Tuesday, November 19, 2013

GOT 'IM - Donkey Kong Country Returns

Still embarrassingly behind on my 2013 gaming goals, but at least I got some Wii time in last summer.  Yeah, this is a game I beat in late August; I'm behind in writing these.  Donkey Kong Country Returns after the break. 

Once again, personal history on the topic at hand: Donkey Kong Country.  Donkey Kong is a silly name resulting from Nintendo creative lead Shigeru Miyamoto using a Japanese-English dictionary and an English thesaurus to find synonyms to "Stubborn Ape."  Hilarious.  Donkey Kong was the villain in his eponymous arcade game and was an occasional character in other 1980s and early 90s Nintendo titles, but DK was (mostly) supplanted in the role of Mario villain by King Koopa as the years rolled on. 

Then in 1994 the UK development studio Rare was contracted to make a Donkey Kong game for Nintendo, and that ended up being Donkey Kong Country for the SNES.  The story is probably more complicated than that, but I don't care to look it up, sorry. DKC and its two sequels (also on the SNES) were extremely fun and popular platformers.  The pre-rendered 3D graphics in a 2D plane gives the DKC trio a distinct look that was stunning to behold at the time.  Additionally, the platforming was solid, the variety of stages and environments were excellent, and the characters and setting were fun and unique, with the the jungles of Donkey Kong Island in particular becoming iconic in the Nintendo canon.  Canon?  Is that the best word for that?  Not sure.  Won't be checking a thesaurus either.

After three Donkey Kong Country games on the SNES, Rare made the spiritual successor Donkey Kong 64, a 3D platformer starring Donkey, Diddy, and three new Kongs.  DK64 was well-received, but it shared more in common with Rare's Banjo-Kazooie titles than the three DKCs.  The DKC trio were 2D linear platformers while DK64 was a nonlinear item-collect-a-thon.  Rare and Nintendo broke off their partnership/co-ownership after the N64 passed, leaving Nintendo without a developer for Donkey Kong.  After a few gimmicky DK games (i.e. King of Swing, Jungle Climber) and a continuation of the delightful Mario vs. Donkey Kong series on handhelds (DK '94 = one of the best Game Boy games), Nintendo went to another western developer: Retro Studios.

Retro is based in Austin, Texas and made a major splash in the early 2000s with Metroid Prime.  The 3D, atmospheric, first-person take on Metroid was a huge success and resulted in a trilogy of Metroid Prime titles on the GameCube and Wii, creating a throng of Retro fans in a short time indeed.  Then in 2009, in lieu of making a fourth Metroid Prime title (the DS game Metroid Prime: Hunters was made by a 3rd party), Retro Studios tried their hand at making a 2D side-scrolling Donkey Kong Country game.  That's Donkey Kong Country Returns. 

Look, I hold those first three Donkey Kong Country games in VERY high esteem (DKC 2 in particular); I have a weakness for 2D platformers, and I prefer DKC 1&2 to Super Mario World.  Blasphemy!  Whatever.  But holy shit Retro knocked this one out of the fucking park.  Donkey Kong Country Returns (henceforth called DKCR, pronounced "dicker") is fast, smooth, beautiful, and imaginative.  I want them to make more Donkey Kong, and lucky for me they are!  Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze comes out next year on the Wii U.

I played most of DKCR during evenings in August with my old friend Diane, who shares my enthusiasm for the Donkey Kong Country games, especially when it comes to mine cart stages.  I played most of the game, but handed off the controller to her for mine carting and a few other puzzle stages.  However, Diane was ill-suited to playing most of the rest of DKCR due to one unfortunate bit that I'll address now: the control scheme.  Changing the means to pick up items and the addition of a "pound" action is 100% great; using a wiimote shake to roll or pound is 100% lame.  There was no way to change the control scheme, and while I got used to it eventually Diane (who only owns a NES and handhelds and struggles with weird controls) had issues getting through early stages on foot.  So that's one negative.

DKCR is mostly 2D platforming, where you control Donkey Kong through a linear pathway running, rolling, jumping, climbing, pounding walls and floors, riding his rugged rhino buddy Rambi, and beating up enemies using various combinations of the preceding actions.  I mentioned mine carts, right?  Well, a few stages are predominantly mine cart rides, with DK speeding along in a cart dodging obstacles at great speed.  In addition there are rocket stages, with DK speeding along in a barrel controlled by tapping the A button.  Rocket stages take some getting used to, and I consider the last two or three rocket stages to be DKCR's most difficult challenges in the main game. 

The stages have tremendous variety and are gorgeous to behold.  Spanning eight zones (with boring names like "Jungle" and "Beach" and "Forest") with around seven or eight stages in each zone (with awesome rhyming or alliterative names like "Jungle Japes" and "Stormy Shore") plus a boss fight.  You control DK for the entire game (no alternative playable characters like Dixie), but grabbing a buddy barrel allows Diddy Kong to join, providing two extra hit points in additional to a hovering ability.  DK has two hearts on his own, with Diddy's bonus bringing it up to four.  Having Diddy can be key, as his barrel hover makes platforming a TON easier. 

Let's talk about the enemies.  Like in the original Donkey Kong Country, DK's key motivation is to recover his stash of lost bananas.  Unlike the original Donkey Kong Country, the Kremlings are no longer present.  Instead of King K. Rool and his mostly-reptilian army, DK is up against the forces of Tiki Tong, an army of tiki enemies resembling a combination of voodoo masks, pygmy art, and musical instruments. I'm sure that Nintendo owns the rights to the Kremlings even though Rare is gone; my guess is that Retro wanted to start fresh and distinguish DKCR from Rare's offerings.

In either case, the throng of enemies is impressive indeed, as the tikis are interesting and distinct and their ability to hypnotize the island's residents (other than the Kongs, who are either too smart or not enough) allows for a large number of animals to be present as additional enemies.  DKCR's boss battles are particularly interesting, ranging from pirate crabs to headbutting dinosaurs to chickens piloting giant robots.  It's pretty impressive.

So you have a bunch of stages with good variety and some interesting new enemies.  Going back to those stages - they have some really neat tricks to the platforming.  The pace of each stage varies wildly, with scrollers like mine carts and barrel rockets, movement into the background and foreground to change perspectives, sections of entirely vertical progress, and fun gimmicks like attacking giant squids, rising lava (classic!), dodging hazards in time to stage music (modern!), and running from a horde of ravenous spiders (oh shit oh shit oh shit).  The fact that new areas were fresh and impressive over 60+ stages is a rare feat.

Visually, DKCR is gorgeous and on par with the best-looking Wii titles (for me, this is Super Mario Galaxy 2).  Assets are cartoony, bold, and expressive while environments look great.  The soundtrack re-uses themes often, but has 70+ unique tracks with a combination of remixes from the first DKC game and some lively new music.  It's a really fun soundtrack.  Both the look and sound of DKCR invoke nostalgia and create a positive impression overall.

My biggest beef with DKCR?  Well, I have few beefs if any, but the game's pretty challenging.  I got stuck at stages multiple times, and refused to use the game's "Super Kong" feature that completes levels for you (..except once.).  This is tougher than a Mario game and on par with the other DKC series.  You can collect K-O-N-G letters and puzzle pieces in each stage, with the former unlocking new stages (for getting each letter in a zone), and the latter unlocking gallery items.  I didn't unlock any of the KONG stages, because FUCK replaying that tough stuff for completion's sake.  I beat the last boss and every regular stage (except one) without exploits and I'm done for now.  If I replay this (and there is a chance I do) it'll be when my backlog is a little smaller.

So there.  DKCR is probably my second-favorite Donkey Kong game, just behind DKC2 but ahead of DK '94 for the Game Boy.  It's a stellar platformer and a near must-buy for Wii owners who enjoy robust, challenging game experiences consisting mostly of running and jumping.  Is that a good sell? 

Games Beaten: 2013 Edition
1. Persona 4
2. Pokemon White Version 2
3. 10,000,000
4. Persona 4 Arena
5. Persona 3 FES: The Journey (NG+)
6. Hexyz Force
7. Persona 4 (NG+)
8. Psychonauts
9. Tales of Vesperia
10. Guacamelee!
11. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
12. Final Fantasy VI Advance
13. Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 4
14. inFamous 2 Evil Finish
15. Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis
16. Torchlight II (Classist)
17. Donkey Kong Country Returns
18. DuckTales Remastered

Targets: 6/13


I'm not writing another Torchlight II review.  That game is awesome, but it's been awhile since I've binged on it and I don't need to revisit it in the blog.  Still behind on reviews though, so one of those is next.  Currently still playing Metroid Prime (more Retro!), Disgaea D2, and a few ill-advised replays. 

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