Donkey Kong Country Returns – Nintendo’s banana skin moment 04/05/2011Posted by jspanero in Game Reviews.
Tags: donkey kong, donkey kong country, donkey kong country returns, rare, retro
14 years after his last outing, Nintendo has surprised everyone by bringing Donkey Kong back to one of his most famous territories, the Donkey Kong Country famed by British developers Rareware. Magnificently quirky experiments aside (DK Jungle Beat), Donkey Kong and friends had been filling their spare time since their 90′s heyday cameoing in the usual Nintendo-rostered games (Mario Kart and Smash Bros) or headlining portable fare with some solid successes (the Mario VS DK series for the GBA and DS) and some fillers (King of Swing). Donkey Kong Country Returns picks up where we left the simian gang around the time of Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble, the third game in the original Country trilogy, hoping to recreate the magic and accompanying sales of the Super Nintendo classics. Shame that what these monkeys need in 2010 is something Nintendo just cannot give them: a trip in space and time to Rare’s offices in Twycross, Leicestershire circa 1995.
The original Donkey Kong Country trilogy, although met with its share of unjustified historical revisionism in the last years, has always been hailed as a landmark for the 16-bit platforming genre. DKC was not only a brilliant reinvention of a semi-forgotten Nintendo character, but also so commercially successful it single-handedly sealed away the fate of the Mega Drive in its twilight years and held back the 32-bit console takeover for more than anyone would have expected. DKC2, released one year later, refined all the niggles of the original to create a more mature experience that is nowadays widely considered the pinnacle of the series. By the time Rare brought out DKC3 in 1996, the formula was starting to show signs of fatigue; although still brilliantly smooth to play, the addition of some unnecessary mechanics (those bloody talkative bears, the joyless collectathon experience) that distracted from the sophisticated platforming was a telling sign the series had already peaked.
Rare was wise enough to leave the 2D platforming to rest after DKC3, although they squeezed a bit more juice out of this banana with Donkey Kong 64 for the N64. The game was a commercial success, however Nintendo and Rare’s divorce a few years later left the Kong baby unattended and feeling a bit unloved, with Rare signing away all their paternal responsibilities and Nintendo bringing it up as a foster child in a house of too many bright children already.
Time passed, and for better and for worse, the Wii happened chez Nintendo. Casual gamers flocked to the house of Mario and their development teams started to fill up their design time with brain numbing training puzzles. The hardcore went up in arms and demanded to be loved just as everyone else. It was then that Satoru Iwata realised that he had been sitting for a long time on a hot IP, and that the Kong gang were ripe for a new outing to pacify the restless gamers who have had their thumbs sharpened with the SNES trilogy, while hopefully cashing in the monkey’s mass appeal – after all, a lot of the parents of Wii owners in 2010 must have cut their teeth with the original Donkey Kong arcade back in the 80’s too. Tellingly, Nintendo still refused to go in-house for this development, delegating the task to Retro Studios, their American subsidiary. On paper, this swift operation had the potential to live up to the hype: Retro had proved they knew how to identify the core elements of a great classic franchise with scientific precision and update them for the new generations; they had done so against all odds in one of the most beautifully crafted comebacks in gaming history (Metroid Prime). In practice though, they have failed where it matters most with Donkey Kong – this monkey has undergone so many lab tests, it hardly has any emotion left inside.
Rare, in its heyday, were not only masters of game design, but also of that rarer (ha) talent that is exquisite Britishness: plenty of class mixed with the right dose of self-deprecating humour and a hint of eccentricity ever so slightly galling. The Donkey Kong Country trilogy although very much a standard platformer through and through, was 100% certified British monkey magic: witty, technically exquisite and with plenty of hair-pulling moments. Playing Donkey Kong Country Returns feels, at times, like a big budget HD fan game, ticking all the 2D jungle extravaganza boxes any admirer of the originals would expect but lacking that certain Midlands finesse. Lost in the transatlantic migration are the endless puns (too many to list: King K. Rool, Diddy’s Kong Quest, the Kremean War…) and the charming character portrayals, with the worst offender being Cranky, once the know-it-all elder chimp dishing sharp wisecracks at the expense of newbies, now a gaga salesman droning out lame jokes and extra lives the player doesn’t really need. Other little nifty touches that gave its unique character to the SNES trilogy, like the beautifully rendered world maps and their fable-like names have been replaced with dull generic denominations (Jungle, Beach, Cave – not even funny as a bad Engrish translation case) and a lay-out of standard grids of blue and red spots for map levels lifted straight from the New Super Mario Bros series. But where the New Mario revisions hark back to an NES game in which presentation exists insofar as it helps the stellar game design shine, the allure of the DKC series always lay in the all-around balance of both style and substance which Rare were masters at.
Unlike their job on Metroid Prime, Retro’s biggest field work here is less about capturing the atmosphere of the original but rather a clinical study of the brilliance of some of the archetypal level designs of DKC. The flow of the game is exemplary and, at its best, DKC Returns offers some exhilarating moments, barrel blasting through crumbling ruins, mine carting (to a remix of that familiar tune) or bouncing between ascending and descending platforms in the chase of suspiciously placed bananas that lead onto bonus levels. These are more memory triggers than novelty offerings though, and have been carefully peppered throughout the game in the hope of keeping the retro-momentum – it’s a shame that by showing such meticulous attention to detail of the original source, any other new additions come across as insipid and second rate. There is an attempt at recreating a 2D space barrel-shooter with iffy collision detection, some lovely-looking but inconsequential silhouette-style levels and very few stages with scenarios that take advantage of the Wii’s capabilities – if anything, the addition of waggling to execute basic movements adds an unnecessary layer of complication that ruins the responsiveness needed in a fast paced platformer. What’s worse, enemies, contraptions, background and foreground elements may be bigger (and lusher) now, but you can envisage a DS port of DKC Returns with a graphical downgrade, that’s true, but pretty much all of the other content intact. Even games like Klonoa or Goemon’s Great Adventure, released a couple of years after the first DKC for 32 and 64 bit consoles, show more inventive ways of toying with the so-called 2,5 dimensions, just by virtue of simple tricks like multiple paths, depth perception and a rotating camera. DKC Returns, on the other hand, is firmly stuck in a modest 16-bit principle that never deviates from a straightforward (and occasionally upwards) formula.
It may be unfair to judge a new release with the bar set by the originals, and maybe after 15 years and all the water under the bridge between Rare and Nintendo, Retro were damned if they followed the SNES games to a tee and damned if they didn’t (1p can’t play as Diddy? No aquatic levels? Sacrilege etc.). Nintendo, however, chose to slap the “Country” tag on the cover for a reason (ker-ching!) and for better or worse the shadow of the SNES trilogy looms over. It would have been wiser to release Donkey Kong from its Country jail, taking the elements that made those games great but having enough creative freedom to mess around with the formula, just like DK Jungle Beat did, so it wouldn’t become a complete exercise in reminiscing.
As a whole, the production values of Donkey Kong Country Returns are flawless, and the game has a good stab at basking in the warm glow of nostalgia in the same way that, in recent times, other companies have been raiding their closets to regurgitate their oldies – step forward, Sonic The Hedgehog 4 or Rocket Knight. Sadly, these anachronic reinventions fail at reviving the sorely missed departed because the originals are classics in a place and time, and as such should be revered (and played); any attempts at exhuming their corpses can only bring the heartbreaking realisation that a decade of games aping what make these mummies immortal in the first place has rendered them irrelevant nowadays.
Gamers didn’t need Donkey Kong Country Returns. It arrives late to the Wii party, and only with the intention of giving the loud ones in the corner the quick fix they so badly need. Caving in to public and peer pressure is a recipe for disaster most of the times, and Nintendo have been historically wise at acknowledging this by giving gamers not what they want, but what they need. Regrettably on this occasion, they were too busy taking the money and running to realise the big banana skin they were stepping into.
BUT DOES IT HAVE A HEART: A shiny one, but don’t forget it’s a transplant.
RECOMMENDED FOR: People who still dance to 2010 remixes of the Macarena and watch re-runs of Babe like it’s 1996.
Donkey Kong Country Returns came out in Christmas 2010. As with most Nintendo million sellers, it is unlikely it will receive a price drop anytime soon. Amazon are selling it for a reasonable £32. The game is long enough to justify a full price tag, however if you’re not a Collector Claire you might be better off piping up about £15 for a SNES cartridge
of Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest for some serious monkey business.