It’s perhaps fitting that Nintendo’s original icon has ended up in the trusty hands of Texan developers Retro Studios. Like Rare before them, Retro have proven their capacity to fill the FPS-shaped void in Nintendo’s own output and have usurped Rare as Nintendo’s closest western ally, earning the right to be entrusted with the legendary ape.
Unlike Nintendo’s “New” Super Mario Bros. or Sega’s “4th” Sonic the Hedgehog, Donkey Kong Country opts for the far more honest Returns title – a name that manages expectations perfectly. This is Donkey Kong Country as you remember it – the brash chest-beating gorilla, platforms, barrels by the… barrel load and home to more secrets than the jungles of Borneo.
The SNES series’ antagonists (the Kremlings) are nowhere to be found, replaced with the hypnotic Tiki Tak Tribe; far less reptilian but still with the same proclivity for banana theft. Cue Donkey and Diddy to the rescue as the pair tackle nine expansive worlds of pure platforming brutality. If the format is familiar, the subtleties that separate DKCR from its 16-bit ancestors are many.
DKC’s one-hit-per-monkey tag system (originally conceived as means of minimising the HUD) has been replaced with a more generous heart indicator allowing four hits before Kong meets his monkey maker. Crack open a Diddy barrel and you will be joined by Kong the younger, granting an all-but-essential hover jump courtesy of his jet pack, though drop two heart points and you’re back on your own.
Kong’s trademark roll and floor smash make the transition and while there’s more of an argument for aping Kong’s ground pound with motion controls than many other shoe-horned examples, it’s still imprecise and likely to let you down when you need it most. Kong does far better when putting that upper-body bulk to good use with his new climbing antics, latching on to any graspable surface and swinging like any self-respecting monkey should.
The new blowing manoeuvre manages to look simultaneously adorable and provide the furry happening with ample new ways of interacting with his environment and its inhabitants. Whether blowing dandelion spores into the wind to release hidden bananas or extinguishing the flames of a possessed drum, it’s a worthy addition to his repertoire, even if the motion controls make its regular use a little aggravating. A simple classic controller option would’ve solved this, but with all the stubbornness of a misnamed monkey, Retro failed to include it.
The DKC trilogy rightfully earned its reputation for being a collection of superbly produced, fast and playable platformers, but more critical observers noted that they lacked the depth of options present in the Mario series. DKCR answers this by padding every one of the 70-plus levels with a vast numbers of secrets. Retro have managed to out-Rare Rare with the number of collectables concealed in each level, and not simply in a “collect 100 of each shade of banana” fetch quest, but genuinely well-hidden secrets that demand a head for exploration, a keen eye and full use of your move-set.