10 for ’10: Donkey Kong Country Returns

Donkey Kong Country Returns

Developer: Retro Studios

Publisher: Nintendo

U.S. Release Date: November 21st, 2010

Genre: 2-D Platformer

Jesus tapdancing Christ is this game hard.

Okay, so maybe that’s not the best way to open a review, but you have to understand that DKCR’s extreme, unrelenting, and not infrequently unfair difficulty colored my entire experience with the game. I loved most of the game — the graphics, the music, and the level designs ranged from good to brilliant. By all rights this game should have joined my pantheon of all-time favorites. But… I couldn’t play it for too long or it would start to annoy me. I frequently had to put it aside and play something else for a while. And whenever I did play it, the air would quickly grow thick with a cloud of vituperation.

Let me see if I can break down my complaints into their component elements:

1) Engine trouble

“Real” difficulty is defined as the knowledge that when you fail, it’s your fault alone, and no one else’s.

Well, DKCR doesn’t have that. Its controls are kind of loose, its abuse of “waggle-as-button” (unreliable at the best of times) is egregious, and I noticed hitbox issues (although I haven’t seen anyone else complain about this). The number of times I died when I would swear it wasn’t my fault were legion.

That second one is the most galling to me, I think. I know that Nintendo was probably leaning on you to put motion controls in the game, guys… but the Classic Controller exists. Nintendo even released a new model of it this past year, so it’s not even a black sheep like WiiSpeak or the Vitality Sensor. There is simply no excuse not to have a Classic Controller option in this game, period. Keep the waggle in for the people who like it, but give the rest of us the option to ignore it. I don’t want to live every level in terror that my rolls will randomly not work.

As for the others, DK feels kind of slow and plodding in this game, and his jumps are unreliable. If you make the exact same jump the exact same way twice, sometimes he’ll land safely, but sometimes he’ll slam into the side of the platform and fall to his death. Bouncing off enemies to gain extra height has odd timing and is difficult to do on command. I’d also swear to God that DK’s hitbox is larger than his character model — he seems to take damage at far greater distances than the images on the screen would imply. In short, it’s a struggle to get DK to do what you want him to in this game. This isn’t too bad in the early levels (where chances are you won’t even notice), but once the game starts demanding greater precision of you, it starts to grate.

Which brings us to…

2) Design problems

DKCR is an extremely player-hostile environment. The game stops pulling its punches as early as World 2. I mentioned in an earlier post that in New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Super Mario Galaxy 2, the Super Guide was a rare sight, seen only on the very toughest levels. In DKCR, I saw the Super Guide appear (although I never used it) in almost every single level of the final three worlds, plus seven of the eight secret levels. (The ninth secret level bans the Super Guide, but it would have appeared there as well if it had been able to.) The sheer number of deaths is derived partly from the control difficulties noted above, and partly from the designers’ deep and abiding belief in “death as homework”.

“Death as homework” occurs when you’re expected to die several times just in the course of working out how the level works, what the mechanics are. DKCR is the kind of game that will just flat-out kill you for making the move that any reasonable player would make, instead forcing you to play over and over until you’ve nailed down the pattern, the sequence. It reminds me a bit of the 2-D Sonic the Hedgehog games in that if you play the way your instincts are telling you, you’ll get blindsided by surprise spikes or cheap enemy placement. It’s hard for me to envision a player, even a very good one, beating these levels on the first try just based on pure skill and instinct. Beating DKCR’s levels involves memorizing them until they’re down to muscle memory. The usual sequence of events was that I’d die thirty times trying to beat the level the first time, but when I went back in to look for collectibles I’d win on the first try.

Moreover, the advantages that could help you conquer these levels, checkpoints and DK Barrels and even recovery hearts, grow increasingly scarce as the game proceeds. The secret levels don’t have checkpoints at all, which is just unfathomable. The point of checkpoints is not to make levels easier! (After all, just activating a checkpoint requires you to be good enough to reach it in the first place.) The purpose of checkpoints is to save you the time it would take running the part of the level you’ve already got down. I’ve got the first half of the final secret level burned into my brain by this point, but I had to keep running it over and over just the same in order to try the second half again. Forcing me to do that serves no purpose except to artificially lengthen the game.

Actually, that seems to be a running theme here — wasting the player’s time. The bosses, for example, kind of have patterns, in that their attacks are dodged the same way every time, but they don’t attack in any particular order — if they want to fuck around on the other side of the screen without giving you an opening to attack their weak point, they will. (This is especially evident with regards to the final boss, who might let you kill him right away, or he might use every other attack in his arsenal twice for every two-second opening he provides you.)

3) Vehicle levels

Fuck the vehicle levels in this game. The mine cart levels are among the most creative examples of mine cart levels in the history of gaming, but they’re still fucking mine cart levels, and you can only polish that turd so much. And the rocket — the fucking rocket! Holy god damn, is the rocket obnoxious. It is simply not a precise enough instrument to consistently do what the game demands you do with it. Two or three of these stages would have been fine — annoying, but fine. But there’s at least one in almost every single world. The rocket levels don’t just kill pace — they beat pace to death with a wrench, and a team of suspiciously attractive detectives is called in to solve the murder, only you can tell who did it right away because they cast Neil Flynn as the rocket barrel and why would Neil Flynn be on this shit show unless he was a major character?

I beat every rocket level in the game without using the Super Guide, but doing so always felt like luck. I never really felt like I could control it the way I wanted. That whole “beat on the first try when replaying levels” spiel above doesn’t apply to the rocket levels, where I was just as likely to die on replays as I was on my initial try. Did the squirrelly rocket smash into a wall, or did it narrowly slip by? Only Retro knows for sure.

That’s enough with the vehicle levels. No more vehicle levels.

Did I mention that a single hit is instant death in these things?

But seriously, folks…

Despite all that, I did enjoy the game — just not in the way I was hoping, I think. The level concepts were absolutely brilliant — there are some seriously cool ideas on display here, and I think it’s worth suffering through the dick-punching difficulty just to see them. The game looks and sounds great, and it really does evoke the original DKC trilogy very successfully.

Still, the standard for 2-D platformers on consoles right now is still NSMBWii. When I beat NSMBWii for the first time I immediately wanted to play through again (which I did). After that playthrough I continued playing my favorite levels, pondered speedruns and challenges, and even considered playing until I maxed out my score (which I eventually passed on, thankfully). When I beat DKCR for the first time, I put it back on my shelf with something resembling relief. I’ll almost certainly come back to it someday, but I need a serious break first. Maybe Kirby’s Epic Yarn, a game where it’s impossible to die, will be the palette-cleanser I need.

Everyone seems to think that DKCR2: The Returnening is a given, so on that note: More checkpoints, less vehicles next time, Retro. Also bring back Winky and Squitter. And the Kremlings. And Dave Wise.

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