Donkey Kong Country Returns for Wii – 2 out of 2 hearts

Kong KongSince I so rarely complete a video game, and they take so many goddamned hours to “complete,” I thought I should struggle to post up some form of review. so. here goes.

Donkey Kong Country Returns nails what it wants to be. Which is a hardcore hard-as-shit hard jumping hard-game (that rolls up hard on you). So, good for Retro Studios and Nintendo. Plus, I was repeatedly floored by the beauty and creativity of the levels. The beauty was exemplified by the models and environments, which feel like solid carved colorful sculptures. The creativity mostly came in the form of delightful use of foreground and background spaces, rewarding detailed destruction wreckage, and fluid adorable animations everywhere. The ingenious use of z-axis space in a 2D side-scrolling platformer was really what sold me on this game. All in all, this was probably the best hard-as-fucking-shit-to-complete jumping game ever made. seriously. it had some good jumpin’.

Also, clearly the best Wii game released in ALLLLLL of 2010. Which maybe wasn’t a hard feat to pull off (not much came out). But I’m surprised more people didn’t talk about it.

While this gem is a highly underrated retro-jumpy game on one hand, I’m also not sure why any human being over the age of 10 would actually want to play this genre of game. There were no puzzles which you could wrack your brain over. There was no story worth dissecting. The Wii controls are just sluggish enough that 10 – 20% of my deaths were due to accidental maneuvers (rolling when i just wanted to crouch. or crouching and blowing when I wanted to roll or ground pound) (fffffFuuuhhhh-rustrating!). If I was a better techno-geek, I’d use high speed photography to nail down exactly how many milliseconds each input takes to effect on-screen action. And I’d compare it with a plugged in controller. Because I suspect a delay is in play. weep.

Anywho. The plot was all the trite fun you’d expect from a Nintendo jumpy game. (spoilers follow, i guess?). Basically some haunting totem-pole-looking characters, called Tikis, are woken by a volcano eruption. You spend the game navigating cliche themed “worlds” on the island, as you spiral up to the volcano for a lava covered climax. With a larger Tiki.

The design of these Tiki villains reminded me heavily of Viva Pinata. making me wonder if this style was meant to be an answer to … an Xbox kiddie-entertainment-threat that never really materialized? Maybe? Curious.

Anywho, these newborn Tikis take to playing some evil catchy music to control various animals on the island. Thus, each end boss fight entails beating the hell out of some poor cute creature, until it can’t hear the mind-control music anymore. The music in this game is great, btw. And each of the end boss battle music tunes are nicely maddening and intense. So… Well played, game devs! Crafty design concept.

I was floored by one level in particular (tidal terror, I believe?), which had waves forming and rushing in from the distance, forcing you to find cover while… walking to the right. The game is filled with crossovers between foreground and background. But up until this level the crossovers had just echoed Super Paper Mario for me. “Get in a device, and pop up in the distance as a much smaller character.” This tidal level nailed a much different z-axis threat, which visually boggled my mind. Wish Nintendo/Rare would open up more about who specifically was behind specific design decisions like this.

I was also impressed later on by a factory level that was so “smokey” that you enjoy a Limbo style of silhouette gameplay/aesthetic. Was sad to see this was just an intro to the factory world, and the rest of the levels were more standard gears and electricity crap. Made me wonder if the first factory level was whipped up after the developers saw Limbo. (there was also a later one-off Lava level with smokey silhouettes. but. still. Felt very out of step with the rest of the game.). [EDIT: After writing this review I discovered how to unlock more levels, and was embarrassed to find another silhouette level, right there in the first “world” of the game. This one being justified by the setting sun. very stylish. oops! clearly not a one off]. It’s a shame that your blowing action didn’t clear away the smoke in a small area during this level, since the smoke was blown away at one point to reveal fully 3D textured level elements. Or it would have been neat if you couldn’t blow at all due to smoke, and just hacked and coughed. I wonder if they didn’t consider this, ran out of time, or maybe tried it and decided against it. …?

So you progress through 8 “worlds” with aesthetics we’ve seen before (though, admittedly, they were gorgeous here). Lush jungle world, dank cave world, boney cliff world, wet beach world, etc. Factory world caught me off guard at first, but then quickly felt like the chunky gear aesthetic we’ve seen in a lot of 3D Mario Galaxy games recently. Bleh. In the end, you traverse a lava world. Yawn? Wish there was some crazy change-ups here. Some quick ideas for better worlds : Banana world, fur world, quantum world, optical world, zoo world, pachinko world, settler world, etc. Seems like you could make an endless array of new aesthetics, instead of mining the same old jungle, water, sand, lava shit. I guess the idea is a retro appeal, but instead it left me bored after the first level established each area. In the end I felt a palpable sense of dread when I realized I was in a another goddamned lava world, where everything would likely be insanely hard. It was like revisiting a childhood trauma. ugh. Found myself wondering if there was ever a game that started in lava, and made it fun/easy. or if there ever could be. hmmf. Anywho. I did appreciate the lava world was full of firey things that you could blow out.

In the final level you encounter a “large” totem thing (tiki tong? so says Wikipedia). and it eats all the bananas, and vomits banana sludge (that is somehow also a sort of lava or molten gold?) on all the other totems (i guess this is banana gold? I’m not clear on whether Kong collects edible bananas for eating, or gold bananas for hording. huh. shrug.). Anywho, this bastard boss turns his vomit covered minions into hands – which immediately brought to mind the stupid Andross end-boss fight(s) from Starfox, where you had to shoot his stupid polygonal hands (complete with comical big red button hot spots) so you could finally tackle his stupid disembodied head. ugh. It was a bad idea in a flight game, and now it’s revisited as a bad idea in a platformer. Would have been much cooler to fight Super Kong himself. perhaps with him having extra power based on how many levels you let him complete for you (ie, as a motivation to go back and replay any levels you pussied out on). (you could also offer a special reward if anyone is insane enough to go back and let Super Kong beat every level – thus becoming a retardely hard end boss – and then you beat his max-powered version in the end).

Oh well. Once you bounce wildly on large red buttons on the back of the hands and head (poor design. thbbt), you trigger an end game cinematic that finds Donkey Kong smacked up to the moon. Which you handily punch down to crush the entire fucking island (well, It just looks like this would happen, due to the scale. In fact you just crush the volcano monster). I wonder at the involvement of the moon here at the 11th hour in the story. Makes me wonder if this dev team was talking with Valve’s devs while they worked on Portal2 (which came out 5 months later). Was there a conspiracy to involve the moon in the end game?

Having completed the game, you’re confronted with a newly unlocked world 9, called the “Golden Temple”. When I entered it’s solitary level and walked up to the front door to find it closed. A message told me I would have to discover “8 mysterious orbs.” … well. fuck. that.
This might be cool idea for replayability. I certainly want to get into this big shiny gold temple… but. I have no idea how to get these orbs. And I’m done with this goddamn game! I just watched the credits! I just spent hours slogging through ridiculous Lava levels. The game is no longer a lark. It is just work.

Maybe if they’d gone back and shown me hints at where these orbs might appear I would have been more excited. But I assume I’d either have to find all the puzzle pieces or all the KONG letters in every level of all 8 worlds (or maybe I’d have to do both? eek). I remember mysterious stone platforms in each world map, which seemed like they needed some sort of unlockin’. but, I never unlocked one. and I have no interest in wasting time with this mystery. so. fail. This is not a puzzle. This is an obvious trick.
[EDIT: after writing this, I DID go back and snoop around. Found that you do indeed have to get all KONG letters on each level to unlock a temple level for that world. I did this for the first 4 worlds, since I was so close. Sadly, each temple was ridiculously hard, and I didn’t complete any of them. But it was nice to solve this mystery. I was probably too quick to criticize the golden temple presentation! and maybe too quick to say the game offered no puzzles that would engage an adult brain. zoinks. … Also, i found that the puzzle pieces are used to unlock concept art and songs and such. so. again, it was refreshing to know what that aspect was about. I’m nervous that all of this may have been explained early in the game, and I just forgot during my year away]

It is perhaps worth mentioning that I played the first half of this game over a year ago, and only decided to go back and finish it up about a week ago when I brought my newborn son home, and needed something to keep me awake while watching over him at night. A year ago, I was disgusted by the idea of the Super Kong, who appears after you fuck up 8 times on any level Well, more accurately, an annoying pig appears waving a white flag at you, encouraging you to give up and let Super Kong take over. Who is this pig? [EDIT: at one point Cranky Kong, the shopkeeper, asks you who that pig is. I’m not clear if this is intentional fan service, or just a way to get you consider engaging the piggy for Super Kong help?] A year ago I cursed the fat annoying pig and dug in. Played harder. Today, I looked forward to this easy way out.
[EDIT: A year ago I also skipped out on buying keys to unlock an easier path through each world. I also thought this was a cop-out. But now I see that keys unlock an entire new level, and they are offered as a way to reward you for collecting coins.they give you something meaningful to buy. And it turns out that if you don’t buy a key and get access to that secret level, then you can’t collect all the KONG letters and unlock that world’s orb Temple. zoinks. I’m pretty sure this was NOT explained early in the game. grumble.]

I wonder if Super Kong was designed to resemble an older tired Donkey Kong. Like an adult who doesn’t have time for these fucking impossible jumping games that need both perfect reflexes and endless level memorization. hmmf. Anywho. I welcome Nintendo’s “Super Guide” concept now. I definitely would not have completed the game’s core storyline without it. I think I only personally beat 2 out of the last 8 levels I played. Being able to put the controller down and just watch someone perfectly navigate definitely helped me feel like I got my money’s worth out of those fucked levels I never would have had the patience to put up with. But this also led to a “creeping cop-out” problem, which I’ve experienced with online walkthrough guides, where once you give up and look up the answer it’s hard to resist giving up again and again. I think my patience for frustration is about 5 minutes. So 8 lives before the piggy showed was maybe a bit too many. but. hmm.

Having seen Super Kong pull of some amazing impossible shit didn’t make me eager to go back and replay these levels, in order to find some goddamned mystery orbs. hmmf. I feel like there a design flaw floating there, daring me to name it. but. hmmf. i dunno.

Maybe I should change tactics here, and take a moment to note

What fucking sucked about this game:

the barrel rocket flying levels were all bullshit. Goddamn them. Why was the control in these levels boiled down to a single button press? I have a goddamned laser pointer in the Wiimote. I assume this must have been some call back to the original game series. but I never played the old game(s) for more than a couple levels. I loathed the original game(s). so. hmm. dunno.

I was also, similarly, often frustrated by the mine cart levels, which were essentially about memorizing jump timing by repeatedly dying in some demented designer’s torture map. But I still enjoyed them because of the sense of thrilling speed. I felt awesome after navigating them. Not so those fucking barrel rocket levels. fuck. FUCK. i hated them so much. errgh.

Since there is no notable plot, it’s hard to evaluate a game like you might a movie. If you go with player agency instead of plot, I’d have to mark this bitch down. It was a strange choice to make the character control imprecise and sluggish. Not clear if this was on purpose. but. Kong takes too much time to turn around, and too much time to ramp up speed for wonky physics jumps. I would often jump, holding hard on the stick and the button with all my might, but miss the jump like a wimp. No idea what went wrong. Having completed the game without ever really figuring this dynamic out – I blame the game.

– I suspect I just needed the reflexes of a teenager in order to master every moment. This terrifies me. Because if it is true, then I guess I’m done with a huge chunk of games I used to enjoy for the past 25 years. There were certainly some times when I felt “in the groove” and nailed crazy levels in one go. First try. Not sure if they were easier levels though. or what.
but. hmm. I don’t feel good about it, looking back. so, I call it a game defect. needing hot shit reflexes.

– the Super Kong “super guide” concept was poorly implemented. Would have been better if Super Kong just appeared where you were (instead of making you restart the whole level from the beginning to watch him go). Instead of making it “watch me play”, it would have been more fun to let you play endless instant respawn lives, while the camera stuck with Super Kong. it already made you agree that you’d forfeit any items collected while Super Kong was around. Why also make you forfeit all forms of gameplay fun? As it was, enabling the super guide made me feel dirty. Like I was giving up on having talent. bleh.

– it was stupid that you only have two hearts. Is he Dr. Who? why 2 hearts? weird. Letting me gain more heart containers would make me feel empowered to go back and retry some of the more fucked up levels. what the hell. hmmf.

Annnd I should take a moment to note


the positive awesome bits:

– I loved the ground pound control idea. Flail your arms and the ape has a pounding tantrum. perfect use of the wii mote.

– I also dug the concept of a “blow” action. It offered a nice break from all the jumping and smashing to crouch down and puff up some dandelions and fans. It even seemed to suggest Kong has more going on that mad ape rage. he has a softer side. awww.
(however I wish they’d let this action tie to another button, instead of requiring you to crouch. The nunchuck’s directional joystick kind of sucks, so I’d often accidetally hit down and to the right instead of just down, and then waggling the wiimote caused me to roll off a cliff like an idiot. I was trying to make a peaceful blow. awww. shucks.)

– the music was awesome. From the catchy opening screen musics, which offered a nice catchy welcome back, to wide variety of cool tracks that popped up across the various levels. Just awesome, deceptively simple genius.

– I dug the concept of a side kick, diddy kong, adding extra hearts and longer jump hovers. (plus, if you play two player, i believe he has the ability shoot peanuts? thus, the graphic at top, where Kong blows his peanut brains out). I didn’t like his “i’m so hip with my damned baseball hat and attitude” style. but. Loved how he fit into the game.

– just gorgeous. and great animations. damn.

Overall:

I give this game 2 out of 2 hearts. It seemed to be the game it wanted to be. Not exactly my cup of tea, but extremely well made and polished. I just wish it had aimed a little higher, and broader, and bigger. I wish it had more hearts.

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