I consider Donkey Kong one of those special, treasured Nintendo franchises that's impossible for me to hate. I mean, I like Mario games, but I tend to get sick of them when Nintendo shamelessly turns out entry after entry. Zelda's great, too, but Skyward Sword was a massive disappointment. That's never been the case with Donkey Kong games, and every time a new installment is introduced, I receive it with the utmost excitement. Such was the case with 2010's Donkey Kong Country Returns.
Developed by Retro Studios, Returns is an absolute blast to play. Depending on whether you're playing it on the Wii or 3DS, there are different things to love and dislike about it. Whichever version you stick with, however, the game is a quality platformer that deserves to be played by any fan of the genre.
Up Up: Fun, difficult platforming
True to its SNES roots, this is a highly challenging game that isn't afraid to throw deathtraps and enemies at you en masse. While Returns isn't exactly Super Meat Boy levels of tough, it's quite unforgiving in its own right, and it's not uncommon to come across the Game Over screen at least a couple of times throughout your playthrough. Adding to the challenge (and longevity) of the game is an unlockable Mirror Mode that reverses all of the levels and gives you a notably different and substantially tougher experience — damn those one hit kills!
Down Down: Wii version's motion controls can be a nuisance
I prefer the Wii version of Returns over the 3DS remake (ported by Monster Games) despite the latter's stereoscopic visuals and bonus world due to the fact that I can play it on a much bigger screen. Unfortunately, the Wii original suffers from finicky motion controls. In order to blow on flowers, perform roll attacks, or pound the ground, you need to shake the Wii Remote and Nunchuk. There's no other control option, so you're stuck with the tacked-on setup. I can't count the number of times I accidentally sent DK rolling into a pitfall after slightly moving my hand while making him run.
Up Up: A nostalgic throwback to the SNES Donkey Kong games
True to its name, this is a return to form for Nintendo's resident tie-sporting ape dude. Anyone who's ever played the old Country games will instantly recall fond memories across tropical islands, dark caves, and old ruins. While certain things have received a modern touch (jumping after a rolling attack no longer halts your momentum), the retro foundation is still there, blurring the line between old and new ever so expertly. In addition, the remixed soundtrack harkens back to the older games and bleeds pure, unbridled nostalgia.
Down Down: No King K. Rool
King K. Rool is just as much an integral part of the Donkey Kong series as DK himself. That's why it's kind of a bummer that he's not even mentioned in this game. The rotund crocodile king's absence isn't a deal-breaker, nor does it have a direct negative impact on the actual quality of Returns. But even then, considering how deeply rooted in nostalgia this game is, the fact that K. Rool isn't the main antagonist is a tad disappointing.
Up Up: Mine carts!
I think we can all get past the “no K. Rool” thing. If mine carts were missing from Returns, though, we'd have a real problem on our hands. Thankfully, that's not the case, and there are a handful of devilishly difficult mine cart stages to play through. The platforming may take center stage here, but even then, these on-rails levels are among the best in the game, and each one of them truly shines.
Down Down: No swimming stages
Usually, swimming stages in video games are sources of much frustration. In the old school Donkey Kong games, however, they were actually fun. Well, maybe they were a little annoying in Donkey Kong 64, but that's beside the point. In any case, just like K. Rool, swimming is missing entirely in Returns. You can't dive underwater, and if you so much as fall into the sea, you'll lose a life. It's kind of weird that DK can't even swim above the surface, but on the plus side, that's just another devious obstacle to avoid, which makes the game even harder and more rewarding.
Up Up: Co-op is rad (and is mercifully restricted to two players)
Platformers can be a positive co-op experience as long as you don't have more than two people playing at once. When three or four players are involved, things get ugly fast, with players sabotaging one another either purposely or taking each other out accidentally. In Returns, you've got DK and Diddy Kong, which locks co-op at two players and makes for a pleasant platforming outing. That's most definitely a good thing, because the game is already difficult enough, so it doesn't need the absurdity of four players foolishly tripping over each other as they try to collect puzzle pieces, K-O-N-G letters, and health.
Down Down: Rad as it may be, co-op makes you play a very specific way
After playing through Returns in its entirety by my sad, lonely self, I went back and played a large chunk with a buddy. Co-op is a nice throwback to games like Double Dragon and Battletoads, but it also has a direct impact on the flow of the game. Maybe you want to collect everything but your partner doesn't. Perhaps you have no interest in snagging all of the bananas in a level but player two decides to slow the pace down and get every last one of those delicious yellow treasures. Co-op may be fun, but it changes the way you would normally play.
Left Right Left Right: The life and times of Donkey Kong
Even after playing it once again four years after its Wii launch, I was still completely enthralled by the sheer joy that Returns exudes. Sure, the Wii version has slightly annoying motion controls, but at least you can enjoy it on a big screen. Of course, if 3D effects and extra levels are more of a selling point for you, the 3DS version wins out. Either way, this is still one of the finest platformers put out by Nintendo, and a must for Wii or 3DS owners. Also, K. Rool, you are sorely missed, big guy!
Join us for Up Up Down Down next time here on GameZone when we take a look at Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze.
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