Donkey Kong Country Returns
If I were Donkey Kong, I'd be proper miffed off by now. He invites Mario to play a small support role in his first ever action game, only for that conniving plumber to hog the limelight and run off with all the fame and glory, leaving Donkey to look after his idiot sidekick and a bumbling, senile old ape who'll take any opportunity to talk his ear off. Sure, he's had a number of hits over the years, and everybody knows his name, but compared to Mr. Dungarees, he definitely drew the short straw.
Perhaps, then, Donkey Kong Country Returns is DK's way back in - and for the first couple of hours, it will definitely feel that this is the case. Gameplay harks back to the 1994 classic, with numerous new ideas thrown in to update the old formula. Levels are full of charm and polish, while level design is solid and enjoyable. Unfortunately, as the game progresses, it begins to rely too heavily on memory games, adding frustration rather than difficulty. The co-op multiplayer is also horribly flawed, with plenty of reasons why you won't make it to the end of the game with a friend.
Donkey and Diddy are chilling in their desert island abode when a gang of mysterious Tiki Tak appear, hypnotizing the animals on the island and forcing them to steal Donkey's bananas. "Not the bananas, anything but those!" we hear you cry, but it's true - DK is once again on a mission to get his bananas back, and who cares if innocent, hypnotized bystanders bite the dust in the process.
The game controls in a very similar fashion to the original Donkey Kong Country, via the Wii Remote turned on its side, SNES-style. Donkey runs along jumping and slamming enemies, leaping across gaps and smashing scenery. If you can release Diddy from a DK barrel, he'll ride along on Donkey's back, providing extra health and a stronger jump. Along the way there are bananas scattered about, and if you can collect 100 of them, you'll earn an extra balloon aka life.
For the first two hours of play, we were convinced that this was going to be one of the best Retro Studios games we'd ever played. Levels are full of clever design choices, with plenty of variation, secrets to find and oodles of charm. While Returns is very much like the Countrys of old, the levels are far more clever in their direction, with new ideas being thrown at you constantly. It's fair to say we had smiles on our faces for a good 120 minutes tops.
That's not to say that every new element works. Annoyingly, once again we have to put up with silly shake controls because if a game doesn't use the motion control in some form, then why bother developing for the Wii, right? Shaking will make Donkey slam the ground with his palms, roll forwards and even blow on flowers. It's quite a nuisance, and an option to turn it all off and provide an alternate form of control would have been very welcome indeed.
Other than this, however, it's all gravy. Levels are gorgeously detailed, with rolling winds brushing past the trees and plants, and plenty of opportunities to blast from a barrel into the background and roam around on another plane. Donkey needs to collect the letters of KONG on each level, along with a number of jigsaw pieces, and some of these are incredibly difficult to find. Only the most hardcore of players will 100% this game, and it will take them many dozens of hours to do so.
Then... disaster, as a perfectly lovely game turns sour. There's are numerous methods for ramping up the difficulty in games, all of which have been explored over the last few decades. Donkey Kong Country Returns provides its curve via a series of sigh-inducing memory games. Rather than base your progression on skill alone, the game wants you to run forward, die somewhere because you didn't know something was coming, remember where it was, get past it this time, die in a new place because, yet again, you didn't know something was coming, remember that one too, repeat...
The minecart sections sum it up perfectly, asking of you precision-perfect jumps that will have you shouting 'Oh come on!' multiple times. The boss battles in particular are atrocious - world two sees us up against three crabs who walk left and right, and we need to jump on their heads, then roll into them. Nail each crab, and they turn into a tower. Destroy the tower, and then you have to do the whole thing two more times. Just to spice it up, they'll randomly throw their claws into the air, so occasionally you'll lose health and it won't be your fault.
Just to make matters worse, when Donkey gets hit, he'll flash to display his invincibility for a few seconds - a regular feature in Nintendo platforms. Yet, if we then try to jump on one of the crabs, he will go straight through them. Yes, when Donkey Kong has been hit and turns invincible, he can't hurt enemies either! Hence we try to kill a crab, move into it, and then as the invincibility runs out, we get hurt again as we're now touching the enemy again! It's utterly ludicrous game design in motion.
The two player co-op suffers from the opposite issues that New Super Mario Bros Wii did. Whereas in NSMBW the characters would bounce all over each other, causing plenty of irritating moments, Donkey and Diddy will move straight through each other. This means that at certain points, for example when you jump into a minecart or a barrel, it's difficult to see who has jumped forward or progressed further and who is still behind, leading to some extremely confused sections.
The dealing out of balloons is also awful. If one player dies, a balloon is removed, but the balloons are shared between the single player and multiplayer games. Therefore, in multiplayer, you're losing them at double the rate, yet you have no real advantage over the single player game - in fact, if anything, you have many disadvantages, as it's far tougher to play through this game with a friend than on your own. Even if a player chooses to not respawn and stay in the barrel at the top of the screen, when the other player dies, the game will remove two lives from the counter! Again, awful design that makes no sense whatsoever.
Donkey Kong Country Returns definitely has its faults, and we'd wager that the majority of players will never see it all the way through to the end. Yet while the difficulty curve is ridiculous and the multiplayer is quite broken, the game's charm and mystery prevails, giving us some of the same feelings that the original releases did. If you're looking for a serious challenge and don't get frustrated too easily, Donkey Kong Country Returns is worth a look.