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Preview: Donkey Kong Country Returns


Donkey Kong Country Returns is a return to form. Instead of reimagining Rare's classic SNES series, as it did Metroid in its Metroid Prime trilogy, developer Retro Studios is creating a game that's a lot more, well, "retro." DKC Returns appears to erase the 14-year gap since DKC3 -- really, it has been that long -- doing its best to fit in with a series that was designed for a console benchmarked by "bit."

DKC Returns does employ modern platforming design and technology, like 3D environments with playable foreground and background areas, but it does so subtly, as not to stray far from an authentic feel -- how we might remember DKC on the SNES. And, truly, I had forgotten that the original DKCs were not fully co-op. Oh right, I'm remembering, the SNES games had that tag-in/tag-out multiplayer. So, as I demoed DKC Returns at Nintendo's E3 booth with Joystiq's own JC Fletcher, it was actually a new Donkey Kong Country experience that felt just like something I'd enjoyed many years ago.

Gallery: Donkey Kong Country Returns (E3 2010) | 15 Photos

The least authentic part about DKC Returns is the control scheme. The demo required that both the Wiimote and Nunchuk be used, and it was unclear if the final game would allow for other schemes. The combination worked fine, as the gameplay is not overly complicated (nor dependent on highly specific motions), but I would have preferred to play with the Nunchuk detached and Wiimote flipped on its side -- or even with the Classic Controller, gladly sacrificing the waggle-to-slap command.

Like its predecessors, DKC Returns is a platformer focused on collection: Donkey Kong's stolen bananas are littered everywhere. Progression through the relatively straight forward side-scrolling levels can be slow, especially if you've got a partner determined to reclaim every last banana. Plus, both players have to stay relatively close together, as the screen doesn't pan out very far should they separate. The two characters, Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong, have the same basic functionally, though Diddy wisely brings along his jet pack, which can give him a jump boost, and Peanut Pop Gun, which fires a bouncing, rather large peanut projectile.

Enemies tend to be more nuisance than challenge, and it's only when timing elements are introduced into the levels that the difficult really ramps up. It's possible to navigate the really treacherous sections as two players, but Diddy can also ride on Donkey Kong's back, forming a single unit controlled by one player. I assumed we'd breeze through the chasm-infested mine cart level in a couple of tries, but after failing for like the fifith time, JC and I just bowed our heads and selected "quit."

The demo's boss battle almost ended as shamefully, as we were trampled, chewed up and spit out by the giant horned toad-like beast. We'd all but emptied our generously endowed pool of lives (if one Kong dies, he floats back into the screen trapped in a balloon-propelled barrel that must be burst by the surviving player), before one of us delivered the final stomp. This was relief more than victory.

While there's still a world of Donkey Kong Country Returns left to explore, from what Nintendo has revealed thus far, Retro Studios' sequel is not "New Donkey Kong Country" -- it's old Donkey Kong Country. There's an obvious nostalgic draw to the game, but its ability to recapture your imagination beyond the first few delightful moments looks to vary depending on how authentic an experience you truly seek.

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