There, I said it. I doubt I would have been so tempted under normal, non-reviewing circumstances, but I had a very limited time to get through Donkey Kong Country Returns, and I was getting pretty frustrated, and that happy little pig was standing there, waving a white flag and inviting me to put my feet up and let Super Kong carry me through the level. And I did. I mean, uh, I had to try out the Super Guide at least once for review purposes, right?
The presence of the Super Guide in this game is actually very important. Retro Studios seems to have gotten it where previous games haven't: with the Super Guide in place, allowing players to give up after eight lives and see a recorded playthrough of a level, Retro was free to make this ostensibly kid-focused Nintendo franchise game as painfully difficult as it wanted to. And it's a difficulty worth at least attempting to endure. Donkey Kong Country Returns is a side-scrolling platformer in the style of the SNES Donkey Kong Country games. The Kremling Krew is out in favor of the Tiki Tak Tribe, who look eerily like something Rare would have designed. Diddy Kong now has a jetpack that can extend his jump like Princess Peach in Super Mario Bros. 2. In single-player, he acts as a powerup, clinging to Donkey Kong's back, allowing for use of said jetpack and adding two more HP. Both Donkey and Diddy can now perform a ground pound, a sharp exhalation (to spin pinwheels, put out candles, remove petals from dandelions, etc.) and a rolling move with shaking motions. But aside from these new maneuvers, it's basically the same idea as the SNES games: jumping and running through platforming challenges, picking up hidden items and dying in mine cart levels.
It's just ... better. The level designs never fail to be interesting, putting you through challenging setpieces with constant introduction of new elements -- you have to bounce off this hippo's head to reach the vine! This platform topples into the next one! There's a huge boulder chasing you! Where you might have had some diagonal slopes of grassy land in one of the older Donkey Kong Country games, you're now more likely to have a massive pendulum covered with an outer layer of grass to which you can cling. The constant novelty forces you to continue to learn new strategies as you play, and it gives the game a feeling closer to New Super Mario Bros. Wii than Donkey Kong Country.
This is a game that succeeds not because of incredible innovations, but simply because it was designed really well.
A lot of the clever level design goes into, well, making you die. This game is surprisingly difficult, with lots of tricky timed jumps, devious enemy placements, and needle-threading segments that require you to roll or use the thrusters on a barrel rocket with total precision or risk dying. I'm pretty confident you'll die on more levels than you'll get through the first time. And if you so choose, you can make the game even harder by attempting to pick up all the puzzle pieces and "KONG" letters hidden throughout. But it's not healthy to put yourself through that much stress.
Like New Super Mario Bros. Wii (and a growing number of new sidescrollers since NSMB Wii), there is co-op, and like that game, it's designed to allow players of different skill levels to play together. However, it just makes the game harder, since Diddy Kong is now uncoupled from his status as Donkey Kong's jump extender. Sure, the second player could cling to Donkey Kong's back -- and this is a good strategy for having one player lead the other through difficult areas -- but that results in one player being unable to play, except to shoot a peanut gun by shaking. No matter what, if you want DK to be able to hover while jumping, you either have to convince Player 2 not to play for a second, or not to play at all.
Donkey Kong Country Returns proves that Retro Studios doesn't just have a talent for first-person sci-fi adventures. This is a game that succeeds not because of incredible innovations, but simply because it was designed really well. Retro took a series I didn't even want to care about, and made something great with it. This game easily makes up for the DK Rap.
This review is based on the Wii retail version of Donkey Kong Country Returns provided by Nintendo.