|Dev: Retro Studios|
|Release: November 21, 2010|
|Screen Resolution: 480p||Mild Cartoon Violence|
by Steve Haske
November 22, 2010 - Much like any medium, gaming has the potential to evoke a sense of escapist fantasy or childlike wonder. To wit, they can be as magical as a great novel or a film, though the occasions where developers reach to the right blend of pitch-perfect mechanics, engaging gameplay, and artistic appeal are few and far between. Those of you that are old enough to remember Rare's Donkey Kong Country series know what I'm talking about. After getting over the initial shock of the jaw-dropping, pre-rendered graphics (on a cartridge system in 1994, no less), DKC offered some of the most clever and challenging platforming this side of Mario, and had charm and aesthetic flourish to spare. Most of us were sad to see the big ape and friends go after the third SNES entry, and, following a somewhat disastrous 3D outing on the N64, he disappeared again into the Nintendo catalogue of characters, only to come out for themed spin-offs and guest appearances.
After playing Donkey Kong Country Returns at E3, I had my suspicions that this back-to-basics new entry was something special—I don't think I'm the only one that's been craving a new 2D ape adventure since the highly underrated Jungle Beat. Even in spite of some quality issues from the new game's unfinished build, it quickly became one of my most anticipated games of the year. Once you dig a little into the actual meat of the game, it quickly becomes clear that DKC Returns is hardly just an homage. Retro has instead injected their own contemporary design sensibilities into the classic DKC format, resulting in a vibrant entry that more than lives up to the series' original legacy.
The most immediately noticeable difference separating DKC Returns from its SNES brethren is the astounding attention to detail Retro has placed in the world. Everywhere you look among the lush jungle valleys and tropical beaches (among a host of other less paradisiacal environs) the world of Donkey Kong Island feels dynamically alive. Pirate ships bombard the beaches with cannon fire, giant cephalopods probe the foreground with their tentacles, and massive wooden pendulums break loose from vines to obliterate previous paths. At the start of a level, you may even have to proceed from an outside location to reach its "thematic start," by say, detonating a load of dynamite to break open an entrance to a mine. There are plenty of instances where the path of a level itself is entirely unstable. Needless to say, the evolution that each stage's progression takes feels effortless, and can often be dizzying to behold.
Think about the thrill you had when being chased by the stone-wheel riding gnawty (that'd be the gray beaver guys) in the temple-themed levels of DKC. Having to negotiate the level's various traps and pitfalls with little regard to safety or reasoning with a giant circular rock nipping at your heels was a harrowing experience, right? It's pretty tame compared to an average setpiece in DKCR. During one on-rails section of a cave-based level, Donkey Kong must ride a rocket-powered barrel through a subterranean bat lair. However, instead of just contending with a lot of little critters, you have to make your way through all the smaller bats you would expect while avoiding a monstrous, screen-filling bat that weaves in an out of the foreground and generally wreaks havoc. Chases of this kind, as well as other perilous events happen all the time in DKC Returns, although the stakes and challenge level have obviously been upped quite a bit. Those of you that may have been worried that this new Donkey Kong wouldn't measure up to the difficulty of the older games will be pleasantly surprised with DKCR's hardcore leanings; on top of that, you may often find yourself dying from time to time just because you were too caught up in the sheer spectacle of its dynamically-scripted level design.
Though the game is a 2D platformer, that hasn't kept Retro from bringing the third dimension into play. Aside from the aforementioned background-to-foreground interaction with enemies, barrels rarely keep you on one plane of action. Whether you're being shot into the hull of a ship for a bonus round or exploding through a series of crumbling stone platforms, the swooping camera creates a sense of depth that keeps the game from feeling static. There are even segments where you're propelled into the background itself, playing the game from a diminished point of view. Though it doesn't drastically alter the gameplay—Donkey and Diddy Kong still control on a 2D plane—it lends DKCR a 2.5-D sensibility that complements its busy feeling. You just feel like there's always something going on.
What's really important, though, is that Retro nailed the feeling of the series better than even the most die-hard fans could've hoped. DKC Returns is stuffed with homages to the original games. The worlds are generally familiar twists on old favorites, taking new directions with established ideas in gameplay, setting, and aesthetics. Seasoned gamers will not only recognize nods and cues taken from the classics, but also to Super Mario World, Super Mario Galaxy, DK Jungle Beat, and others. One glance at this game and you'll probably feel the same sense of wonder you did back when you played the original.