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.

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