I received Donkey Kong Country Returns last year as a Christmas gift. It’s a game I wanted, and would have bought for myself, but there were two things preventing me from devouring the game immediately:
I figured the Kongs had been languishing on my shelf just about long enough, so I plugged the Wii back into my game room where it belongs and spent a few days burning through this game. Of course the game’s a year old now, so all the discussions about it have gone cold. That means my blog is the only place where my opinions on the matter will be tolerated. It’s probably okay that this post is full year coming out, because it’s so long it might actually take you all year to read.
Whether DKCR is a good game or not is really two separate questions: first, is it a good game in its own right? And second, is it a good game when stacked alongside the original Donkey Kong Country games on the SNES? The answer to the first is “Yes, absolutely!” The answer to the second is “Yes, but…”, and therein lies the meat of the post.
I was sold on DKCR after watching the gameplay footage last year. Actually, that’s not true; I was sold on it about 75% of the way through the title. Donkey Kong Country? I’m there, bro. Seriously, the DKC games are among my very favorites on the SNES, and more DKC is always welcome in my house. I know the series has its detractors, that the games are supposedly “overhyped” or whatever, but nobody’s ever been able to convince me that the core gameplay elements (tag-team buddy system, gimmick-based levels, treasure hunting, cornball sense of humor, etc.) were unsound. Of course it takes more than a solid core to make a good game — I’m certainly not going to make excuses for Donkey Kong 64 — but my feeling was that if DKCR had the same design sense behind it that the original three games did, I would enjoy it a great deal, and for the same reasons. Broadly speaking, it does, and I did.
The buddy system was always the real heart of the DKC games. You controlled one Kong, and the other trailed along behind you. Each Kong had slightly different abilities and attributes which you’d use to complete levels or seek out hidden goodies. One button switched your active Kong, and another put him on your shoulder so you could throw him at faraway stage elements. This was a cool feature, and led to some interesting stage design, but after three games it did get a bit stale. DKCR keeps the buddy system in tact but puts a spin on the tag-team element of it. You can no longer switch between Kongs; you always play as Donkey. Instead of switching to Diddy (or picking him up and throwing him), you just carry him around on your back at all times. The benefits of having him are his now-trademark jetpack (which slightly increases the range of your jumps, but not the height) and the two extra hitpoints he comes with.
The downplayed tag-team elements sort of didn’t work for me, but then, they didn’t work for me in the original game either. This always seemed like something that looked great in the DKC design doc, but which they couldn’t ever get right in practice. By which I mean, yes, you play two Kongs in each DKC game, but one is always much better than the other. In DKC2, for example, you would be mad to not simply play as Dixie Kong all the time. She can fly, you see, and it turns out that’s a pretty indispensible move in a game with such a strong emphasis on precision platforming. So you play Dixie as often as you can, only switching to Diddy when you’re barrel-testing walls for bonus stages.
So when DKCR hot-glued Diddy to Donkey’s back, I guess they were really just making a concession to how everyone already played the game anyway. Diddy has a jetpack, people! Instead of just playing Diddy Kong all the time, you get to play a kind of a mutant agglomeration of both Kongs’ best moves. As Donkey + Diddy you can jetpack and roll, and you can do so without any of the tedious Kong-switching from the originals. Get hit and lose Diddy, though, and you lose access to those abilities, just like before.
That just leaves the problem of barrel-testing; in the original games, Kongs who held barrels out in front of them had an advantage over Kongs who held them over their heads, in that they could walk up to a wall and test it for secret rooms without having to throw the barrel. If there was a room there the barrel would break in their hands; if not, you could carry it somewhere else. Being unable to play Diddy directly was initially some cause for concern, because without his barrel-testing ability I figured I’d spend a lot of time in “try wall, kill self, reload, try next wall, kill self…” mode looking for secrets. Happily, DKCR fixes this problem by sidestepping it completely — this type of hidden room is less prominent than in the original games, and the ones that do exist tend to be marked with huge painted-on targets. That’s a nice, friendly solution to a problem I bet most players never would have noticed.
But ah, there is one huge issue with the revamped buddy system: hitpoints. In the old games each Kong had one HP. If your active Kong got hit, or you threw your unactive Kong into a hole or at a bad guy, he grunted and ran offscreen. You then had to play without him until you came across a DK barrel. In DKCR each Kong has two HPs, giving you a total of four — but only if you have Diddy. Kongs can replenish their HPs with hearts, but if you take two hits and lose Diddy you can only get him back by finding and breaking a DK barrel. And this would be just fine, except DK barrels are too rare. There really needs to be one at the beginning of every level, and right next to every checkpoint — and there’s not. The advantages to having both Kongs are huge; platforming sections are easier, because you have better air control. Monsters are easier to kill, because you can roll infinitely instead of just for a short distance. Boss fights are easier because you can take four hits instead of two. And yet, inexplicably, DK barrels are absent right in places where you’d figure a player would need them most! The game continuously denies these advantages to a player who is having trouble completing whatever level he’s stuck in. The most egregious example has got to be the last boss, which (like all DKC bosses) requires lots of dodging and well-timed hits. Not only is there no DK barrel here, but the boss is situated right after a somewhat difficult vehicle section full of one hit kills. If you lose to the boss your options are (1) retry without Diddy, or (2) go to another level, get Diddy back, and replay the whole vehicle section.
That was stupid and it made me frown a lot at a game that was designed specifically to make me smile. There is no place for this kind of fake difficulty in modern gaming.
The other half of the traditional DKC gameplay is its focus on gimmicky levels. Virtually every single stage in the original series had some signature twist to it, often taking the shape of level elements that showed up only once in the entire game. The upside to this style of platformer (which includes such illustrious company as Super Mario Galaxy) is that each new level has something unique to offer the player; it’s not just a steady ladder of “this one’s a little harder than the last one”. Rare’s ability to create innovative levels has always been one of their signatures, but I will say without reservation that Retro was able to blast this one out of the park. Not only did they stuff lots of really cool level ideas into this game, but they were able to make lots of the same kinds of ideas Rare would have made. This did a lot to really sell the “DKC-ness” of the title to me, a sensation that is often lost when a series switches developers.
The gimmicky levels have a subtle downside, though: no single gimmick gets enough play to become really developed in its own right. If you really enjoy a gimmick from one world, chances are you’d enjoy it again in another world (perhaps in a more difficult setting), but the game often denies you that. An example from DKCR is the stormy level in World 2, where waves are constantly forming up in the background and crashing into the foreground. The gimmick here is that you have to time your movements so you’re hiding in front of background elements, or else the water sweeps you away. (The secondary gimmick here is that the water also sweeps pickups away, so you have to be clever and quick if you want to snap up those bananas and coins.) The problem is the level can’t be made too tricky, because it’s in World 2. Lots of cool stuff that can be done with the wave gimmick just isn’t explored.
There were quite a lot of “everything is falling apart!” levels, come to think of it. They weren’t all the same, mind you. There are lots of interesting ways to make a level fall apart, certainly a lot more on modern hardware than what the SNES was capable of doing with pre-rendered elements back in the day. Even in the less urgent stages, though, most everything in a typical DKCR stage is in constant motion: swaying platforms, bobbing water, swinging vines, footholds that respond to your Kong’s weight and motion, and of course the ever-present cannon barrels. This leads to some problems when it comes to noting where you can safely stand and where you can’t, and lots of situations where you have to die on one platform so you can learn how to jump to the next one. This didn’t take any getting used to; DKC has always been about trial-and-error gameplay. It did get frustrating in places, particularly when the checkpoints were in short supply, but a platformer without some frustration is like a burger without cheese. You can make them that way, but what’s the damn point?
Trial-and-error gameplay does have its drawbacks, and those drawbacks were in full evidence in the oldschool DKC games. The levels were laid out in a daisy chain, so if you got stuck on one you had no choice but to bang your head against it until you finally won. Traveling between worlds and saving your game were both facilitated by visiting special levels on the world map, which didn’t open up until you’d completed enough of the world. This led to some really frustrating scenarios where you could not save your game whenever you wanted. At worst, the level you got stuck on would come before the save point opened up, so a game over meant you had to replay the entire world up to that point. Remind me, who was the villain here? King K. Rool or Candy Kong?
DKCR makes so much headway in this department that the problem is completely gone. First and foremost, the game saves automatically after every level. It’s impossible to lose more than half-a-stage worth of progress at any time. Second, you no longer have to complete every stage. Each world has a giant key for sale which opens up an alternate path, letting you skip a few troublesome levels completely. That same shop also sells a wealth of goodies to help the player out, including batches of extra lives and potions which grant ten HPs. So there are fewer situations where you have to bang your head, and there are tools available to soften the actual head-banging considerably.
Best of all, though, is the new Super Kong option. If you die enough on a level, you’re given the option to let a computer-controlled Super Kong beat the level for you. I never took the game up on this offer, but it’s the single best game design innovation I think I’ve seen in recent years. Letting any player of any skill level take a gimme if they aren’t having fun is an objective good and I can’t figure out why nobody but Nintendo is doing it.
I want to emphasize this: DKCR is not any easier than the old games. It is at least just as difficult, by which I mean it is often fiendishly so. It’s just that now the player has a lot of tools available to set his own level of challenge, whether we’re talking a beginner who has trouble jumping from platform to platform, or an old hat who simply isn’t stubborn enough anymore to sink an hour into the same rising lava level he’s seen a thousand times. Every single-player game in the universe should have this feature. I am deathly serious about this.
The real challenge of DKC games isn’t physically surviving the levels anyway; it’s hunting down all the bits and doodads strewn throughout the stages and getting Cranky Kong to admit that maybe, just maybe you’re not completely hopeless after all. The treasure hunting aspect of DKCR is just as good as the old games. Stuff is hidden in all the same kinds of places, bonus rooms are still structured as mini-games, and you will still notice secrets just as it becomes impossible to get them, thereby cursing yourself and then jumping into the nearest pit so you can try again. High marks all around.
Most stages have three goals to achieve: find all the puzzle pieces, find the K-O-N-G letters, and get a gold medal in the time trial. The puzzle pieces favor exploration; you have to search high and low for them, and when you clear a level any that you’ve collected stay found. (And yes, there is an item available in the shop that helps uncover them.) The K-O-N-G letters favor technical ability; they are never hidden, but they require tricky jumps or prior knowledge to obtain. (You have to know what jumps to take, but also what jumps to not take, if that makes sense.) What’s more, letters vanish after you leave a level; if you want credit, you have to get all four on a single play.
So one type of pickup tests your treasure hunting abilities, and the other tests your mastery of the game. A diligent player can, with a leg-up from the shop now and then, develop his DKCR skills and get that satisfying full-clear, right? Wrong. Because there are still time trials to contend with, and time trials suck. They suck hard. When you replay a completed stage, you’re given the option to play it as a race. Complete the level fast enough, and you get a gold medal. But man, the times you have to beat for those gold medals are brutal. Like, unreasonably so, in my opinion. You have to play perfectly; one single mistake, and it’s back to the start with you. DKC is just not structured around this kind of breakneck gameplay, and I think including it as a player challenge was a mistake. The canonical DKC experience is playing for a while, then beating the last boss, then playing a little while more, than seeing that gilded 102% and knowing you were done. DKCR doesn’t have that.
DKC is all about very… hmm… how should I put this? Deliberate, I think is a good word. Deliberate gameplay. Levels often aren’t fluid, cohesive affairs like they are in MariO or Mega Man; rather, each stage is a series of individual challenges, often increasingly-tricky applications of the stage gimmick. To facilitate this, DKC games feature virtually no randomness whatsoever. Learn the level well enough and you could literally play it blindfolded. (In fact, DKCR is the first game in the series which randomizes its boss patterns!) so completing a level is less about reflexes and more about stopping, observing, and making a decision. The decisions are always the same; make enough right ones in a row, and you win. Yay!
As a result, though, the levels simply are not built for speed. Rare is the level where you aren’t waiting for a platform to move into place, or for a barrel to rotate, or for two vines to close in on each other. Eking out those extra tenths of a second isn’t a function of maintaining your momentum; DK is not Sonic the Hedgehog. Rather, it’s about identifying the exact moment when it’s safe to make a jump, then making it. And doing that a dozen times in a row to complete the level. And doing it exactly the same way every single time, or trying again from the beginning. The extreme examples would be minecart or rocket barrel stages, which cannot be sped up in any way. The time trials on these levels are literally just testing your ability to clear the first screen as fast as possible, and roll the moment your minecart or rocket barrel stops moving. Dumb!
There’s a more fundamental reason I think this was a bad decision, though: the kinds of players who enjoy gunning for speed don’t need the gold medal incentive. Speedrunners already exist for pretty much every game imaginable. That takes a special kind of player, though, and all the gold medals do is make mere mortals like myself grumble about how we’ll never be as good as the kids on YouTube. (Meanwhile, I found every single puzzle piece without ever buying a single parrot. How come the game doesn’t acknowledge my achievement, huh!?)
Speedrunning DKCR is doubly annoying because rolling is faster than walking, and rolling means shaking the Wiimote. Oh my god am I sick to death of shaking my goddamn Wiimote. This is the secret third reason why I was in no hurry to complete DKCR: half of your moves involve waving the controller around like a retard. DK can roll, pound the ground, or blow. All of these moves require waggle and all three are irritating to execute. Sometimes the Wiimote picks up on your movement quickly enough to get your move to come out immediately. Sometimes it takes upwards of a full second. This equates to a life or death difference far more often than is comfortable for me. Oh my god.
Okay, I need to pound that stone I’m running towards. Do I start my waggle a little early, and risk rolling past it? Or do I want to come to a complete stop first, which takes twice as long? Oh no, there’s another fiery bad guy I need to blow on. I sure hope the Wiimote kicks in before he — dammit, nope, it didn’t, bye Diddy. Oh great, and now my nose itches. Better pause the game because last time I scratched my nose DK took that as his cue to roll off a cliff for no reason.
In five years of Wii games, the absolute best thing I have ever seen anyone say in support of the “waggle-as-button” practice is along the lines of “I didn’t have any trouble with it”. News flash, Nintendo: when the best thing your players can say about a feature is “I didn’t notice it”, you are at a developmental dead end. It’s particularly bad in DKCR because just about everything DK can do requires Wiimote shaking. I think the worst example was in one of the Rambi levels; you have to shake the Wiimote to get Rambi to charge, and the level is built out of crumbling platforms and walls you need to blast through. So, shakeshakeshake the whole way. I had to retry that stage so many times that my arms were about to drop off, and nearly all my deaths were because I wasn’t shaking vigorously enough in the first place. Giving me a “make the rhino charge” button would have solved two stupid problems. Thanks for not making me regret spending $30 on that Classic Controller, Nintendo!
I kid, I kid. The problem is more pronounced than that, considering the Wiimote + Nunchuck setup has more than enough buttons to facilitate both a grab button and a pound/roll/blow button. But no, there is some holy mandate that every Wii game must have waggle built in, so it is written, so shall it be done, amen. Bleargh.
Oh, and blowing is thematically stupid. I did not fall in love with my 800 pound gorilla protagonist because of his ability to snuff candles and twirl dandelions. It’s almost never fun in the game, either; complete stop, then duck, then waggle. Thank goodness it was never required in a boss fight.
Which brings me to my final point: boss fights were boring and way too long. Stand around until the boss attacks, then dodge, then hit its weak spot. Repeat twice, then phase two. Repeat twice, then phase three. Then you win. Bosses were the weak point of the original DKC games, in my opinion, and the one ingredient I would have liked to see completely reworked. At least they were more imaginative than “big version of regular monster” this time around.
So that’s my take on Donkey Kong Country Returns. It’s everything the old games were, but its best and worst points are in the application of modern Wii design sense being applied to the age-old formula. My goodness, I seem to have written more about this game than anything else in recent memory. Thank you for reading all this a year after any of it was at all relevant!