One of my favorite websites is the endlessly entertaining TV Tropes, a wiki that curates various genre conventions, cliches, and idioms that pop up across all forms of media, with scads of examples for each featured subject. One of TV Tropes’ pages is called “Nintendo Hard.” To quote: “Back in the ’80s, video games didn’t have the advanced storylines of today; Excuse Plots were the norm. So much of the feeling of accomplishment one could derive was from overcoming the insane difficulty that the games provided, if only so one could brag to one’s friends. Plethoras of enemies and impossible jumps were not just the name of the game, they were the game. These games weren’t just hard; they were Nintendo Hard!”
You’d better believe that Donkey Kong Country Returns fits this bill, through and through.
Yes, the big ape returns in a throwback platformer that Nintendo’s outwardly positioned as 2010′s New Super Mario Bros. Wii, replete with retro-styled visuals that harken back to the series’ Super NES days. It’s like a lost sequel unearthed from a time capsule — a really freaking hard 16-bit side-scroller that demands needle-sharp speed and precision. I don’t take issue with the difficulty (let’s be honest, that’s a problem with me, not with the game), but rather, with the nature of the difficulty.
You see, in his quest to rid his home island of weird tiki invaders (whose hypnotic powers have turned the wildlife feral), Donkey Kong enlists the help of constant series sidekick Diddy Kong, who — after being liberated from a suspiciously marked barrel — dutifully rides on the king of Kong’s back. Somewhere between 1996 and 2010, Diddy got himself a cool jetpack, which comes with a very handy hover-jump. Many of the game’s most challenging areas are designed with this ability in mind… which means if you’ve lost Diddy (take two hits, and it’s back to the barrel for him), things tend to get a lot harder. Never impossible, mind you, but it damn sure feels that way sometimes. It gets even worse when you play co-op with a friend, as whoever takes Donkey Kong is effectively handicapping themselves in what amounts to the game’s hard mode.
I’ll be honest: I Super Guided eight of the game’s 62 main levels (die 10 times, and a CPU-controlled stand-in will optionally finish the problem area for you, similar to New SMB Wii). A few amounted to oh-no-I’ve-lost-Diddy-related challenges, while others were straight-up reflex assaults, in the form of the series’ time-honored mine cart rides. But if I take offense to anything, it’s the hellish levels that saddle you in an airborne barrel-ship, forcing you to exercise measured button-presses in order to control your elevation and flight angle as nonstop obstacles bombard you… all resulting in one-hit kills. In this particular case, the challenge derives from awkward controls — not the obstacle course itself. And while DKC Returns features a typically forgiving checkpoint system, it gets pretty stingy at the most inopportune times. Yeah, it’s always quite satisfying to polish off a particularly tough level, but boy, does this game make you earn it in some pretty crazy ways that border on mind-numbing frustration.
This isn’t meant to marginalize the game’s good points, as it’s got quite a few. The platforming challenges never get tiresome or repetitive, as every new world introduces something new. An early-game beach level finds you ducking behind cover and racing frantically against the open air to avoid deadly tidal waves, while parts of the cliffside area involve hustling across drop-out floors as quickly as possible and navigating vertical mazes of the series’ trademark barrel cannons. Even the aforementioned mine cart levels pull some cool environmental trickery; one memorable railway expedition sends you spiraling around inside a rolling piece of runaway architecture, jumping pits and other obstacles as the walls around you steadily crack and shatter. These sorts of touches are purely visual — but undoubtedly cool. Rambi the Rhino (Donkey Kong’s very own Yoshi analog) even makes a few cameos, though his involvement usually makes the level a cakewalk. Oh, and a handful of areas cast Donkey and Diddy (and the rest of the characters and terrain) as black silhouettes against gorgeous backgrounds — a rare and beautiful design choice.
The particulars of Donkey Kong’s world are all stock transplants from previous DKCs, and I mean that in a good way. Cranky Kong is still cranky (even when he’s selling you stuff and taking your banana coins), every level hides bonus rooms and collectibles in just about every nook and cranny, and the Kongs exhibit all the usual rolling and pounding techniques that you know and love. As to that last one, I could have done without the gimmicky Wii-mote shaking (I lost several lives to misfired rolls when I meant to ground-slam) — but overall, Donkey Kong Country Returns is a (mostly) pleasant surprise and a return to form. Considering how poorly the original trilogy aged (if you ask me), that’s pretty… well, bananas.