Other reviews by AniHawk:
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
Super Meat Boy
Kirby's Epic Yarn
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D
Donkey Kong Country Returns
The first time I ever played a Donkey Kong Country game, I think I was 9 years old, and it was at a kiosk at Best Buy. The graphics blew my mind, especially since my home console at the time was an Atari 7800 and the Donkey Kong I was most familiar with was the 1981 original. I first bought and played through Donkey Kong Country and Donkey Kong Country 2 only a couple of years ago on the Virtual Console, so there isn't a whole lot of nostalgia attached. For the most part, I found the first game lacking in the design department (levels were left to right with no up-or-down variation), while the second game was a tremendous improvement overall.
So I guess I shouldn't have been surprised with Retro Studio's Donkey Kong Country Returns. It wasn't called Donkey Kong Country 2 Returns, and like NEW Super Mario Bros. on the DS, it meant some of the improvements to the gameplay and level design would be lost with referring to the original and simplest game.
And man, I wish this was the same quality as NEW Super Mario Bros. on the DS. At least that game was across-the-board above-average. DKCR is wildly inconsistent. The first three worlds of the game are pretty bland. Levels are simple to get through, and it's standard platforming fare. Occasionally mine cart levels and rocket levels are thrown into the mix. They aren't fun, but they switch the gameplay up a little. And though levels were occasionally difficult, Retro provided some leniency. In the SNES games, getting hit by an enemy once meant getting killed. In this game, Donkey Kong has two hearts, and there are extra hearts that restore health scattered throughout the levels. Diddy Kong also returns, with two hearts of his own and a jetpack that can temporarily hover Donkey and Diddy over gaps or help make a perfect landing on a small platform. So while there's difficulty in the first three worlds, chances are there's not a challenge too great to overcome.
Then you hit World 4 and the game goes from the slightly mundane to the unnecessarily frustrating. World 4 is filled with mine cart levels and rocket levels. The entire world feels like a dump of ideas that screwed up the pacing elsewhere in the game, so Retro decided it was better to place them all in one spot. The mine cart levels aren't too bad, and they were introduced earlier, but the main problem with both mine cart and rocket is that it's a one-hit KO any time you're in either one of them. There's no precedent for this anywhere else in the game, and it's annoying every time it happens.
The rocket levels in particular are a pain in the ass. There are only about 4-5 of them out of the game's 70ish levels, but the controls suck. The first time you start riding a rocket, you're prompted to keep pressing A to start the rocket up. Then you have to keep pressing A to make the rocket go up, rapidly tap A to keep it level, or let go to let the rocket sink toward the ground. This is all instead of using pointer controls or the option players would be most familiar with: the analog stick (or d-pad if playing the game sideways). The fact that there's no way to properly react and control the rocket to make it go down makes these levels an exercise in frustration. For me, these were the levels that took the majority of the lives I had saved up. I probably died no less than 200 times across all forms of the rocket levels.
Fortunately, the level design improves greatly after World 4, with some good horizontal-only platforming levels. Even one of the later mine cart levels is a lot of fun, with a finale that Rare could not even dream of, one that's unmatched in any other mine cart level in the series. For the most part, the trial-and-error style of level design disappears, until the final world when it reappears in spades. Stuff like platforms that you wouldn't expect to fall, fall; things that one-hit kill you (which only happens in a single standard platforming level and nowhere else), and new obstacles that are hard to gauge when they're safe to land on make the final world a mixed bag. It's unfortunate after a somewhat steady uptick from the middle of the game.
So there you go: another Retro game with pacing issues. Honestly, if those were the only problems, I probably wouldn't mind so much. But there's more.
Most importantly, the controls are bad. Probably the most widely disliked are the shake controls. Unlike NSMBW where a shake in midair would be a saving grace (sort of a callback from the days when people would jerk their controller to the right as a reflex to make Mario jump further), shaking in Donkey Kong Country Returns while stationary makes Donkey Kong slap the ground with his hands, and pressing down and shaking makes Donkey Kong blow air. Ignoring the fact that you're effectively doing two moves that result in the same actions (interacting with the environment to reveal coins and bananas), blowing air never does anything interesting in the game. It seems like it was added at the last minute, and no one cared to make a level or some obstacles out of it. So it's just this undeveloped idea that's in the game for no reason. Probably most problematic is shaking the controller while moving to roll. In previous games, this move was a button, and rolling was used to help gain moment after hitting enemies, or used to get hard-to-reach KONG letters and other collectibles (such as the game's currency that is used to buy lives and health boosts from Cranky Kong). That same button was also used to grab barrels. In DKCR, grab is its own button, and that's all it does: grab things. Barrels, grassy ceilings and walls, and vines. Yes, vines require you to push a button after you've jumped to grab onto them. I'm not sure why that is, and I can't think of another platformer where jumping from vine to vine or rope to rope was anything but automatic. It leads to some cheap deaths that are not the player's fault, but the designers'. Not only that, but the player is never prompted to go ahead and actually press the grab button to grab the rope or vine, leading to some a learning process that shouldn't need to take place.
But by far the biggest issue for me was the super jump. Yeah, I had problems with shaking the controller for just about anything (it was somewhat unresponsive), but this was where a majority of my deaths came from. Whenever you jump on an enemy, Donkey Kong bounces a little from the jump. But, if you press A after having already jumped, but before having jumped on an enemy, Donkey Kong will bounce much higher. It's useful in accessing ledges or KONG letters that seem out of reach. The problem is, if you have Diddy Kong, the duo will simply start hovering when you press A after you've already jumped, and there's too little reaction time to try a high jump if you're already hovering above the enemy. It very often leads to a cheap death. It seems the obvious solution would have been to simply do a high jump as long as you have the jump button pressed down, leaving the hover button to be its own thing but Retro decided on this for some reason instead. To be fair, this doesn't happen 100% of the time: there's actually a very small window to do a high jump with
Diddy, but after learning how to do it with Donkey Kong only (where you're given a much longer space to press the button again), it's a pain in the ass.
With the control issues and the excessive trial-and-error gameplay, I would be ready to call the end result... average. But there's more. I won't pretend that the first Donkey Kong Country had fantastic, well-designed characters, but at least its sequel had a running theme. It's something that drove the level design and gave it personality. Donkey Kong Country Returns has gorgeous levels, with awesome, hand-painted backgrounds and smooth, beautiful animation, but everything else seems tacked on. The game's main enemies are drums and random animals (usually different types of birds). And while some character designs are actually kinda cool, the overall package feels forced and saccharine. Boss fights in particular seemed to be kinda thrown in there, and aren't very interesting or fun to fight . The game really doesn't have an identity of its own, instead calling back to previous games (even the level select map looks like it was lifted from NEW Super Mario Bros. Wii). The soundtrack in particular is hit and miss. Very rarely is a remix that surpasses David Wise's own from 16 years ago, and while it's across-the-board easy to listen to, a lot is obviously from an older video game.
Donkey Kong Country Returns always seemed like it was on the verge of something great. There are some fantastic ideas introduced, but never fully fleshed out. There are some levels where only the silhouette of Donkey Kong and flat colors are visible, but it's just for looks, and nothing interesting comes out of them. The same can be said for an often used idea with interaction with the background, where a barrel shoots Donkey Kong into the background, forcing the player to shift their focus. It's neat the first time, but it becomes apparent that the player is really just going left-to-right like they were before. There's no surprise or challenge that comes from it. It just looks cool. And that's a problem because there's very little variation in the "head to the right" level design. It would have been great to have a lot more going vertical to help mix things up. One of my favorite levels is just that: a level where traveling up is the gimmick (and how you do it is very different from traveling horizontally). Unfortunately, it's one of the only ones of its kind.
While I beat the game with 101%, there's still more to go back and do, if I ever felt like it. It took me 16 hours to beat every level, collecting every KONG letter (if you collect all in a world, it unlocks a secret, very difficult level in that world, and beating all the secret levels unlocks another secret... which in turn unlocks something else). You can also try speed runs of every level, collect puzzle pieces (which unlock artwork), and a mirror mode, which is a slightly more difficult version of the game that is the same game presented right to left.
So the content is there. It's not a short game, but it is a frustrating one, and it didn't have to be. It's not always bad, and most of the end of the game was good enough that I would forget how much I disliked the early half of the game. However, I'd eventually try to high jump with Diddy+Donkey Kong and it would all come flooding back. It's a game where the bad outweighs the good. It felt more like Retro was making a game to please Nintendo higher-ups versus making something everyone truly wanted to work on or understood how to make. However, if history behind Retro's games or Donkey Kong Country repeats itself, a sequel should be much, much better.