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RELEASE DATE (NA): November 21, 2010 GENRE: Platformer
// review by SoyBomb

He's back, and this time, he means business. (Monkey business.)

Donkey Kong Country was a series that ran for three seasons on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System before being ultimately cancelled due to low ratings and a stronger interest in the next generation of consoles, mainly the Nintendo 64 and the Sony PlayStation. Though he was brought back for a few specials, including the well-received Donkey Kong 64 and the not-so-sparkling DK: King of Swing. In 2010, Nintendo faithfully revived the series with Donkey Kong Country Returns for the Wii, bringing back our snappily-tied hero for another run in an actual platforming game. And the end result? Pretty good, if you don't mind throwing Wiimotes out windows.

Donkey Kong Country returns sees the — pardon the pun — return of the world's most popular hairy hero (so long, James Eckhouse). Eerily, however, King K. Rool is nowhere to be found. And don't expect a surprise "Oop! You thought it was someone else but it's actually been me all along" Dr. Wily-style finale because no, he's just not here. Maybe Rare's still holding him hostage or is still planning to finally release King K. Rool Party for Nintendo 3DS down the line. That, or he just gave up and now runs a frogurt stand in Newark. No, this time around, a band of wild Tikis from the Tiki Tak Tribe have overrun Donkey Kong Island (formerly "DK Isle", rebranded for name recognition to improve tourism, I imagine) in order to steal the precious Banana Horde. They have hypnotized the island's animal inhabitants to do their bidding with music... well, almost all of them, except for any member of the Kong family for inexplicable reasons. Maybe there just isn't enough of a mind to control inside those coconut heads. Donkey Kong and his little buddy Diddy now have to scoot around Donkey Kong Island, freeing each area from the grips of a Tiki Tak Tribe member and get rid of this threat once and for all.

It's actually a bit jarring to not see any Kremlings, or even any remnants of such, gallumphing about. It's as if that entire species was wiped out in a game destined for development but ultimately cancelled. This just doesn't feel the same: Donkey Kong Country Returns is NOT the equivalent of Donkey Kong Country 4 (that already exists). It's its own game with its own feel. Everything is brighter, crisper, and more detailed than any Donkey Kong Country game prior. Must be those extra bits in the Wii. The focus seems to be less on a jungle-type island and more toward a tropical environment, which I suppose makes sense considering you don't see quite as many bananas growing in forested areas. Some stages are actually shown entirely in silhouette, giving Donkey Kong Country Returns another splash of artistic flair. Locale designs, enemy designs... they're definitely unique from the minds at Rare, and I have to credit Retro Studios for the absolutely exquisite level of detail and care put into each and every level. Even the foreground and background get equal amounts of attention. It's quite phenomenal how much love has been poured into this project, right down to the smallest graphical details and bonus touches.

Speaking of Rare, they had been known to occasionally toe the line on sporadically amping up the difficulty in games to crazy heights, but Retro Studios took their lessons on level design directly from Beelzebub himself. Honestly, I haven't cursed this much since I did my last annual Naked Cactus Patch Dive. As the game progresses, checkpoints become a bit more scarce, and the number of perfect acrobatics required of our Kong pals increase significantly, sometimes to the point of insanity. The game's doable, of course, but thank goodness extra lives are easy to come by, or else I'd be using my game disc as a coaster right now. Of particular note are the rocket barrel stages that force you to dodge obstacles from 360° while safely steering a barrel that controls like a dog trying to rip itself away from a haunted flea collar. I couldn't STAND those...

To make matters even more difficult for the Kongs, completing the game with all items collected will unlock a new Mirror Mode whereby you only get one heart (or one hit), Diddy Kong will NOT help you out, and everything is backwards. I think I'm done here.

He's finally back to kick some tail... again.

And the boss battles, oh goodness. Early ones were pretty tame, but later bosses require impeccable pattern memorization and perfect execution of even MORE acrobatics to avoid their hardcore beatings. Luckily for us, Retro Studios knew that we'd have a rough time with stages such as these and implemented a few items for purchase from Cranky Kong. Need Squawks to point out secrets for you? There's an app for that. Need an extra heart...or TEN? Money talks. Just collect as many banana coins as you can, and you'll be set (and believe me, those things are plentiful).

Retro Studios DID channel Rare in at least one way: this game is quite a collect-a-thon. In each stage, there are a certain number of puzzle pieces to collect, and if you grab all of them in a stage, you'll unlock a new glossy photo in the Photo Gallery. Some of them are literally cached behind scenery, so you'll have to do some good exploration. Others can only be obtained by blasting off in Bonus Barrels to bonus stages, where you have 30 seconds to gather all the bananas and coins in the area. As well, in former Donkey Kong Country games, collecting all four of the K-O-N-G letter panels would earn you an extra life (or, more cruelly, in Donkey Kong Land, the right to save your game), but here, by collecting all the K-O-N-G letters in every stage of a world, you'll unlock a new stage that contains a Rare Orb. (Not an orb manufactured by the former developer Rare, but an orb whose rarity itself is rather high.) Getting all these orbs unlocks the Golden Temple at the end of the game, which, by completing THAT, unlocks the aforementioned Mirror Mode. You might want that; you might not.

Donkey Kong is back his old self, more or less. He still brandishes that darling red tie, he still hops on enemies, he pounds his chest and hollers, and he still can perform a rugged ground pound with the best of them. In fact, I think he's improved! If you shake the Wiimote, he'll slam the ground with all his might and will continue to do so until you stop your waggling. That's all well and good, but here's where things start to get a little — pardon the pun again — shaky. If you're moving left or right while you shake the Wiimote, Donkey Kong will do a barrel roll. This is good for getting across larger crevices, but it's not 100% reliable, and I found myself rolling...into a pit. The game gets slightly stranger whereas, if you're holding down while shaking, Donkey Kong... uh... blows. That's right: there's a BLOWING mechanic. And what exactly does he blow? Gears and dandelions, mostly. Oh, and as long as we're on the DK train, why can I not control Diddy Kong in single-player mode? He's RIGHT THERE! And why is there such a loss of animal buddies? Except for the triumphant return of Rambi the rhino, who still seems to take no guff from the locals, there's really nothing fun in terms of animal friends. Squawks will show off a few secrets, but you can't ride or transform into him. I feel... empty.

Adding to the revival theme of another dormant series, the game's soundtrack boasts a very pungent odour of nostalgia, as many of the songs are mild revisions of tunes from the original Donkey Kong Country, perhaps as a means of helping to tie the games together, as well as evoke emotions in those who had already played the series when it was popular on the SNES. Although the new tracks are decent and fitting to the environments, it's the classics that will likely stick in your head and please the most.

All in all, Donkey Kong Country Returns respectfully rejuvenates the series while adding a fresh coat and its own unique take on the series, ensuring it won't go stale just yet. Though it can be as frustrating as trying to balance a peanut on a log in a hurricane, Donkey Kong Country Returns is a good addition to your Wii library. You might even go ape for it!

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