and contribute to DKC's unique, ambient, organic atmosphere. Jungle environments buzz with life as butterflies land on flora in the background and crickets and other insects can be heard buzzing all around the Kongs. Taking the atmosphere a step further and doing something that was unheard of in say, a Mario game at the time, DKC actually featured time of day and weather transitions. At the end of the first level, day transitions into night and the next level features a torrential rainstorm that eventually clears up at the end of the stage. Another level starts out in the late afternoon, but slowly dims to a tranquil sunset backdrop. One level even features a snowstorm that progressively gets worse and worse until the player's view is obscured by a ferocious blizzard.

The atmosphere is very strong throughout the game and is one of the reasons that I think the game has so much appeal even today. As I said, DKC goes a different route than Mario and features more realistic environments such as the aforementioned lush jungles, in addition to dank caves, thick forests, snowcapped mountains, underwater reefs, and gritty factories. These environments stand out not only because of the unique visual design, but also because of the game's timeless soundtrack.

The opening level's theme, DK Island Swing, perfectly sets up the jungle setting and also the rhythm of the overall game as a slow beat starts picking up more and more overtime. By the time the player is halfway through the stage and riding Rambi the rhino through rows of enemies, a tone is immediately set that draws the player in. The song mellows out later on and sets a distinct mood for longer stages that feature it. Cave Dweller Concert features ambient, echoing tones and drips and taps that successfully transport the player into a vast, sprawling cave.

And then of course there's the unforgettable Aquatic Ambience. The water levels in DKC manage to be some of the most memorable in the game as their simple blue and brown visual design combined with this soothing, beautiful theme create an environment that slows the player down and invites them to take their time, instead of bouncing and rolling at a fast clip like in the traditional platforming levels. Bonus Room Blitz sets a completely different tone with its upbeat, purely joyous tune. It really captures the excitement of finding one of the game's many, many hidden bonuses, which are always a treat when discovered. My personal favorite track in the game though is Fear Factory, which turns the otherwise bland-feeling factory environments into a rockin' good time.

The water levels have a great atmosphere

While the soundtrack is truly timeless and is still fantastic to this day (as is the sound design overall: every barrel broken, banana collected, and Kremling conked has a distinct and satisfying accompanying sound effect), the visuals haven't aged quite so gracefully. The characters' animations still hold up well and every Kong (especially Cranky and his hilarious and corny fourth-wall breaking comments) and critter in the game has a lot of personality (I love when Diddy gets upset and stomps on his hat and conversely when Donkey Kong gives the player a double thumbs ups and congratulatory handshake). Some levels like the jungle levels and water levels also look pretty nice. But a lot of the backgrounds (as well the overworld maps) in the game look muddy and incomprehensible if you take the time to really look at them. Also, while the game does have a realistic, organic feel to it, and DK Island really comes together and feels like an authentic, consistent world, a lot of the environments feel and look a little bland. Personally, I feel that the mine and cave environments are used way too much. While the standard cave levels have a nice atmosphere, there's still a bit too many of them and a lot of the mine levels are just boring, dark brown palettes and never really do much to engage the player visually. The overall color scheme of the game has a lot of browns, dark greens, and grays in it and after a while it can feel, well, a bit dull. The pre-rendered nature of the environments also give them a static feel that adds to this blandness, as many backgrounds just feel like lifeless paintings rather than a living world.

The backgrounds are a bit muddy, as seen here in this forest stage

I think the most boring levels visually are the temple stages, which are almost entirely comprised of a single, dull tan color. These temple levels just feel totally uninspired artistically and I usually love ancient ruins and temples in video games (and in general; I mean, who doesn't?). Also, as I mentioned earlier the factory environments are also bland-feeling visually and are mostly just one endless gray color. These environments are detailed and feature nice touches like chains and machinery in the foreground, and they do create a nice counterpart to the natural environments, but they just lack...something. This sort of visual and artistic vibrancy that DKC often lacks is something that I think Donkey Kong Country Returns excels in. That game took classic themes like the factories and ancient temples and gave new life to them, making them come alive with a varied color palette and all sorts of nice details and artistic touches.

A factory level from DKC
DKCR breathes new life into the factory environments (this screen is from the 3DS version, which looks nearly identical to the Wii version as far as I can tell)

With this in mind, perhaps it's a little unfair of me to criticize DKC's visuals so much after just having played the modern and artistically brilliant DKCR. After all, DKC's visuals were obviously a lot more impressive when it first came out and it was one of the pioneers of the pre-rendered style, so I suppose I can cut it some slack. Comparing the three DKC games in the original trilogy, one can see that Rare's visual flair improved with each title: DKC2 livened up the color palette much more and DKC3 perhaps made things a little too colorful and whimsical. While I think the color and more detailed environments of DKC2 give the game a bit more life, there is still something to be said of the more natural (and less fantastical) environments of the first game. These jungles, snows, caves and mines have a realistic atmospheric feeling that was partly lost in the later games in the series (not that these games don't have great atmospheres of their own, which they do, just in different ways), so there's something to be said about the "real"-feeling world full of cartoony characters found in the original. While I think that more traditional sprite-based games like Super Mario World, A Link to the Past, and Super Metroid, as well as some other unique visual designs like the pastel look of Yoshi's Island, have aged better than DKC, the game still looks pretty nice and has its own special charm. In any case, it deserves much credit for being a pioneer and delivering a visual design that was largely unheard of back then. To this day, the SNES DKC titles still have a look that is really all their own.

As a platformer, Donkey Kong Country also set itself apart from games like Mario with its unique style of play. Players tag-team between Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong and both Kongs have their own unique abilities. Donkey Kong is stronger and can destroy certain enemies that Diddy can't by jumping on them. and also has a ground-pound move that can be used to find hidden bananas. Diddy Kong is faster and has a cartwheeling ability that can defy gravity and allow the player to roll over pits and leap across great distances (Donkey also has a roll ability, but it's not as effective as Diddy's). Diddy is the overall smoother and better-controlling character and if he didn't have any strength limitations, there would never really be any need to control Donkey unless you prefer a slower character. The tag-team dynamic is something that makes the DKC games unique and also lends itself to some interesting multiplayer options. I also think this mechanic really creates a nice camaraderie between the Kongs and makes their friendship a central theme. With all this said, I ultimately prefer just one, great controlling character with every ability I need, than two characters that have these abilities split between them. Again, this is another reason I like DKC2, because where Donkey Kong controls very differently from Diddy and feels a bit too slow and lumbering, both Diddy and Dixie Kong in the sequel are fast and control similarly. Dixie even adds her useful hair-twirling hover ability into the mix, which is a cooler ability than the artificial-feeling capability of one character to defeat enemies another can't. This is also why I like the streamlining in DKCR, where a Donkey/Diddy combo is one character who is agile, controls fantastically, and also has a hover ability.

The Kongs are the best of buddies

Even though I feel Diddy is the superior-controlling Kong, the gameplay isn't ever not fun in DKC. The controls are smooth and running through the levels as the Kongs feels great. The fluid and intuitive gameplay in Donkey Kong Country coupled with its unique level designs creates a kind of "flow" that is a trademark of the series. A typical level might have you bouncing off of a Kremling onto a vine, which you then swing from onto another baddie and bounce off of it and three more enemies followed by ducking into a swift roll and so on. Levels are designed with rows of leaping enemies coming at you, bouncy tires, swinging vines, and other gimmicks. The levels are designed like playgrounds where the player is encouraged to bounce and flow from one obstacle to the next. This style of platforming is actually very appropriate for a game about an ape and his chimpanzee pal.

One small downside to the controls is that the roll action and the run button are the same thing so rolling always precedes running with both characters. If Mario taught us anything, it's that a run button is crucial to precision platforming and that's no different here. I'd often press this button and accidentally roll off into a bottomless pit. Some levels have the Kongs treading across narrow platforms, so this aspect becomes especially problematic here. This issue never becomes too offensive, but it does add a slippery feeling to the game's sense of control that is worth noting. With this in mind, I don't think having rolling and running mapped to different buttons would have felt right, especially since using both actions in tandem is often important, so I understand why the controls operate in the way that they do.

Another gameplay feature that makes DKC stand out and something that the series is well-known for is the cast of "animal buddies" that the Kongs can ride in the game. There's Rambi the rhino, who lets the player dash through enemies and crash through walls to find secrets. Then there's Enguarde the swordfish, who is a blessing in the underwater levels where the player can charge into and defeat otherwise impenetrable enemies with the buddy. All of the animal buddies are useful and are fun to use, with the exception of Winky the frog, who is awkward to control because his hopping often screws up a player's timing with jumps. I'd often run off of a cliff when I wanted to jump with him, so poor Winky is probably best avoided.

Buddy time with Rambi

Donkey Kong Country is structured pretty well, if a little cut-and-dry. The game features a level-selection map similar to what players were used to at the time with the Mario series, except where Super Mario World contained a vast land full of secret paths and countless hidden levels, DKC has no secret levels or alternate paths and simply features a linear level-to-level structure. The game makes up for this straightforwardness though (not that being straightforward is always necessarily bad...I just personally really love Super Mario World's secret-filled overworld structure) with the plentiful amount of secret bonus areas and shortcuts found in each level. Many of these can be found by carefully exploring each level, but some of them are super cryptic (there's a bonus area hidden inside another bonus area; I mean, come on!). Discovering all of these little tricks and secrets is a big part of the game's charm and went on to become a staple of the series.

I mentioned earlier that the cave and mine-themed levels seem to outnumber every other kind of level and nothing demonstrates this more than with the game's final world. Each of the game's worlds introduce some new kind of level theme: the first world introduces the jungle theme, cave theme, and underwater theme; the second world gives us the mine theme and the temple theme; the third world introduces a forest theme and so on. The final world, however, is a cave-centered world (after already having a mine-centered world) that introduces nothing new in terms of level themes. This final world feels lazy, seems like padding, and comes across as very anti-climactic. The factory world preceding it feels more like the final world because it's called Kremkroc Industries Inc. and feels like the industrial base of the villainous Kremlings.

The Kongs spend a lot of time in mines

While we're on the topic of laziness, the bosses in the game are incredibly pathetic. Most of them are just giant versions of standard enemies and are terribly simple to defeat. On this second playthrough of the game, I beat every single boss on my first try with barely any effort (I can see how the giant bee might give some people some trouble though). Not only are the bosses just big versions of normal enemies, but two of them are also recycled with little different about the fight, doubling the amount of laziness. When the most interesting boss in the game is a sentient oil drum that dumps normal enemies on you (essentially one of those enemy gauntlet fights), we have a problem. Boss fights aren't that important to me in a platformer, so none of this brings the game down too much for me, but come on. The one exception to all this is the final boss, which is a good challenge and also has this unforgettable theme to back it up.

Even the Kongs look bored by this big, goofy beaver boss

On a more positive note, one element of the game that I really love is how it cleverly incorporates elements from the original arcade Donkey Kong and makes them fit into a platformer setting. The most obvious of these elements is the game's focus on barrels. The Kongs get trapped in a barrel when they are hit by an enemy, there are check-point barrels, save barrels, and even an enemy that is a bad Kong that throws barrels, which the player has to jump over, just like in the arcade classic. Throughout the game, the Kongs are also constantly picking up barrels to throw at enemies and break open secret passages. The factory stages also feel like a throwback to the classic industrial setting. The oil barrel from the first stage in Donkey Kong also appears as a flame-spewing level hazard. There's also a stage that has moving elevator platforms like in the original's second stage.

While on the topic of the game's levels, most of them introduce some kind of unique gimmick and are usually well-designed enough to remain engaging, but I do feel that more could have been done in some areas. Some gimmicks are fun and interesting such as the now famous blasting barrels (the Snow Barrel Blast level from world 4 can die in a fire though; at least there's a short-cut in it that can be utilized if you don't want to torture yourself) and of course the equally iconic mine-cart stages. But some other gimmicks just come off as annoying such as a dark cave level that has Squawks the parrot carrying a light that blinds the player every time they turn, all because Rare probably wanted to further prove their game's technical might. Some other levels just don't do enough interesting or different to really prove their worth, such as a mine level that is filled with enemy-spawning barrels and little else.

The gameplay is fluid and engaging enough to keep the game enjoyable; I just found some of the levels to be a little...blah due to overused themes and some less than fascinating gimmicks.

It's no secret that Donkey Kong Country was a huge success in taking an aging, almost forgotten character and breathing new life into him while giving him his own world, cast of characters, and unique platforming adventure. The game resonated with tons of people and to this day is easily one of the most iconic platformers ever made. DKC does a lot of things that really make it stand out for its time and for all time. Despite the game not having the same sort of quality and staying power that I feel SNES classics like Super Mario World, A Link to the Past, and Super Metroid have, it is still a really enjoyable platformer with a feeling and dynamic all its own. Its music and unique visual design create an atmosphere that brings Donkey Kong's world to life in a special way and its smooth gameplay and secret-filled level designs ensure that the game is engaging from start to finish. I don't think Donkey Kong Country is a platforming masterpiece, and I don't think the series reached true greatness until its sequel, but DKC is still a solid experience that everyone who enjoys video games should probably try at least once.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Donkey Kong Country Returns (Wii) Review

If you followed my E3 2013 impressions, you'd know that I was extremely disappointed with Metroid Prime developer Retro Studios' new game, which is a sequel to the studio's 2010 Wii game, Donkey Kong Country Returns. I've never been a super huge Donkey Kong fan (though I have played and enjoyed all the Country games) and I wanted something bold and ambitious from the studio out of their first Wii U project, rather than another platformer, which Nintendo already has plenty of coming to their console.

After my initial disappoint began to cool and I rewatched the trailer for Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze and listened to the developers talk about the game, I tried to warm up to the game. I have a lot of respect for Retro and it sounds like this is the game that they wanted to do. I want to support them and understand why I should care about a new Donkey Kong game. To this end, I was suddenly struck by the desire to replay Donkey Kong Country Returns. You see, I played DKCR shortly after it was released, but I played it more because it was just another game in my collection that I needed to get out of the way than out of a real desire to play it. I sort of rushed through the game, enjoying it, but not really "getting into" it. I felt a genuine interest in playing the game this time and I wanted to really sink my teeth into it and give it my full attention.

With this in mind, I booted the game up on my Wii U at around 2AM about two weeks ago. I still wasn't even sure I'd actually go through with fully completing the game, I just...wanted to play it. A couple of hours later, I was immensely enjoying myself. As I said, I sort of rushed through the game the first time and I really didn't remember much of it, so playing it again felt a fresh new experience. For the rest of the week, I played the game every night, clearing a world each time and each time feeling a sense of joy I haven't felt while playing a game in a very long time. DKCR is the kind of whimsical, imaginative platformer that I feel like I haven't really experienced since the days when all I played were platformers; games like Super Mario Land 2, Sonic 3 and Knuckles, and even Crash Bandicoot (a game I played, but never owned and fully played through myself). These games inspired my imagination and instilled a sense of wonder and joy in me that games like New Super Mario Bros. just don't do for me.

Part of this joy comes from the unique level designs within DKCR. Just about every level introduces some kind of new element or set-piece, ranging from a harrowing journey across a stormy shoreline as a massive octopus stalks your every move, a level where Donkey and Diddy barrel blast from pirate ship to pirate ship as they dodge falling cannonballs, and a rocket ride through a cave as a gigantic bat chases you down. Almost no level in the game bores me, both in terms of gameplay design and visual design.

One of my favorite levels

That visual design is a key element of what makes DKCR such an enjoyable experience. Retro Studios proved its immense talent for creating beautiful, immersive worlds in the Metroid Prime games and the art direction in DKCR is similarly phenomenal. If you don't take the time to lean in and notice the jaggies and rough edges in the game, DKCR could easily be mistaken as a modern, HD experience. It certainly blows even the more recent HD New Super Mario Bros. U out of the water. The environments pop with a level of detail both in the background and foreground (which players often travel between) that creates a stunning world to experience complete with jungle ruins overgrown with amazonic plant-life, sparkling, ambient caves full of mole miners, sunny beaches with goofy leaping sharks, and fossil-filled, prehistoric cliffsides. The artists do so many creative and wonderful things, it's hard to even give a taste of it here. There are some levels where everything, Donkey and Diddy Kong included, appear as a jet-black silhouette (sort of like Limbo, except with more color), there is a level where gigantic mountains crumble all around the player both in the background and underneath their feet, and there are the factory environments, which have a retro red and black color scheme (as well as zig-zag-patterned girders) that echoes the original arcade Donkey Kong's classic construction site. A lot of the world themes in the game are familiar and clearly inspired by the original Donkey Kong Country on SNES (though the pirate ship-themed stages bring DKC2 to mind), but since the game is designed to be a retro reboot, and because the artists and designers do so many creative and new things with these themes, this aspect really doesn't bother me in the way a game like Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 does, in which level themes are straight-up ripped off and add little new. It's very hard to find things to complain about when the level designs are this engaging (although the final world in the game is a stereotypical lava world complete with sinking stone platforms and a rising-lava-chase level, but at least a volcano stage makes sense in the context of the tropical island setting).

Donkey Kong Limbo

The whole game is filled with personality and a goofy sense of humor. The villains are wooden Tiki creatures (wooden creatures who are birthed from a fiery volcano) whose designs are based on instruments. These critters go around DK Island and play a catchy tune (seriously, I love that tune) that hypnotises all of the animals and creatures of the island. Using these pawns, the Tikis steal DK's banana hoard for a ridiculous purpose revealed later on in this complex plot. Donkey Kong (and presumably Diddy) is unaffected by this hypnosis (is he just too dumb?) and it's off to save the bananas and I guess the island! The cutscenes in the game are superbly animated and most plot points are hilariously absurd, and I mean this in the best way possible. A lot of people complained about the Tikis replacing the classic Kremling villians, but I don't mind having something new. The Tikis aren't exactly overflowing with personality, but they fit the setting nicely and I like their instrument-focused designs. I also think it's kind of interesting for a Donkey Kong game to have a rather physically weak set of villains who control other creatures to do their bidding. The boss creatures the Tikis control are definitely more interesting than any of the bosses in the first DKC game. It's also very satisfying to pummel the wooden baddies by waggling the Wii Remote and Nunchuck with embarrassing vigor at the end of each boss fight. My only complaint about these villains is the final boss, who without outright spoiling it, is probably the most overused and generic design Retro could come up with. If you've been playing video games for a while, and particularly Nintendo games, it's a safe bet you've already fought a boss like this at least five times. Although the fight itself is fun and I love the music track that plays during it.

The Tikis

In addition to the fantastic art direction and the absurd narrative, the sound design is something else that stands out about the game. The sound effects are so satisfying in this game and that's the best way I can describe it. When Donkey Kong picks up a banana, a banana bunch, or a banana coin and when he bounces off an enemy's noggin, each action is accompanied by a 'click!' or a 'bloopadoop!' or a 'cachuck!' I never get tired of hearing. These kinds of little details are important in a collecty platformer like this, and every sound effect and noise in the game just jives so well. This is an area the SNES original excelled in as well, and DKCR follows suit and is even more pleasant to listen to in this regard.

The music in the game, while good, isn't extremely memorable though. The best tracks in the game are probably the remixes of ones from DKC1 (some of which are great, like the factory theme, others not so much, like Returns' take on Aquatic Ambience, which is far inferior to the beautiful original) but this lack of notable new tunes (with some exceptions) makes the soundtrack live in the shadow of the original's in a way. A lot of the music is ambient and environmental, which stays true to the original SNES game's atmospheric soundtrack, and all of the music does suit the game's environments and trials perfectly. The soundtrack just isn't quite DKC2-level quality.

The controls, however, are smooth as a creamy banana sundae. The SNES trio all had great controls as well, and DKCR probably surpasses them simply in terms of how the game feels. In single-player mode, we only get to play as Donkey Kong this time. Diddy Kong rides on Donkey's back and provides a jet-pack-powered hover ability and extra health. Initially, I was disappointed with this because I always thought that Diddy controlled more smoothly in DKC1 (just one part of why his star game DKC2 is my favorite in the series), but upon playing DKCR this worry quickly disappeared because Donkey Kong feels fantastic to control and there's really no need to switch between the two characters anymore. Perhaps something is lost with the omission of the tag-team mechanic from the SNES games, but ultimately I don't mind having just one great-controlling Kong to deal with. While the controls and gameplay are almost perfect, and truly some of the best I've ever experienced in a platformer, they are marred by a few annoying flaws. Mainly, the obnoxious forced motion control Retro decided to implement in the game. In order to ground-pound and blow a puff of air to uncover secrets, the player must shake the Wii Remote and Nunchuck (or just the Wii Remote if they use that control scheme). While unnecessary, this isn't too bad, and ground-pounding this way is actually satisfying as is pummeling the Tiki bad guys like I mentioned before.The main problem is that rolling, which can be essential to precision platforming in the game, is also mapped to the shaking of the controller, and this action (or any of the others) can't be mapped to a traditional button. The reality here is that this isn't a game-breaker and it mostly works just fine, but it's incredibly frivolous and adds nothing to the experience. The only thing it might add every now and then is frustration when I go to itch myself and accidentally move my controller too much and Donkey Kong suddenly rolls against my will. It's very easy to do this and fly off a cliff, at no fault of the player. Even if this has a very infrequent chance of happening, it is still inexcusable design and Retro is a better developer than this so it baffles me why this is in the game, or at least why we aren't given the option to map the roll action (and any actions) to a traditional button. One other minor hiccup with the control is that high-bouncing off of enemies doesn't feel quite as intuitive as in the originals. In DKC1, I feel like I can just hold down the jump button and bounce off Kremling after Kremling, while in DKCR, I have to be a little more conscious and hit the A button at exactly the right time to bounce off a critter, and simply holding the button down afterwards won't continue my bouncy flow and I must press the button again right before landing on the next baddie. This action is crucial at many points in the game, so while not unforgivably flawed by any means, it's still something worth noting.

The whimsical world of DK

Precise controls are a must in this game because it's a hefty challenge. A lot of this challenge comes from trial and error scenarios, mainly in the mine-cart and rocket-barrel stages. In the rocket-barrel stages, Donkey Kong rides inside, well, a rocket-propelled barrel this is controlled by soley the A button. Hold A to ascend, let go to descend as you avoid obstacles. It's a very simple idea and it's a testament to Retro's abilities that they were able to create such engaging levels around this concept. These levels can be frustrating as hell though when it becomes tough to pay attention to the massive amount of information on screen that the player needs to take into account and react to. I also feel like the collision detection is a little wonky in these levels (I'd often be surprised when I suddenly exploded and think, "Um, what just hit me?" or "How did I just die?"), or maybe it's just that Donkey Kong is sometimes just too big and awkward a target to always navigate the narrow traps that he must avoid with finesse, and perhaps the levels could have been designed a little more leniently with this in mind.

The rocket-barrel (and a balloon-equipped mole miner)

There are two kinds of mine-cart levels. The first type is the standard one, where Donkey Kong rides in a mine-cart and never leaves it, where the cart jumps with him. The other, and more troubling type of mine-cart stage, is where Donkey stands on top of a cart and when the player jumps, the cart doesn't jump with them. These levels require the player to use several mine-carts, instead of staying in just one the whole time. These stages can be a little tricky because the player needs to worry about controlling Donkey's forward momentum as well as jumping at the right time when jumping from mine-cart to mine-cart, as these stages require the player to continuously do (when not jumping forward to the next cart, Donkey will always land on the cart he is currently riding when jumping straight up). Due to this, I suffered a few deaths when I didn't jump at the right time or over-jumped a mine-cart that I was supposed to land on. The standard mine-cart stages and rocket-barrel stages, despite being packed with ridiculous obstacles and requiring perfect timing from the payer, mostly work well because the player only needs to worry about one button. That's the problem with this second type of minecart stage, because the player has to worry about controlling their jumps and Donkey's momentum at certain points in addition to avoiding all of the obstacles. Another aspect of both the rocket-barrel and mine-cart levels that makes them a little unnecessarily unforgiving is that if you get hit, even by a small enemy, your cart/barrel explodes and you instantly die, no matter how much health you have. It wasn't this way in the SNES games on their mine-cart stages, which were a good enough challenge already, and these levels in Returns are already tough enough as well without this aspect, so I do question this design as it comes across as artificial difficulty; just a cheap way to lengthen gameplay time as you will certainly die a lot in this levels. On the other hand, this added challenge certainly does raise the stakes and makes these levels even more intense and therefore more satisfying to complete. I also question that there's an entire world in the game filled solely with mine-cart and rocket-barrel levels. If you're not a fan of these kinds of fast-reflex levels, this lack of variety might frustrate you. Also, since this world is the cave-themed world, I would have liked some traditional, atmospheric cave-themed platforming levels as well, as those have traditionally been a staple in DKC, and Retro's fantastic art direction would only add to their appeal. All this said, both the rocket-barrel and all of the mine-cart stages, while they can certainly become frustrating, are consistently engaging and once I got into the groove of the levels, were actually some of my favorite challenges in the game.

These mine-cart levels get seriously ridiculous (and yes, I realize that's an oxymoron) 

Each of DKCR's levels are incredibly detailed and packed with secrets. Finding all of the puzzle pieces, which are used to unlock art galleries in the game, takes a lot of imagination to find as many of them are deviously well-hidden, but never in a way that I found to be too cryptic. Finding all of the KONG letters in each level takes a certain measure of skill as well. Searching for these goodies requires the player to comb every inch of every level, but the levels are so much fun to replay, I found it very satisfying to discover every secret on my own and 101% complete the game.

As I said, a lot of the difficulty in the game is trial and error (but certainly not all of it). The gameplay and level design are so engaging though, that I never got too discouraged by this. I always jumped right back into the fray and was ready for more. Again, the gameplay is so tight and the levels so intricately crafted that I rarely felt like the situation was out of my control. I always knew I was capable of overcoming any obstacle; I just had to keep trying. This trial and error element is never more apparent than in the hidden temple levels, which are only unlocked after collecting all the KONG letters in each world. I completely missed these secret levels on my first play-through and they are easily the most difficult and insane levels in the game. We're talking Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels degrees of difficult at times (although better-designed and with tighter control than that game). They're all about learning and memorizing every single obstacle and continously dying and trying again, each time getting (hopefully) a little farther into the level. They also have no check-points, so you have to do the whole thing in one go. I did find the difficulty to be a bit unbalanced with these levels as some earlier ones are incredibly difficult, the hardest one is probably found in world 6, and I found the ones in the last two worlds to be among the easiest. All of these levels are very satisfying to conquer though.

Completing the hidden temple stages requires a mastery of patience

The reward for beating these special stages in a final secret stage that, while interesting, is just a single level that's almost as difficult as the levels you had to complete to get there, and your ultimate reward for solving this final hidden area is pretty underwhelming. I suppose the journey itself is the reward, but a full hidden world would have been nice (although I suppose one could consider all the eight temple levels plus the final secret stage a bonus world when added together). Based on one of the art galleries you can unlock in the game, it looks like the developers might have had a full world based around this final level planned too, but perhaps it was scrapped due to time constraints. That's a shame, because based on the artwork, it looks like Retro had some wonderful ideas for this hidden world and it would have been a really awesome reward for completing all of the brutal temple stages. I know that the recent 3DS port contains an extra world, but I'm fairly certain that it is something brand new created by Monster Games, the studio that ported the game, and not Retro's original vision for the bonus ninth world.

Before I conclude, I just want to take this opportunity to say how much I hate Super Guide. If you don't know, Super Guide is the option that Nintendo likes to put in all of its games these days (mostly platformers) where the player has the ability, after dying a certain number of times in a level, to ask a guide to beat the level for them. Super Guide is optional, yes, but it becomes incredibly annoying when, after dying a few times (and you will die a lot), an obnoxious pig appears and starts waving a flag at you and making an irritating blinking sound. Even if actually implementing the Super Guide is optional, can I at least have the option to disable it completely so this annoying, condescending pig will never appear in my game and piss me off even further as I constantly fail at a particularly frustrating challenge? Super Guide will even appear if you die a lot when replaying a level. Why? If I'm replaying a level, obviously it is already complete so I'm replaying it either to enjoy the level again myself, complete it legitimately if I did use Super Guide (which trust me, I never did, nor will I ever do), or most likely I'm looking for secrets in the level, which if it's for the latter I'm going to die even more than usual because I'm experimenting and exploring. Why would I ever be interested in something completing an already-finished level for me if my purpose for being in the level is not to simply get past it, which, I remind you, would always be the case when replaying a level in the game? Please, just give me the option to disable Super Guide completely. Options, options, options. I should have the option to stop Super Guide from appearing at all if I wish, and I should have the option to use traditional buttons for actions instead of shoehorned motion control if I wish.

You will hate him

So, that rant aside, after truly immersing myself in Retro's take on Donkey Kong Country over the past couple weeks, I can safely say that it's a fantastic platformer. It's incredibly satisfying to play, its levels are imaginative, varied, and gorgeously crafted. It beats the hell out of any New Super Mario Bros. game in terms of basically everything, that's for sure. So while I still can't say I'm not disappointed by Retro's next project, I can say that I'm definitely looking forward to playing it now. In fact, it's now one of my most-anticipated games for Wii U. Maybe this sort of thing is said a lot, but Donkey Kong Country Returns is a video game that takes me back to my childhood. It's a video game that isn't afraid to be a video game in the classical sense, which is an immensely entertaining piece of imaginative software that I looked forward to playing every day, especially after a long work-day. DKCR makes me nostalgic for the simple, imaginative joys of my favorite childhood gaming experiences, but it doesn't accomplish this by simply rehashing retro elements and by making shallow references, but does so with its beautiful, varied, joyous level designs.