Donkey Kong Country: timeless platforming classic that set Rare on the road to super-
stardom, or wildly over-rated plod-'em-up which only got the attention it did thanks to some pretty, pseudo-3D graphics? It's a debate that has raged inconclusively for the last 15 years, and this rebirth will give another generation a crack at answering it.
The truth? It's probably somewhere in the middle. All the 96% scores Donkey Kong Country sucked up upon release look a little 'enthusiastic' in the cold light of 2010, but going back to the SNES original now, it's clear that as a game it still holds up today. So much so that Retro Studios (the same team that turned Samus inside-out for their Metroid Prime Trilogy, remember) have decided to leave the DKC template largely intact. Ironically, given the amount of attention it garnered first time out, the only thing that's been drastically overhauled is the visual style.1 It's out with the dated wireframe models and in with a softer, more traditional cartoon style.
Although Donkey Kong Country Returns isn't the head-turner the original was back in the day, there's still plenty of visual trickery to tickle your eyes pink - such as swarms of butterflies that swoop in and out of the screen, or a sunset level shot entirely in silhouette. In another section, a barrel launches DK into the background, but this barely fazes the hairy-knuckled one. He simply dusts himself off and continues his quest by running along the distant curvature of the backdrop. A continuation of a SNES series? Yes. But you try asking a SNES to replicate these aesthetics - it'll be reaching for its eject button in seconds.
Get past Donkey Kong Country's shiny new face and you'll find another more familiar one smiling back at you. The original outing was never the world's most complicated game; the bits where you had to predict your trajectory of flight from one floating barrel to another were about as taxing as it got. Donkey Kong Country Returns keeps things as simple as they always were - aside from the odd bonus room and a scattering of collectables, there's nothing to distract you from the monkey work of running from left to right, hopping and bopping everything that crosses your path.
The difficulty curve is pleasingly old-school too. The brilliant white walls of the Nintendo booth at the demonstration hall quickly took on a darker hue when the air turned blue as monkeys slipped off vines and into bottomless chasms left, right and centre. It's a tough challenge, but it's a fair one, too.
The only functionality change of note - and we're not sure it's a good one - is the addition of a few motion controls. DK's rolling motion is now activated by shunting the remote to the side, and certain platforms can be beaten into submission with your ape-hands by shaking the controllers up and down like some kind of enraged primate. These gestures are a little too indulgent and counter-intuitive for our tastes. Shaking to roll in particular was a real pain - it wasn't quite precise enough for the pixel-perfect platforming that DKC demands of you, and on a few occasions we cartwheeled our way right into a pit o' spikes. And believe us, we'd never intentionally hurt Diddy Kong...
Speaking of Diddy Kong, he's the reward for whoever picks up the dreaded second controller (surely remote roulette is the only fair way to decide which of the players suffers this dire fate?). That's right - it's another 2D platform game on Wii with a cooperative mode shoehorned into it. Which leads us to wonder exactly where Donkey Kong Country Returns is going to slot into the Wii's games library. New Super Mario Bros Wii comes from a more distinguished lineage, Wario Land: The Shake Dimension is prettier, Kirby's Epic Yarn is fresher and more stimulating. Heck, it might not even be the best 2D Donkey Kong game on Wii - Jungle Beat is a pretty hard act to follow.