DKC Returns: First Impressions

The Donkey Kong Country trilogy for the SNES is my childhood. They weren’t the first games I played, but they were among the first, and for a long time they formed my conception of what new video games were supposed to be. (I seem to remember turning up my nose at Super Mario 64 back when it was first released because it was all blobby, indistinct polygons while DKC was so well-drawn and detailed.) As I’ve noted, I played all three end-to-end, back-and-forth, every which way you can imagine, and their levels and design are etched into my memory. So I was very interested to see how its revival in the hands of a new studio would fare in terms of retaining that feel that I’d so prized as a little kid. I figure that if anyone can judge how well Retro Studios performed in this task, I can.

And the answer is: Very well! DKC Returns is interesting because in a lot of ways it’s not a strict revival of what has come before (like Mega Man 9-10 or New Super Mario Bros.), but rather a revival of what it should have been. DKC Returns retains a lot of the original trilogy’s superficial features, like the music and the level themes, but in actuality it’s a lot more clever and creative than those games were. It appeals to our memories of those games, but it’s really much better-designed than they were, with extremely well-implemented level gimmicks and trickily-hidden (but still fair, so far) secrets.

Really, my only complaints about the game thus far are little things — things that most people would overlook but which pull me up short for whatever reason. Chief among these is the most egregious use of “waggle as button” among any Wii game I’ve played. In DKC Returns, there are no fewer than three staple moves that require a button shake. Two of these, the hand slap and blowing, are acceptable — you’ve usually got time and space when you need to use them, so it’s okay if they don’t come out right away. Rolling, however, is a disaster. You need this move — the game ranges from hard to impossible if you don’t use it — and you need to be able to use it on demand. This is far too important a move to trust to the unreliable shake mechanics. I’d kill to be able to play this game on a Classic Controller — and no, I’m not interesting in hacking my Wii, thank you very much.

Another minor annoyance are the bonus areas. For one thing, if you enter one and fail, it vanishes — you have to restart the level to try it again. This would be fine if the bonus rooms worked like the ones in DKC1, containing nothing but regular items like bananas and extra lives, but these rooms contain collectible doodads like the ones in DKC2 and 3. Finding the bonus rooms should be hard, and completing them can be as well, but you should be able to try again if you fail. I gather that the bonuses work like this in order to prevent players from abusing them to easily gather Banana Coins and extra lives, but this is easily solved by simply not letting players keep what they collect unless they completely clear the room. Easy-peasy.

I miss the Kremlings. The tikis and their hypnotized animal slaves just don’t have the same charm. Maybe in a sequel?

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