I’ll start off by saying that I love the Donkey Kong Country series. Growing up, the only console I had for many years was an NES and the only time I got to play an SNES was when we occasionally rented one from Blockbuster. This was how I was exposed to the series; it was a blast, an experience heightened by its relative rarity. Eventually, I played through DKC2 and DKC3 via emulators. (This having been years later when SNES games were no longer sold and the Virtual Console was unheard off) These games remain some of my favourites of all time, DKC3 still in my top 10 as of today. So with such a pedigree and in the hands of such a capable studio, how does Donkey Kong Country Returns compare?
It compares like crap, for reasons I will explain shortly.
From a technical standpoint, the game is amazing. Visuals are crisp and clean, carrying on the tradition that a Donkey Kong Country game should be stunning. The many additions that were made (silhouetting against a sunset or in fog, for example) add another element of depth to already gorgeous visuals. The music is excellently done, especially that they are remixed versions of the originals.
Now if I could enjoy the music and background that would be another story, because herein lie all the root problems of this game: the difficulty.
Contrary to popular belief, I can play games well. I just play a little more carelessly when people are watching so they are entertained. If I’m playing Twilight Princess in a serious manner, I wouldn’t wantonly jump off cliffs just to see if invisible walls exist. Sadly most people do not understand this element of streaming, and assume I am just a poor player over all. That is not the case. When I want things done properly, I play it properly.
In the case of DKCR, I played haphazardly for maybe the Jungle level, before I was forced to hunker down and take the game seriously. Why? The game decided to ramp up the difficulty, exponentially. When this occurred, I found I was no longer playing a game, I was memorizing a sequence. Memorizing how DK needs to: slip though the reload gaps of a cannonball barrage, jump towards a platform right before it appears, avoid an enemy then jump on him then land in the correct spot that doesn’t turn you into a brown paste. My freewill is taken away. The only way I can complete this game, is if I play it the way they programmed for success.
Super Guide is clear evidence of this. If you can press a button that turns on a shadow DK to show you how to time your jumps and beat the game, there’s a serious problem. I didn’t use the Super Guide once, I am proud to say; partially out of pride, and partially because I wanted to wipe the smug smile off the face of that stupid pig. “Oh you seem to be having difficulty? Let me show you how it’s done. It’s ok, not everyone gets it the first 40 times.” Ha ha ha. Shut up pig.
However, not using the Super Guide means I am only left with trial and error, and believe me, you will go through a lot of trial and error to finish these levels. The game is constantly filled with “gotcha” moments: moments when your perception of what is a safe course of action based on the visual information in front of you is deliberately destroyed by the developers throwing in a curveball. I’m talking fireballs suddenly changing direction; platforms suddenly collapsing, rocks falling from the ceiling and a lava flow suddenly increasing speed drastically. Why the does the game need to trick you? The levels are challenging enough without throwing in something that the gamer CANNOT ANTICIPATE until they have died from it. This leads back to the memorizing a sequence aspect I was talking about earlier.
The game is just riddled with decisions that you know the developers intentionally made, solely, to add additional layers of difficult icing on a difficult cake. Having to hold B constantly to grip onto something is one such example. Why couldn’t gripping have been a passive action, as with its predecessors? Jump onto a vine; you will hold onto the vine until you jump off. No, we are forced to hold onto the awkwardly positioned B button the entire time we have a climbing sequence, making it unnecessarily more difficult to perform other actions in the process.
My other major point of contention is that the B button could have been freed up for Donkey Kong’s other attack: the roll. Instead, the B button is used for unnecessary vine/grass holding and the roll is relegated to waggling the wiimote. Let me tell you something about platforming. If you want to have precise platforming in a game that is murderously difficult, you need to make it easy to input those controls in a precise way. DK’s roll move in the original series was used to attack enemies quickly, but also to double jump, allowing him to span gaps easily. In DKCR, having to waggle the wiimote is not only annoying and cumbersome, but it lacks the precision needed to make those jumps, especially when the difference between life and death is a half a second. As a consequence of this, what happens is that you don’t bother with the roll most of the time, essentially removing half of the primary gameplay. This is a game that would be played better without motion controls, a fact I’ve found rings true with a majority of Wii games.
The sad thing is all of these issues could have been resolved, had they decided not to make the game so rutting hard. If the game didn’t require you to memorize sequences, make split second choices, removed “gotcha moments” and didn’t employ so many instant kill scenarios, the control issues wouldn’t matter as much. I could sit back and enjoy the experience, which is the point of a Donkey Kong Country game. DKC was never about difficulty, it was a technical marvel on the SNES that was meant to be enjoyed and taken in while you played. DKCR has some of the best graphics and art design I’ve seen on the Wii in a long time and I couldn’t enjoy that, because the game forced me to focus on NOT DYING. I used over 250 balloons in the course of playing this game and I wish I were exaggerating about that.
Retro Studios made a great game on a technical standpoint, but in the process, missed the point of what made Donkey Kong Country what it was. Almost all the animal friends are removed from the game, Diddy is only there as a token second jump and Cranky is an afterthought, crammed away in his house selling balloons. With no secondary characters and an antagonist that has no personality (especially compared to kremlings) you have a world devoid of nothing except Donkey Kong, struggling to get back his stupid pile of bananas. A pile, I might add, has dwindled down to nothing by the end, and is much less than the thousands I collected just getting to that point.
I wanted to like this game. I really did. There are many more complaints I could make, but at it’s core, Donkey Kong Country Returns does not feel like a Donkey Kong Country game and it’s difficulty makes it that I never want to play it again.
For those of you who listen to the podcast, you’ll know my rating system is based on chocolate bars. With that in mind, my rating for Donkey Kong Country Returns is a bar of caramilk that I really looked forward to enjoying, but ended up becoming a melted and sticky mess.