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First Hands-On With Donkey Kong Country Returns

by Phil Kollar on Jun 15, 2010 at 01:57 PM

I was raised on the NES and SNES, and my favorite genre growing up was 2D platformers. Though the 8- and 16-bit Mario games always (rightfully) hogged the spotlight, I had a special love for Rare’s trio of Donkey Kong Country games on the SNES. As such, you can imagine my pleasure to hear that Retro Studios, the talented team behind the Metroid Prime games, will be handling a relaunch of the Donkey Kong Country series on the Wii.

Rather than try to put Nintendo’s most famous ape into 3D like Rare tried with Donkey Kong 64, Donkey Kong Country Returns is a classic 2D platformer. The first level I played, a jungle stage, started off fully aware of the nostalgia it's appealing to, looking almost exactly like the first level of the original Donkey Kong Country. I started the game inside Donkey Kong’s hut on top of a cliff, where I had to slam the Wii remote and nunchuk alternately to make Donkey Kong pound the ground until he finally smashed through the door of his hut. As fellow editor Ben Reeves put it, “I guess that’s how Donkey Kong opens doors."

Like the original, there’s a cave opening below Donkey Kong’s hut that you can enter, although this time it contains a collectible puzzle piece rather than Kong’s hoarded bananas. You can even re-enter the hut to get a free extra life in the form of a red balloon with Donkey Kong’s face on it.

Once you get past the feelings of déjà vu, there are actually quite a few changes to the game. You can start swinging the Wii remote and nunchuk at any point to make Donkey Kong pound the ground, which allows him to destroy boxes and uncover secrets. A quick downward swipe of the remote makes him roll, which speeds things up but also leaves him open to getting hurt by enemies.

Unlike the original game, Donkey Kong can take two hits instead of just one, but the difficulty has been increased to make up for it. Most enemies are taken out in classic platformer fashion by jumping on them, but they have erratic movement patterns that you’ll need to master. In one particularly difficult boss battle, I fought a giant lizard-looking creature with horns on his head. He would try running at me, at which point I had to jump over his horns and onto the soft spot on his back, a task easier said than done. Just when I thought I’d finally figured the fight out, the boss added a new move to his arsenal: jumping into the air to try to give Donkey Kong a taste of his own medicine. Needless to say, this was one boss battle that I wasn’t able to conquer in the middle of a packed E3 floor full of other fans eager to check it out.

I also got to try out the two-player mode which, naturally, teams Donkey Kong up with his smaller sidekick, Diddy Kong. Unlike the older Donkey Kong Country games, Donkey and Diddy control quite a bit differently. Diddy’s ground pound seemed to be weaker, but upon doing it, he also threw bananas at enemies that could stun them. Diddy also has a jet pack that he can activate while jumping, allowing him to hover for a short while in the air. The second player has the option of jumping onto Donkey Kong’s back at any moment, allowing him to effortlessly toss bananas at enemies while player one focuses on the actual platforming.

Walking away from this first look at Donkey Kong Country Returns, I can’t wait to check out more of the game. As the levels progressed, Retro presented some very interesting design choices, occasionally putting Donkey Kong into a background layer, almost LittleBigPlanet style (though it appears to be automatic rather than controlled by the player in any way). I’m excited to see what other imaginative ideas they come up with, and I’m happy that Nintendo continues to explore the possibilities of 2D platformers in this generation.