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Donkey Kong Country Returns reminds us of life beyond the Mario/Sonic binary. Classy production, whistleable music and high action create the perfect context of co-operative family platforming heaven.
Donkey Kong Country Returns is another platform game from Nintendo. But unlike the explorative mischief of New Super Mario Brothers (Wii) this is a more linear action oriented challenge.
It may seem like nit-picking (ed: thanks, nice image.) but this makes Donkey Kong Country feel very different to play. Whereas Mario is all about fiddly jumps and exhustitive block bashing, this rests more heavily on reactions and memorisation.
I've got a big soft spot (ed: again, thanks!) for these sorts of games having spent a couple of summers playing Wonderboy (Arcade) after school and on weekends in my local video shop.
Then, like now, the style of action was very different to the Super Mario Brothers cabinet that sat next to it in that shop. Wonderboy's levels were much more limited and less populated with goodies. This meant achieving a perfect score, collecting every item of fruit and finding every hidden doll was a possibility. More was also made of Wonderboy's inertia, which meant you needed quick reactions if you were to survive.
This all predated Sega's platforming trump card, but in many ways it foreshadowed the differences between Sonic and Mario. This brings our little history lesson full circle as, it was partly in response to Sonic that Nintendo resurrected Donkey Kong's action focused platforming in what became Donkey Kong Country.
Playing Donkey Kong Country Returns brought all this flooding back. There are still many similarities between the franchise and games like Wonderboy. A focus on action means you have to have your wits about you all the time. Enemies represent a real threat and need to be dispatched with a jump, earth-pound or forward roll. The environments also respond to Kong's heavy handed interactions. Fake floors give way, buttons are pressed and background flowers give up treasures with various displays of his muscular abilities.
Repeat play throughs were where the real fun was.
In modern videogames, dying rarely means you lose very much progress, so it was a bit of a shock to be sent back to the beginning of a level if you lose your two energy hearts here. You soon learn to go a little more carefully and to protect yourself by collecting Diddy Kong who provides a bigger jump as well as two addition hearts.
The best way to play Donkey Kong Country Returns though is in the two player co-operative mode. One player takes Donkey Kong and the other Diddy, as you play simultaneously through the levels. If one of you dies you can return to the fray as long as the other player is still alive - and you have ballon-lives remaining - as you can in New Super Mario Brothers.
It's still pretty hard even like this, but this is by design. Again like older games, the intention is not to play each level once and then move on. You are expected to learn, understand, and eventually love, each of the worlds on offer here and that takes time.
But the most impressive thing here is how coherent the whole experience feels.
It's something that at first frustrated my son (5) and his perfectionist streak. But given a little time with the game and he realised there were plenty of reasons to go back and play each level again. In fact he was soon searching every nook and cranny (ed: again with the dingy analogies?) for the KONG letters, puzzle pieces and bananas.
Repeat play throughs were where the real fun was. We could really start to work as a team, co-ordinating our efforts and ensuring we collected everything. And unlike New Super Mario Brothers (Wii) if you are left behind you can simply wait for the game to warp you up to the other player - a much better idea for family play.
The action platforming is interspersed with a variety of shooting challenges. Here, Donkey and Diddy jump into barrels and must be fired around the place with both timing and accuracy. As well as integral barrel moments in the levels themselves there are some separate challenges that can be discovered around the place.
Alongside this are the Rhino riding and Mine cart sections. The latter offers Indiana Jones style levels where you are racing down branching tracks avoiding enemies and timing your jumps just right to survive.
The whole game is wrapped in visual finesse.
This and the barrel work are great fun and well implemented. But the most impressive thing here is how coherent the whole experience feels. Like the inner-monologues of Scrubs or character references in Friends, these elements have all become key parts of the Donkey Kong Country format. It all fits together to create a familiar game that we can enjoy playing over and over.
The whole game is wrapped in visual finesse. Brief and intense scenes link each level and provide a map that easily communicates this is a real place you are exploring. My son, for instance, was excited to spot the volcano from the world map in the background of the related levels and happily pawed over the 3D island while waiting for us to start the next level.
It felt like Nintendo games of old, like Yoshi's Island where your progress is believably translated from each level to the overarching tundra of its desert island. Another similarity (although I've not been able to find any shared personnel) is the uplifting musical score - title music, in game sounds and soundtrack are all smile-worthy.
This should be celebrated.
I missed the original Donkey Kong Country games, but I can see why they were so popular. Donkey Kong Country Returns is an excellent modern day rendering of these Wonderboy style platform games that draws on Nintendo's rich talent in this area.
It's a great platform game, and for my money better than New Super Mario Brothers for younger players, that reminds us of a third way somewhere between fiddly Mario and supercharged Sonic. This should be celebrated.
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