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In Memory
Sean Pettibone


Donkey Kong Country Returns (Wii)

Nintendo's classic 2D platformers have undergone a huge resurgence in the past year with the release of New Super Mario Bros. and Kirby's Epic Yarn. Add to the growing list of revivals Donkey Kong Country which returns in a solid installment for the Wii that features traditional gameplay with a few modern motion-controlled twists. Featuring the famous protagonist, the objective is to complete levels, beat enemies and collect many extras. It definitely plays like the SNES originals in most aspects. It's a lot harder than players might remember, but its clever puzzles, challenging boss battles and interesting levels will keep gamers coming back for more.

What's most interesting about Donkey Kong Country Returns isn't what has changed from the original games, but what hasn't. It seems that developers Retro Studios decided not to stray too far from the formula that made the Rare SNES titles so appealing. The game stays very true to its origins in many ways, most notably in its mostly 2D presentation. This is a hardcore, classic 2D platformer that brings the original mechanics forward only minimally, with a few nods to motion control here and there. It's a very surprising decision in many ways, but it works because the Wii's accessible nature makes this simple presentation seem natural and intuitive. You don't really need any of the usual special effects or cinemas seen in other modern platform games. There's not much irony, no spunky dialogue to sit through. The emphasis is purely on the gameplay with the player's skill taking precedence. This is definitely a game in the classic mode and works in both solo and co-op modes of play. Its structure is very much in the classic mold as levels unfold in a series of platform jumping sequences, attacks on foes and mostly the collection of objects. There are several types of objects and these can be traded in at Cranky Kong's store for extra lives and other abilities as well. The store can be accessed at the world map between levels, and is quite useful when you find a level that's just a little beyond your abilities.

One of the most disappointing aspects of the game is that because it uses the Wii's motion sensing, it doesn't support the classic controller. This would have been perfect, but the game still controls nicely using the standard wiimote. Most moves are performed in the standard ways, with movement controlled by the wiimote's cross-pad and jumping and attacking with the standard buttons. DK can also use a special Barrel Roll attack that can be performed by shaking the wiimote around, this allows him to run right past enemies. You can also use a Ground Smash move when standing still. This is useful mostly for breaking up crates but can also make for some pretty cool moves that allow him to jump out of gaps quickly, though the timing of this takes practice to master. The controls are smooth and intuitive, and most players should have little trouble with the interface. Its feel is consistently good throughout and there's an excellent flow to the game as you move from level to level. Most sections are standard platforming fare, though there are some sections where you zoom through levels by jumping into Rocket Barrels and shooting through the sky. These mechanics are simple at first, but later stages throw up obstacles and other timing issues that make these sequences challenging. Other sequences have players riding on carts in the game's dense jungles, which makes things move faster, but also gives an added challenge when avoiding enemies.

As you might have guessed by now, there's not much of a plot here, but the game's simplicity is one of its key selling points. Donkey Kong is the main character here, but is joined in many areas by his son Diddy. He can usually be added to the game by throwing one of the barrels, which releases him. Once he's jumped on your back, he can be used to add a bit of a boost to your jumps. His presence also increases the number of hearts DK has, increasing his vitality. Players will also be able to team up with a Rhini character, a powerful Rhinoceros who helps him go right through otherwise unpassable sections easily. He's king of the Donkey Kong equivalent of Yoshi, and getting him is always a big help. Other items such as bananas and coins can also be collected along with balloons, all of these help your character along by increasing their powers, adding extra lives or giving them added vitality. Similar to the template used in the Mario Bros. games, DKCR unfolds in a series of themed levels which are branched together in a world map. These can be played sequentially at the main selection screen and you can also go back to completed levels if you want to find secret areas you might have missed.

Donkey Kong Country's expansive levels can be quite long but there are frequent checkpoints so you won't waste time backtracking through the game. There are some levels which are quite difficult but the game isn't terribly taxing for experienced players. Occasionally, you might find an area that's very hard to beat, and this can be frustrating. However, there's a way you can beat the levels and that's by calling on your Super Guide, which lets loose the Super Kong character. Doing this will unleash this ultra-powered character who will play through the entire level without fail, completing it and allowing you to move on to the next one. The only drawback is that any items and extras that might have been won on that level won't be credited to your progress. You can go back and play again, and since you now know how to beat that difficult section, the hints you gain can be quite useful. This basically acts as an extended tutorial, which helps players who might be new to this type of game or veterans who's skills might have grown rusty over the years. This approach is successful and makes many of the 'hardcore' techniques easy to learn which gives Donkey Kong Country Returns a much more accessible feel than you'd initially expect.

Donkey Kong Country Returns successfully brings the franchise up to date, but it isn't quite as fresh or innovative as last year's New Super Mario Bros Wii. Its co-op modes are fun, but not as mind-blowing as the 4-player modes in NSMBW. It's still an entertaining and challenging title. Its solid gameplay mechanics are fairly easy to understand, but there's enough flexibility for complex moves and attacks. The earlier stages act as extended tutorials that teach you techniques you'll need later on, and which makes the learning curve steeper than you'd expect but not that daunting. While some of the level designs and layouts can be difficult, a number of aids, such as the Super Guides help new players along. The game's overall challenge gets higher as you move on, and later stages will definitely challenge even the best players. Donkey Kong Country's appealing visual style remains intact with this installment and its simple 2D approach makes it a nice throwback to the SNES era of gaming. Overall, this is a much-welcome return to greatness and marks a solid title gamers old and new will enjoy.

- Michael Palisano

Grade: B

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