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Critical Reception: Retro Studios' Donkey Kong Country Returns

Gamasutra examines online reaction to Retro Studios & Nintendo's platformer franchise revival Donkey Kong Country Returns for Wii, which reviews describe as "undeniably a fantastic title."
This week's edition of Critical Reception examines online reaction to Retro Studios and Nintendo's platformer franchise revival Donkey Kong Country Returns for Wii, which reviews describe as "undeniably a fantastic title." Donkey Kong Country Returns currently earns a score of 88 out of 100 at Metacritic.com. 1UP.com's Christina Troup gives DKC Returns an A grade. "Upon the explosion of colorful graphics and sound of its playful melody, Donkey Kong Country Returns sent me back, way back, to my halcyon youth," she begins. "Suddenly, my most pressing concerns involved swapping with someone at the lunch table for a better Lunchable dessert and collecting a certain yellow fruit for my virtual primate pal." Troup continues: "The magic of Donkey Kong Country Returns lies in its ability to genuinely capture the sensibilities of the original without pretense -- a true testament to the phenomenal work of Retro Studios." Fans of the series will find many familiar elements in Retro's sequel. "The standard platforming, comprised of eight environments (jungle, beach, ruins, cave, forest, cliff, factory, and volcano) begins in a lush tropical setting rife with staples from the original," Troup recalls. "Barrel blasts, hasty mine carts -- even curmudgeonly Cranky is sitting in his rocker shaking his cane disapprovingly." Troup highlights the new cooperative mode as a particularly worthwhile addition. "From platform perfectionists to side-scrolling novices, Donkey Kong Country Returns does a great job of allowing two people with very different skill-sets to play with one another non-competitively," she says. "In two-player mode, I can hang back as Diddy and ride on Donkey's back, staying out of harm's way until I can offer a worthwhile contribution to the effort by safely traversing shaky rails." "Donkey Kong Country Returns hits all the right spots; it's filled with childhood nostalgia, stunning visuals, and mentally taxing challenges," Troup writes. "By all means, it's a pretty tough game, but it's not always about collecting every single item or beating a boss with lives to spare. Sometimes it's about sitting next to your sibling, frantically shouting at the television and laughing uncontrollably all for the sake of a banana." John Mix Meyer at Wired scores Donkey Kong Country Returns at 9 out of 10. "Packed with branching paths and hidden surprises, Donkey Kong Country Returns feels a lot like Metroid with monkeys," he notes. "That shouldn't be so surprising, since the game was developed by Metroid Prime maker Retro Studios. Donkey Kong Country Returns [...] is the Wii revival of the classic 2-D platform action games that were huge hits on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System." Tracking down the game's many collectibles proves to be an engrossing experience. "Odds are good that you'll get addicted to exploring each level carefully to find all the cleverly buried treasure," Meyer says. "Yes, you get rewards for finding everything. But it's fun just for the sake of it. Letters that spell out K-O-N-G are usually placed tantalizingly in plain sight, but figuring out how to get to them is the tricky part." Meyer continues: "Other items are hidden in much more devious ways, but I never found myself getting frustrated or aimlessly trying different things to make a final puzzle piece appear. That's because Retro has taken care to leave hints, rewarding players' curiosity and making each discovery immensely satisfying." "The one big problem with Donkey Kong Country Returns is the motion controls," Meyer warns. "One of the gorilla's main moves — rolling forward — is activated with a shake of the Wii remote. I don't like this. It feels completely unnecessary, and shaking the remote takes longer than just pressing a button. I got used to it eventually, but until I did, I would sometimes accidentally roll forward into bottomless pits." Meyer also notes disappointment with the game's boss battles. "Given Retro Studios' penchant for big, bombastic boss battles, I would have liked to see the same in Donkey Kong Country Returns," he writes. "Instead, the bosses are repetitive. Most require the standard three hits to take down, but they don't change up their patterns in any significant way after you get in the first couple of hits." "Despite these issues, Donkey Kong Country Returns is the best 2-D platform game I've played in ages," Meyer praises. "Its level design meets the gold standard set by the 2-D Mario games. Retro Studios can add another feather to its cap." GamePro's Heidi Kemps rates DKC Returns at 4 out of 5 stars. "After years of odd cross-genre attempts with the Kong characters (with mixed results), it makes sense that Nintendo would want to rekindle Donkey Kong nostalgia in a pure side-scrolling action game," she notes. "But with original DKC developers Rare now busy at Microsoft, can Metroid Prime producers Retro Studios make Kong a king again? Donkey Kong Country Returns is a strong affirmation -- but there are a couple of stumbles along the way." "The game's greatest strength is the superb stage design," Kemps writes. "Enemies, obstacles, and platforms are cleverly placed to provide each level with a great sense of pace, atmosphere, and challenge. There are several tough spots throughout, but the ability to change the game into a two-player cooperative tag-team effort (complete with individual abilities for both Donkey and Diddy) helps with many tricky areas considerably." Autoscrolling levels often detract from the fun, however. "The 'vehicle' levels are the game's low points, favoring frustrating rote memorization and repeated trial-and-error over genuine challenge," Kemps warns. "No matter how strong your platforming prowess is, you'll be very tempted to call in the Super Guide player assist feature when you die for the fifteenth time on the mine cart stage." Control issues also add aggravation. "You can play the game using the Wii Remote held sideways or a combination of the Wii Remote and Nunchuck attachments -- no Gamecube or Classic Controller support here," Kemps says. "Why? Because the game assigns multiple actions to a 'waggle' movement of either the main controller or the Nunchuck -- pounding the ground, rolling, and blowing air are all accomplished by shaking the controller. "It sounds novel in theory, but it's downright infuriating in practice. Since several functions are assigned to the same motion, you will inevitably encounter situations where you meant to do one thing and do something else entirely -- like rolling off a cliff to your death when you meant to ground-pound." Despite its issues, however, the game remains an enjoyable throwback. "Were it not for the control issues and occasional screaming-rage-inducing level, DKC Returns would be the best 2D platformer on the Wii," Kemps concludes. "While it's still undeniably a fantastic title, it seems to me like Donkey Kong's gaming outings might eternally play second banana to arch-nemesis Mario's classic adventures."

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