10 Years Later: Donkey Kong Country Returns stands head and shoulders above the rest!
The idea of bringing back older games and genres from the dead and giving them a fresh coat of paint has been one of the most predominant and successful notions in recent gaming history. Nintendo first took the idea for a test drive in 2006, with the arrival of New Super Mario Bros on the DS, and later on the Wii. Both games were received favorably, critically and in terms of sales. This experience demonstrated to the Big N that their older games, with their simple designs and streamlined development, could be utilized for more than just reselling them on the digital store–they could also be used as jumping-off points for entirely new games.
After these successes, Nintendo took a slightly bigger gamble and rolled the dice on a Donkey Kong Country revival. Not taking any chances, the notoriously conservative Nintendo passed off development on this modern successor to Retro Studios. Hot off the glorious triple whammy of the Metroid Prime trilogy, Retro seemed like the perfect fit to revitalize another dormant franchise.
And a perfect fit they were. Donkey Kong Country Returns emerged in 2010 as not only a great revival of the classic DKC franchise but as easily the best game in the entire series. Now to imagine the kind of feat this is, you have to really dig deep and take a look at it from a few different angles. The easiest comparison would be to take something like Metroid Fusion or the aforementioned New Super Mario Bros, and imagine those games actually being better than the titles they’re attempting to emulate, in those cases undisputed classics like Super Metroid and Super Mario World.
That’s the kind of mad success that Donkey Kong Country Returns was able to generate. Heck, it’s one thing if you can even make a revival that’s good enough to stand in the same circle as the games whose format you’re borrowing from, but to effectively blow those classics out of the water is, essentially, to beat the masters at their own game–and that’s a real achievement.
But what did Retro do to make such a successful sequel/reboot 14 years after the fact? Well, there are a few reasons that Donkey Kong Country Returns succeeds as markedly as it does, but the first one that comes to mind is almost certainly its attention to detail. Every inch of every level is lovingly crafted and gloriously curated with eye-popping details, jaw-dropping vistas, and wonderfully animated environments. Over the course of some 70 levels, this is truly a marvel to experience, especially as the later levels get increasingly madcap in their use of crazily inventive mechanics, like rolling on a giant egg which is slowly breaking apart or getting chased by a giant bat through a cave. The constant onslaught of new ideas as the game continues keeps the fun alive, and the level of polish that each is given makes them feel all the more worthwhile, even one-off as some of them may be.
The next thing to consider is just how perfectly DKCR straddles the line between paying homage to the classic gameplay of the original trilogy and introducing new elements to spruce things up. There are the previously mentioned whacked-out gimmick levels, which are great in and of themselves, but there’s also reinventions of classic formulas. The old mine cart levels return for example, but joining them is also the kind of updated concept that could only be done on a more modern console, like the use of the incredibly difficult rocket barrel stages wherein you must be a near-perfect zen master in order to even pass muster, let alone gain all of the collectibles at hand. If you’re a Firefly fan, think Wash’s “leaf on the wind” mantra from Serenity, and you’ll be on the right track.
It’s glorious to live in an age where a game with the kind of swaggering balls that Donkey Kong Country Returns has is allowed to be released. The absurd level of difficulty this game boasts is mind-boggling when you consider the fact that the main characters are a smirking ape in a tie and a cute monkey wearing a baseball cap. Any reasonable person would expect a game like this to be designed with children in mind. Meanwhile, I’ve never met or spoken to another adult in my life who has managed to gain the full 100% completion rate in this game, and I know a lot of people who have played this game. Now don’t think that’s some editorial masturbation where I’m trying to sneak in the fact that I’m some heroic gamer standing in a league of my own. On the contrary, I know some incredibly competent gamers who just couldn’t stand up to the challenge that DKCR offers, and that’s commendable for a game like this.
Like the recent Rayman games and the last few proper Mario titles (I’m talking Galaxy and 3D World principally) Donkey Kong Country Returns succeeds not by offering a cheap dose of nostalgia in a pre-packaged format but by asking modern gamers to step up and really put in the time if they want to master the game. It’s the same philosophy that has made nearly instant classics out of games like Dark Souls or Super Meat Boy–when the creative minds behind a product refuse to bend or break on the design or difficulty curve of a game, even when conventional knowledge shows that most people are going to have a really tough time with that, it shows a level of confidence that few creative minds possess.
Though the more recent Tropical Freeze is still a great game in its own right, it’s Donkey Kong Country Returns that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the entries in the series, and really, among the all-time greats themselves. Make no mistake, DKCR is easily among the best platformers ever released, and in an era where every indie house in the biz is crafting their own takes on the classic format, that is, indeed, something to be proud of.