There's a time and place for innovation, but you certainly can't expect a tie-wearing gorilla to lead the charge into unexplored territory. As the name suggests, Donkey Kong Country Returns is a trip down memory lane, and this tightly crafted collection of classic platforming tropes shows that clever level design can be just as engaging as brand-spanking-new ideas. Even without cutting-edge features to distinguish it from other 2D platformers, Donkey Kong's latest adventure is exciting because it constantly messes with your expectations. Dynamically changing levels are the most noteworthy element, and though this idea has cropped up in other games, it's done exceptionally well here. Levels morph before your eyes, and this unpredictability ensures you're continually presented with new obstacles that require sharp reflexes to navigate. A few questionable control decisions are the only problems in this exciting blast from the past. Donkey Kong's return to gaming is definitely a triumphant one.
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Donkey Kong has never been mistaken for a noble hero. Instead of setting out to save the world from some unimaginable horror or rescuing a damsel in distress, this starving simian is intent on getting back his stolen bananas. At least he has a companion to help him complete his self-serving deeds. Diddy Kong is just as eager to get his hands on those precious bananas, but you don't get to switch between these two monkeys as in previous games in the series. Instead, you control Donkey Kong during the entire game, and when you find a specially marked DK barrel, you summon your little friend to help you out. He rides on your back and has a handy jetpack to help you across longer jumps or guide you for precise landings.
Diddy is an invaluable contributor because you're so much more maneuverable when he's in tow. If you suffer a couple of hits, you lose Diddy until you find another barrel, and controlling Donkey Kong by his lonesome makes things trickier. Gorillas are heavy animals, and you can feel his weight whenever you move him. It takes a few minutes to get acquainted with his running speed and jumping ability, but things become second nature pretty quickly. The only problem is that you have to shake the remote to perform some moves. Waving the controller to blow out a fire or hand slap the ground is mildly annoying, but it doesn't impede your progress. The problem lies in the rolling command which lets you cross extra-wide pits. Shaking the controller is just not precise enough in such situations, which might result in you dying a few aggravating deaths. This blemish continues through the whole game, and though you get used to it over time, the problem never goes completely away.
Donkey Kong's adventure takes him through a series of locales that recall the classic environments of Donkey Kong Country. You start things off in a leafy forest where toppling statues and flightless birds attempt to end your journey before it really gets going. From there, you navigate the treacherous subterranean world of a dark cave; the dense, foggy air in a polluted factory; and a sweltering volcano that would make even a monkey's uncle sweat. Like the locations, the obstacles have been pulled right out of countless platformers of the past. Bottomless pits, swinging vines, rising lava, and spike-filled traps stand in your path, so don't expect many surprises on this front. Instead, it's the way in which these tried-and-true pieces are used that pushes you through this journey. Take, for instance, the mine cart levels. You ride along a set track, jumping over pits and dodging enemies until you reach the end. It sounds ho hum, but in practice, it's anything but. In one such level, the track breaks before your eyes. You have to jump from one crumbling rail to the next, continually changing your strategy and pushing your reflexes to stay one step ahead of the imminent dangers.
Even gorillas like water slides.
Donkey Kong Country Returns is constantly twisting traditional ideas, which keeps even platforming experts on their toes. Although it doesn't sound nearly as exciting as a groundbreaking new gameplay mechanic, the real joy in this game stems from navigating these deviously constructed levels. You will die often in this game, but it's rarely frustrating. The challenge comes from the intelligent placement of basic platforming obstacles. You can't take jumps for granted because things are rarely as easy as they initially appear. Crumbling platforms are just one danger you have to be mindful of: Enemies spring up in unexpected places, boulders attempt to squish you flat, and spiked balls spell doom with just one touch. There is a never-ending cavalcade of traps in Returns that ensures you're constantly fighting for your life and keeping your eyes peeled for unexpected dangers. The level design is fantastic and it's an absolute pleasure to discover what lies before you.
The wealth of different ideas staves off any feeling of sameness that could potentially derail your fun. In addition to the standard jumping fare, there are vehicle sequences that inject speed into the mix. You may have known that barrels can quickly shoot you across a level, but did you know you can use one as a makeshift rocket in a pinch? Some of the most challenging sections of the game involve riding a barrel at full speed through these ever-changing levels, and they're some of the most exciting sequences as well. Cruising past fireballs, around zeppelins, and between spiked crushers will definitely get your heart racing, especially because one touch causes your temporary rocket to spontaneously combust. And, of course, there's Rambi the rhinoceros. Surprisingly, riding atop your trusty friend is the easiest portion of the game. But even though you don't have to fear enemies atop the horned beast, you still need to be aware of dangers. The best of these is a wild chase through a dilapidated factory, proving once and for all that rhinos are faster than monkeys.