This is Donkey Kong Country

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It’s no secret that the 2D platformer has had quite the resurgence over the last half decade or so. Between indie games and download titles, 2 and 2.5D platformers are fairly common. As it has been since they basically created the genre with Super Mario Bros, Nintendo is still the master of the form. Their various Mario, Yoshi and Kirby games are generally excellent. 2010’s Donkey Kong Country Returns continued that trend. It had a few problems, like some terrible boss battles and way too many Rocket Barrel and Mine cart stages, but it was otherwise very good. Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, the latest from Retro Studios, stands among the best ever released by Nintendo.

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Tropical Freeze doesn’t reinvent the genre. It stays firmly within the usual mold. It plays almost identically to Returns. The fact that is doesn’t do anything new is not much of a fault. What it lacks in innovation it more than makes up for in polish and general high quality. There is something to be said for the complete mastery of the form that is on display here.

The game is just smooth. DK runs with a kind of loping gait that takes a little bit to get used to, but it then becomes natural. He also has a decent little move pool. DK can bounce off enemies’ heads for a high jump, pound the ground to stun enemies and roll through enemies. He can also pick up and throw certain stunned enemies and barrels. It is a simple set up, but varied enough to be interesting. It doesn’t take long to learn to use these skills, but the game requires the player master them. It starts with some relatively easy warm up levels, but the game soon shows its teeth. Unlike many games, it doesn’t care if the player can beat it. Its challenges are what they are and uncompromising. Few games feel so good to play. DK moves smoothly, but there is a weight to him. He moves like the big gorilla he is. He is surprisingly nimble, but his momentum can be hard to shift. It will likely mean some deaths due to mistimed jumps, but when the timing is right it is sheer acrobatic platforming perfection. The way DK moves is distinctive. It is different from any other platforming protagonist, but it works perfectly.

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While the challenges are uncompromising, the game does provide some help. Aside from a small collection of helpful items to buy from Funky’s shop, DK now has three possible piggyback buddies rather than just Diddy Kong. Diddy is still there, with a jetpack that provides a significant vertical boost to DK’s jumps. Then there is Dixie, who uses her propeller ponytail to give DK what is essentially a double jump. Last is Cranky, who uses his can like a pogo-stick, a la Scrooge McDuck. None of what they add is terribly original, but they all work so well it doesn’t matter. It makes for some hard choices. Do you go for Cranky and his superior ability to deal with enemies and avoid spikes or Dixie or Diddy and their increased mobility? None of the characters are strictly better than the others. Much like Mario’s power ups, the once needed changes based on the situation. Also, taking two hits causes you to lose your buddy; many of the games secrets are dependent on keeping one of them around.

Some of the flaws of the first game return. Specifically, the rocket barrel. Now, though, DK can take two hits rather than one, making what was infuriating tolerable. And maybe it’s just due to them being easier, but the spectacle seems cranked up. There aren’t any simple mine cart or barrel stages. Instead DK is escaping runaway buzz saws in a sawmill or dodging giant eels. While they may not touch the regular stages as far as gameplay is concerned, they are certainly memorable events.

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Really, spectacle is what this game does best. While the gameplay side is just excellent executed, traditional stuff, the art, sound and level themes really set this game apart. One level takes place in what appears to come from the Lion King stage production. The silhouette stages return, including one that has DK jumping across moving platforms above an avalanche. Another level is an underwater escape from a giant octopus. Many of the hazards only appear in one stage. The graphics are pretty much perfect. Colorful, well designed and wonderfully expressive. They are just great. Best of all is the return of Dave Wise on the soundtrack. It is wonderful. Just go listen to some of it.

While it doesn’t do much new, Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze does everything well. Innovation and experimentation are often things to be lauded in games. But it is hard to say anything bad about a familiar game executed as well as this one. Retro Studios now has three definite classics on their resume: this, DKCR and Metroid Prime. I hope their next game is something original, though I wouldn’t be disappointed in a third Donkey Kong. They have changed Donkey Kong, in my mind, from the character with the good fortune to star in Nintendo’s first hit to a genuine star. After these last two games he is definitely on the same level as any Nintendo character, save Mario and Link.

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I Know that Monkey, His Name is Donkey!

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.

His name is Donkey

I’ve been playing Donkey Kong Country 2 lately. Actually I should say I’ve been trying to play Donkey Kong Country 2 lately. Because I am terrible at it. It isn’t my fault though, at least not completely.

DKC2 is a great game. The controls are perfect and the levels are inventive. All of the items set Rare up for the collectathon fall they eventually suffered, but it is at about the perfect amount here. Finding most of the various coins is the point of the game, and they are all cleverly hidden so far. My problem with the game is not about the gameplay at all.

No, my problem is with the graphics. Not so much with how they look, though I do prefer the look of traditional sprites, but with how indistinct I find the various barriers. I jump on a platform, only to find out that it is merely something in the background. I jump over a spiked enemy, but die because the game says I did not make it over. One time I would just assume I misjumped, but more than half of my deaths are from hits I find questionable. I simply cannot “read” DKC2’s graphics.

It conflicts terribly with how buttery smooth the gameplay is. If the game was terrible, I’d just put it down and not look back, but as long as I’m seeing what I think I’m seeing, it is loads of fun. On minute I’m hopping back and forth on honeyed walls in a giant beehive, the next I’m falling to my doom because … I don’t know… maybe I didn’t get to the wall?

These troubles have peaked with the stage Bramble Scramble. The level is 80% killer thorns and the player must lead Diddy on vines from platform to platform, avoid enemies. It is a great idea for a level. Unfortunately, half of the level involves flying with Squawks, a parrot that carries the protagonist through the level. There are spikes above and below, but because Diddy is being carried by the parrot it is impossible to see when he will hit the spikes above him. I have continued no less that 5 times on this one stage. I doesn’t help that the game isn’t consistent in what are deadly spikes and what isn’t. I have jumped through the spikes wall and not been harmed, but the barest edging up against them in some areas spells instant death.

I’m going to keep plugging away. The game is just too much fun to put down. I will not be conquered by a 15 year old platformer. I simply won’t let that happen.