Review: Donkey Kong Country Returns

Review: Donkey Kong Country Returns

After a long retirement from the platforming world and a brief stint as a bongo player, Donkey Kong is back and ready to give the world a piece of his mind once again.

Donkey Kong Country Returns

The star of the one of the most hotly debated games of all time has evolved quite a bit over the years. No longer are people (at least most) arguing over who achieved what score, when, where, and under what pretenses. Rather, the star that gave birth to the rise of the red overhauled plumber known as Mario is now attempting to cast himself out from the shadow of his own creation.

Donkey Kong first branched into the wonderful world of platform gaming with Donkey Kong Country for the Super Nintendo back in 1994 and showed the world that he can in fact do more than stand stagnant in one location and toss barrels at a plumber. At the time, Nintendo was high on the success of Super Mario World and figured it may as well try to replicate the feat with another character. Despite being an almost glaring rip off of Super Mario World, Donkey Kong Country and the subsequent sequels were quite fun to play, but 1999 saw the last true Donkey Kong platforming game before DK took his skills elsewhere and began dabbling in the wild arts of bongos.

Well, after 12 years, Donkey Kong Country Returns hits the Wii and this time around Nintendo hardly even tried to differentiate the game from the series’ previous competitor back in the 90’s. However, New Super Mario Bros. Wii was a massive success and isn’t it true that imitation is the best form of flattery?

Home Sweet Home

If you played the original Donkey Kong Country games you are going to feel right at home as not much has changed in the decades since. However, this time around a storyline is loosely integrated into the game to give your romp around the island a bit of meaning. Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong are just wasting the day away in their treetop shack when a magical race of floating musical instruments shows up and begins hypnotizing all the inhabitants of the island. Their sole purpose? To steal DK’s massive stash of bananas.

Donkey Kong Country Returns

As the opening cut scene is rolling, you are going to notice several very obvious details right off the bat. First, this game looks fantastic. Yea, we all know that the Wii isn’t HD and most of its games fail to compare graphically to anything offered on the other systems, but that’s beside the point. For a system that is clearly showing its age, this game looks incredible.

You are also going to notice that a great deal of detail was put into DK’s animations. He’s an ape, yes, but apes have very distinct characteristics that require attention when rendering. Granted, not many apes have earned a starring role in a video game, but DK’s movements in this title are akin to what Epona showed us in the Ocarina of Time and what animated horses were capable of.

However, we all know games that rely on visuals alone usually fail to deliver in the content and entertainment departments, but Donkey Kong Country Returns manages to avoid that pitfall and provide a great adventure worthy of at least one playthrough.

As I said before, this game is almost a direct clone of New Super Mario Bros. Wii in basically every way, shape, and form. The game is broken down into 8 worlds, each containing a variety of levels that ultimately lead to a boss battle. The formula has hardly changed at all since the early 90’s, but hey, why fix what isn’t broken?

Each world carries a different theme as you wrap your way around the island. For such a small island, there are certainly a wide variety of terrains and environments. You’ll explore everything from the dense jungles, sandy beaches, and rocky cliffs to damp mines, prehistoric tar pits, sinking pirate ships, and even the outer reaches of the atmosphere via a barrel rocket ship. There is certainly no lack of variety to be had here. However, it’s what’s inside these worlds that really bring the game to life.

 Old Dogs and New Tricks

Each world presents a new series of challenges in the form of enemies, pitfalls, and gameplay mechanics, so you are going to constantly be challenged to revamp your play style and approach each level with a bit of caution. Although each level presents new challenges, DK really hasn’t learned much in the way new moves in the past decade.

The Wii controller is a rather confusing and complex piece of technology that naturally comes with a steep learning curve if you are unfamiliar with it. Luckily, you will only have to learn about three moves throughout the entire game. Obviously, Donkey Kong can jump, but with a quick waggle of the Wiimote DK will careen into a forward somersault. Finally, as if to harness DK’s new found profession, violently shaking both controllers will send DK’s fist pounding into the ground. Despite the lack of variety in moves, they are combined and put to use in a variety of clever ways. Whether you are barrel-rolling through wooden doors or fist pounding weak sections of floor, DK’s moves feel natural and easy to learn.

Unlike previous entries, you only have control over Donkey Kong. (Unless you are playing multiplayer) Yes, Diddy Kong is in the game, but he is entirely unplayable. Rather, he waits quietly tucked away in a barrel until you release him and strap him to your back for the rest of the duration of the level. Surprisingly, Diddy Kong provides probably one of the most out of place abilities in the entire game – or any recent game for that matter. For some reason, which is never fully explained, Diddy Kong has a mini jetpack in his backpack which he uses to help DK traverse long gaps and hover in the air. Aside from aiding in jumps, the addition of Diddy Kong to your back rewards you with two much-needed health bars. All in all, it’s a great gameplay mechanic that makes a vast majority of the levels much easier, but for some reason it just feels insanely out of place.

Donkey Kong Country Returns

The game flows quickly and smoothly as you jump from platforms to vines and off the tops of enemy’s heads. Unfortunately, many of the levels are going to feel insanely familiar. Granted, DK lives on an island and not much can change, but the overall feel was very familiar. However, there were two levels in particular that had me absolutely floored. The first level was an ocean sunset level where everything was entirely black save for the red sunset and DK’s tie. The level had a very LocoRoco-esque feel to it and was a breath of fresh air amidst the other levels. The second level was along the same lines as the sunset level, but took place up in the misty factory. Once again everything was all black except for the gray sky, the white fog, and DK’s tie. Both of these levels showed that the series was taking a step forward and introducing a slew of new mechanics and levels that were both exciting and fun.

Donkey Kong Country Returns

Now, the question I know everyone is dying to know the answer to is whether or not the insanely addicting mine cart levels are back. Would a Donkey Kong Country game be complete without them? Certainly not, and the ones in this title are among the hardest and most challenging ones yet. You are going to encounter two types of mine cart missions across the eight worlds. The first type simply has you sitting in the mine cart and jumping it from track to track while the other one has you riding atop a mine cart filled with ore and jumping off it over objects and back onto the safety of the cart. These levels are incredibly difficult and will more than likely require several attempts before you will manage to scrape your way through, but in the grand scheme of things, these levels are easy compared to what the rest of the game has in store.

Donkey Kong Country Returns

Fifth World Brick Wall

I racked my brain trying to remember whether or not the original Donkey Kong games were this difficult. I even went so far as to dig out my Super Nintendo and pop a couple of the titles in for a refresher. The long and short of it is that Donkey Kong Country Returns is no walk in the park. This game carries with it a massive difficulty spike right around the middle of world five. You can easily plow through the first four worlds in one sitting without so much as a hiccup or even losing a life. However, world five rolls around and throws the proverbial monkey wrench into the whole system and makes you question whether or not you really enjoy this game.

Everything after world five carries with it an almost infuriating level of difficulty and an insane amount of precision is needed to complete some levels. I’d even go as far as to say that some of the levels require flat out memorization in order to pass. They are by no means impossible, but they beyond what is to be expected from a game like this. Does this make the game less enjoyable? A bit, yes, but all in all it leads to a burning desire to show the game you are better than it and you will find yourself powering up your Wii time and time again after a frivolous rage quit just to have another go at it.

 Once a Hoarder, Always a Hoarder

So many of the later levels are going to drop you like third period French that you may as well just take a shotgun to your stockpile of life balloons. Luckily Cranky Kong has strategically stationed himself at eight different bungalows around the island. He runs the monopoly on the retail sector of Donkey Kong Country, so like it or not you are stuck buying items from him. He has a very small selection of items, and most of them simply revolve around life balloons, but each world has a special key for sale that creates a “shortcut” to the boss. The keys are not very expensive and I’d be hardpressed to tell you that using them is worthwhile because the level you must pass through is generally lightyears more difficult than the other two you would have to beat combined.

What you use as currency is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of things to collect in each of the levels. Scattered throughout each level are mountains of banana coins that server as money and can be used to buy items from Cranky Kong. However, strewn about the level are other various sundries that serve little purpose more than to ignite the compulsive collector in us all and add a bit of longevity to the game.

Donkey Kong Country Returns

The famous K.O.N.G. letters are back and three of the four generally tend to be easy to get while one takes a fine balance of skill and luck in order to get. If you manage to collect all of letters and make it to the end of the level, you may get the opportunity to increase your bonus at the end of the level with some well-timed bongo drum motions of the Wiimote.

You will also encounter loads of hidden puzzle pieces throughout the game that serve as keys to unlocking bonus content in the game such as music and art stills. Each level has anywhere between five and nine puzzle pieces and you must collect all of them in order to unlock the item for that level. These puzzle pieces are so well hidden that I can almost promise you that will not haphazardly collect all of them in any given level without actively searching for them. Some of them needed to be pounded out of background objects while others require you to find a secret minigame and collect all the objects in a given time period before you will be given a piece. Again, not vital to completing the game, but just something to distract you from the task at hand.

Finally, you will be obsessively collecting bananas throughout your adventure which serve as your coins. Collect 100 bananas and you will get an extra life balloon.

A Vast Assortment of Activities

The levels seem packed with items and enemies, but most impressive is the sheer interactivity with the environments. Walls come crashing down around you as you fire your way through barrels, ships sink as you traverse the open seas atop a spouting whale, and giant gears grind behind you while you attempt to outrun them riding a barrel rocket. You are certainly never going to be bored with any of these levels.


Unfortunately, with all the good comes a handful of bad things. For fear of sounding stereotypical and making the accusation that Wii games are for children, this game is definitely not for young kids. I level of difficulty far surpasses anything found in comparable Wii titles like New Super Mario Bros. Wii. The boss battles are especially frustration and on more than one occasion brought me to levels of anger that no video game has done in years. They weren’t just mildly difficult either. They were cheap and absurdly long. Each boss battle dragged on far longer than it should have, which only increased your chances of dying and lower your balloon count. Don’t even get me started on the final few bosses.

Super Kong

As I mentioned before, these levels are cleverly designed and almost have a Little Big Planet feel to how they operate and play out, but so many of them take things a bit too far and time things in such a way that you have a 50/50 shot at completing the jump or making it to the next check point, which brings me to my final complaint.

Donkey Kong Country Returns

If the difficult levels weren’t enough to frustrate you, the game takes yet another page from the Mario universe and offers up a service called ‘Super Guide.’ Once you have died around 10 times on any given level, an absurdly friendly little pig will sit behind his pseudo lemonade stand and tell you that you should activate ‘Super Guide’ mode and have Super Kong come in and show you basically how not to suck.  Mind you, I gave Demon’s Souls a 10 after all, but there comes a point when things go a bit too far, and you know you’ve hit that point when your video game has to flaunt it in your face that you suck.

 All Complaints Aside

Despite the challenges and frustrations, I couldn’t put this game down. I actually spent the better portion of several nights and early mornings trudging through the levels hunting for the puzzle pieces and attempting to memorize the patterns for the latter bosses. Although it may appear to be a direct clone of Mario’s latest side-scrolling adventure, Donkey Kong Country is out there to show us that side-scrolling doesn’t always have to be easy. A bit of difficulty never hurt anyone and maybe young kids should be forced to play this game and see what it was like to grow up without games that catered to your every need and held your hand through the toughest parts. Battletoads anyone?


  • Visually impressive
  • Character animations
  • Levels teeming with life
  • Tons to collect
  • Familiar gameplay


  • Unbalanced difficulty
  • No swordfish friend!
  • Diddy Kong has a jet pack?
  • Absurd boss battles

Score: 8.5/10

Comments are closed.