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Donkey Kong Country Returns preview: Not monkeying around


I am a terrible, wimpy gamer. At least, that's what Donkey Kong Country Returns convinced me of after stealing dozens of balloons (lives) away from my defeated ape. While my colleagues, James and JC, hinted at its difficulty during E3, they didn't detail how truly sadistic the level design is. James' conclusion that this is the return of old Donkey Kong Country was wrong -- this is Mega Man.

I also made the silly assumption that the mine cart level -- as they were in the past -- would be a breeze to get through. But, I was wrong. I started the level, doing just fine. The first long jump came as no problem, but then the deaths kept on accumulating: jumping for the letter K caused me to jump off the track to my doom, jumping over an enemy led me to a cliff, forgetting to duck while mid-air in a jump got me killed by spikes, jumping on top of an enemy got me killed by another pair of spikes, I didn't have enough momentum to make a short jump followed by a long jump, etc. etc. By the time I actually reached the end of the level, a Nintendo representative had to reset the demo, because I had managed to whittle down the dozens of lives down to... three?

Gallery: Donkey Kong Country Returns (10/28/10) | 16 Photos

Perhaps more than any Donkey Kong before it, you must learn the layout and tempo of each map before attempting to clear, let alone collect everything within, each level. There are many "gotcha" moments, where the game tricks you into believing you are safe. For example, in one of the barrel sequences, you learn to take your time, trying to align yourself perfectly to jump into the next barrel. There are obstacles in the way, of course, but with some patience, it's relatively easy to manage. Just when you think you're almost at the end of the sequence, though, a pillar topples over, crushing the barrel you're in. If you don't have split-second reflexes, you won't notice it in time, and you'll die, having to redo that entire section all over again.

In another level, Donkey and Diddy must traverse a beach. But, there's a nasty wave that crashes into the level every so often. You'll learn to take cover behind rocks, if you want to avoid be wiped out. As with all the levels I played, it starts deceptively simple. There's always a moment of panic right before the wave crashes in from the background, as you desperately look for a safe place to stand. But, at one point in the level, you see a lone crab walking towards you as you duck and take cover from the wave. I thought, "that crab can't reach me before the wave kills him!"

But I was wrong. Just as the wave comes crashing down, the crab grabs me and steals away one of my few remaining lives. So, I decide I'll show that crab who's boss. On my next attempt, I run after him, and jump on his head to defeat him. I try to make it back to my cover in time but the wave sweeps me away, along with another life. Running and jumping on the crab just takes too long. So what am I to do? Eventually, I figure out that I have to roll into him, and roll back in order to kill him and secure my rock in time. It's easier said than done, of course -- it's so easy to overshoot the very, very small rock. This one sequence managed to take away half a dozen lives ... and I was barely done with the remainder of that course.

Although I felt totally embarrassed by every level the game threw at me, I couldn't help but want to keep playing. It's as if Nintendo wanted to silence the critics with a knockout punch. You wanted hardcore? Take this. I walked away from the controller, humbled, feeling as if Reggie Fils-Aime punched me in the gut -- and I loved it. I can't wait to see the stunned look on Grandpa's face when he thinks this is just another New Super Mario Bros Wii. It might just kill him.

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