A couple of years ago Nintendo had two big fall releases: Kirby’s Epic Yarn and Donkey Kong Country Returns. I wanted both of them. 2D, and 2.5D, platformers are exactly my thing. Unfortunately, I could only afford one of them. It didn’t take me long to make my choice on which one to purchase. I found the previous Donkey Kong Country games to be serviceable but ultimately frustrating and Donkey Kong 64 was the absolute nadir of collect-a-thons. Kirby, meanwhile, has a bunch of charming and innovative, if a bit easy, games with his name on the cover. I went with Kirby’s Epic Yarn, and I enjoyed it. The lack of Kirby’s usual array of abilities was more than offset utterly charming yarn aesthetic. I was confident that I made the right choice.
For Christmas this year I received Donkey Kong Country Returns. Within two weeks I had beaten it, and realized just how wrong I had been. Epic Yarn is a pretty good game. Donkey Kong Country Returns is an absolute classic. It is not just one of the best games for the Wii, ranking up there with Super Mario Galaxy and Zelda Skyward Sword, but I would say DKCR is among the best games ever. Which is pretty amazing when you consider that I don’t really like the games that this one is trying to evoke nostalgia for.
First, I need to explain why I didn’t like previous Donkey Kong Country games, DKC2 in particular. (Since I played it most recently and it is still fresh in my mind) DKC2 relies heavily on unfair or arbitrary difficulty. It is not that it is hard to beat stages, though it certainly is. I like a challenge. The unfairness is in meta-game roadblocks. DKC2 is a fairly long game, so Rare of course uses a standard save system. But saving is limited to only to Grannie Kong’s School or whatever it is. The problem is that those save spots are not always available. It makes losing your progress, especially after a boss, a very real possibility. That means if you struggle with a boss, it makes it all the more likely that you will have to fight it again. Unless you go back to a previous world and save. But be careful not to shut off the game, since everything takes coins and coins aren’t saved. The very real threat of losing significant chunks of progress hampers the whole game. The difficulty of the actual stages is forgotten. The half-assed save system encourages players to play as conservatively as possible. It is as though Rare thought they were making a quarter-munching arcade game right up until the last minute, when they tossed on their terrible save system.
The crap is gone from Donkey Kong Country Returns. The game saves after every level. The arbitrary treat to the player’s progress is gone. The only difficulty in the game is entirely based on the level design, which is truly wonderful. Retro Studios has crafted a masterpiece of 2D level design. Each stage, like in the best Mario games, has a certain theme of obstacle. For instance let’s say that a pit, a hole to fall in. It you do you die. First, there will be a single pit, then two. Then a double sized pit. Then a combination of long and short ones. That is the simplest possible example, but the escalation is what the game does so very well. It shows an obstacle, then builds on it and expands it. It teaches the player what to do, then challenges the player.
Donkey Kong Country Return also encourages players to search for secrets and a limited number of challenge collectibles. It does this by first have plenty of checkpoints in stages. Stages aren’t that long, but generally they have one or two checkpoints. When you are only losing a few moments progress it is no big deal. There are also plenty of extra men, and extra men giving bananas around. Dying cost the player practically nothing.
Despite how friendly the game is in some respects, it is still satisfyingly difficult. I probably died more in this game than in any game since the NES. Yet every time I died I knew it was my fault. Each death merely served as encouragement to try again. It is also aided by crisp, clear graphics and pitch perfect controls. The only fly in the ointment are the rocket barrel stages. The idea behind them is sound, but in practice the controls are effectively broken.
Donkey Kong Country Returns is everything people loved about classic platformers without all the crap that used to get in the way. Instead of arbitrary difficulty designed to make the player replay the game and artificially lengthen the playtime, DKCR is all about prefect level design. It is a perfect evolution of games like Mario and Mega Man and Donkey Kong Country. It is a true classic, worthy of being enshrined with all the greats in Nintendo’s library of games and the second one from Retro Studios.
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- Miyamoto Could See Nintendo Collaborating with Retro on a Zelda Game (1up.com)