Product Type: Nintendo Wii games
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King of the Swingers
Donkey Kong Country Returns (Wii)
Member Name: Puggers
Donkey Kong Country Returns (Wii)
Advantages: Retro/modern fusion of gameplay, visuals and challenge that really, really works
Disadvantages: Next to nothing.
After more than a decade of obsession with three dimensions, a purist's fondness for old-school playability seems to have crept back into gaming in the last couple of years. Of course, there's nothing wrong with setting a game in a 3D environment - something like Bioshock would hardly have had the same suffocating atmosphere as a side-scrolling shooter - but there are plenty of games which don't need it.
The Donkey Kong series is a case in point. Donkey Kong Country was about as good as gaming gets (and still is, holding its own after nearly two decades) - it looked great, was a brilliant co-operative game, and was just the right level of challenge. Above all, it was so addictively simple and intuitive that it hooked you immediately - there was nothing to it, just side-scrolling platforming, running and jumping, but it was utterly compelling and enormous fun.
With Donkey Kong 64, though, creators Rare dropped the ball. Instead of sticking to what had worked so well on the SNES, they re-invented the DK wheel, and packed in hordes of characters, weapons, moves, collectibles and levels, all set in a 3D wonderland - but neglected the gameplay. What should have been a quite stunning game ultimately sucked.
Happily, this reboot of the series rights those wrongs - it's taken a while, but this is the follow-up that the original deserved, a game that's at once a tribute to the best bits of Donkey Kong Country and a exceptional experience in its own right. It's a nod to the past without feeling in the slightest dated, and it's phenomenal fun.
For fans of the original, the game feels instantly familiar - and it works in essentially the same way. Each stage on DK's island is navigated left-to-right, there are bananas to collect, non-friendly animals to squash and a trove of treasures that can be tracked down or left alone. Many of the best-loved features are here: blasting barrels, animal power-ups you can jump aboard and the runaway mine cart are all featured in early levels.
There's a plot of sorts - a kind of witchdoctorery floating mask hypnotises the island's animals (except for DK and Diddy) and steals all the bananas - but this is always pretty secondary to the gameplay. The story unfolds in much the same way as before, with half a dozen or so levels making up a stage and leading up to a boss battle.
Of course, there are elements here which are new to the series - the most noticeable change being the use of the Wii remote. Mercifully, the creators have been restrained when it comes to incorporating the motion-sensing capabilities into the game - too much could have ruined the gameplay - but it is used.
For the most part, the remote is held sideways and used as a conventional two-button controller - however, there are numerous opportunities for DK to pound the ground, lowering platforms, flipping enemies and the like. It's pretty superfluous to the flow of the game, but as a non-intrusive working-in of the Wii's functionality, it's fine. In fact, it's nice to see that lessons have been learnt from DK64; just because the technology is there, it doesn't mean it absolutely has to be used.
Although the Wii isn't a graphical powerhouse, the game does look great - and this is as much down to clever design as anything. DK will be shot into the background by a barrel, then blasted back, he'll dislodge structures that topple and crumble around him, airships float past - and in one particularly inventive level, the whole of the foreground is cast into silhouette as a rich golden sunset plays out in the background. The entire game gleams with these kind of neat touches, and it goes to show that well-thought-out 2D adventures can be just as graphically striking as their 3D kin.
One of the nice contradictions of the game is that although it's super-easy to pick up and play, progressing through the levels can be extremely challenging. This isn't an easy game in the slightest - you'll die multiple times trying to beat a level, and at times you'll make agonising progress trying to get the better of a particular obstacle; the aforementioned mine cart stage can be fiendish.
For me, though, this is a good thing - and reminiscent of how tough games used to be, before repeatedly dying a gruesome death went out of fashion and even the brawniest games started handholding. Fable's never-get-lost breadcrumb trail, for instance, or the weird quirk in Bioshock where enemies retain the damage you previously dealt them when you respawn, meaning you can down a Big Daddy with a toothpick if you've got the patience. There is a concession to modern trends, though - die enough times and the game will offer you a ghost-DK who'll complete the level as you watch. You'll still have to do the deed yourself, but at least you now know what you've been doing wrong. This is a nice compromise, preventing frustration without really reducing the challenge.
There's just no weakness to this game. It's retro yet it's modern, it's simple but it's absorbing, and it's as easy to start as it is difficult to finish. Downsizing is the best move DK's ever made.
Summary: Party like it's 1994!
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