Thursday, 5 August 2010

Eyes-On: Donkey Kong Country Returns (Wii)

The Donkey Kong Country series of games were some of my all-time favourite when growing up. The beautifully rendered 2D sprites based off lush 3D imagery, and the truly moody sound effects and music meticulously complemented the incredibly smooth gameplay mechanics - something which bared more than just a small resemblance to the ‘perfect path’ methodology first found in Sega’s Sonic The Hedgehog 2.

Yessss sir, the DKC franchise was indeed some of the sweetest slices of gaming action I have ever encountered to this day, and now Nintendo, in conjunction with Retro Studios are hopefully bringing it back in style for 2010. Lets go bananas!

After seeing Donkey Kong Country Returns at E3 earlier this year, I’ll admit it; I didn’t really like the new direction the game was heading in at all. For me it lacked some of the charm of the three Super NES instalments, along with failing to completely replicate those games simple but highly addictive gameplay mechanics. There was also no sign of any Kremlins to be found, just a bunch of goofy and angry looking animals reminiscent of some of the poorer critters in DKC 3, and an overall blocky attempt at matching the style of the first game in the series.

If anything I felt that Donkey Kong Jungle Beat better represented where the series should be going, seeing as it not only maintained the series trademark curvy and smooth graphical look, but also some of its magic.

However after an extended exposure to DKCR my views have relaxed somewhat. Maybe it’s the fact that you can’t very well expect a linear continuation of the past, or that when looking back at DKC3, you can easily see a dramatic shifting of art styles in the subtle changes made to the series by original creators, Rare. In fact, I will probably say that DKCR is pretty faithful as a continuation of that game, just set on the original jungle paradise of the first DKC, and without those pesky Kremlins.

Either way I’m more than happy to receive another proper entry in the series even if it feels more like a New Super Mario Bros homage style title. Though that in it self is no bad thing, and we might just actually get the most exciting one of those yet with this latest DK outing.

As already mentioned the familiar faces of the Kremlins are officially out - or so it seems with no sign of K Rool and the old crew of crocodile-esque creatures anywhere to be found. Instead DK and the rest of the gang – in this case Diddy – must contend with the Tikki’s; another bunch of rabid critters who have only gone and stolen our favourite ape’s much loved banana horde. He must really hate this sort of thing, since this will have been the second time that it has actually happened.

Both Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong return to the fray in pursuit of said banana horde, with a range of new and familiar set of moves, and a brand-new real-time two-player mode to replace the old tag-team mechanic. This time around you control both characters simultaneously rather than as separate entities.

Our heroes also have most of their old moves from the first two games. DK can still barrel roll over enemies using the attack button, along with gaining extra jumping height and length by using for non-offensive purposes. Diddy does much the same thing, although with a cartwheel rather than a roll. The two friends can also team up once again, with DK being able to throw Diddy up onto usually unreachable platforms to gain access to secret areas and hidden items. Diddy also has use of a little jet pack this time around, in which he can use to briefly hover above the ground, or give a small-extended lift to any jumps DK does when he holds onto his back.

According to Nintendo when playing in single player the two characters are always teamed-up, with Diddy providing his additional skills at all times. When in played in two-player mode however, each player controls just one of the two characters for a more unique experience. This also means that due to the way the level design seems to work from in the trailer, it means than there also has to be some crossover in terms of moves between both Donkey and Diddy. In DKCR the ground pound move for example is no longer exclusive to DK alone, instead Diddy can also use a variant of the very same move.

This streamlined single-player design, with full individual control for two separate players means that the gameplay although very similar to the Super NES games, also has some pretty substantial differences. One of which is how the game’s health system works. In DKCR as you no longer constantly switch between both characters your health is now governed by a series of red hearts at the top of the screen; a return of the traditional energy meter not at all characteristic of the series.

Another, is that if one player manages to die in two-player mode, he or she then can come back if the other player bursts open a floating DK barrel on screen, much like the system seen for multiple players in NSMB Wii. Also, like in that aforementioned title the second player can choose to climb onto DK and take a backseat ride whilst the more skilled of the two players takes full control. After which, or even during, the second player can make a break back to freedom again.

Like with previous games in the series players are once again tasked with collecting bananas along with the four K O N G letters that appear in each level. Hidden bonus areas also make an appearance, but so far from what we’ve seen they remain rather inconspicuous unlike in the second and third DKC games, in which they where marked with a large ‘B’ indicating, yep you guessed it, a bonus area of sorts. Here in DKCR they seem to appear more as a natural part of the environment or as a disguised barrel, rather than the “here I am” type inclusions in later instalments.

In terms of level design and gameplay outside of the various move sets and team-up features, DK’s latest appears to be a direct extension of the classic gameplay featured in his first three games, but with some massive changes and enhancements. Along with the usual platform jumping and banana and item collecting, the game also sees you hop between areas to and from the background scenery adding in an extra depth to the experience. It looks very much like a faster-paced variant on the mechanic used so imaginatively in Sony’s Little Big Planet, with DK getting the same treatment here.

From the trailer we can see that mine cart stages make a triumphant return, as does the vine swinging and barrel blasting sections from previous games. The barrel blasting in particular looks far crazier than before, with both DK and Diddy being shot out at even higher speeds than ever expected. Some of the barrels also feature jet propulsion, whilst also moving backwards and forwards, and up and down, making things even harder to comprehend. And this is along with some moving and rotating at the same time.

It certainly looks a little too OTT at times, although it also fits in with the slightly funkier, more energetic look Retro Studios have created for the game. And it’s this look that both sets it apart from previous games in the series whilst also tying it in together nicely. What we have here is a return to natural jungle paths, dark caves, and lost cities type stages of the first DKC, but filled with creatures that are generally more suitable to populating the world than the heavy reptile influences of the past.

However it is also noticeable that the game has lost a little bit of the series distinctive feel about too, especially when you compare it with the Super NES games. That’s not to say that it’s particularily bad or anything. But I definitely think at present that it fails to live up to being a true DKC sequel, instead appearing to be something more a long the lines of a New Super Mario Bros Wii style reinvention. Then again, the game also looks like being lots of fun too, and Retro Studios have a solid track record behind them.

Visually, DKCR also runs into a few issues. Though it still looks reasonably nice, and represents a good attempt at recreating the style and feel of the original trilogy, whilst updating it for a new audience without alienating too many old fans such as myself. It also looks rather blocky too, and suffers from some ugly jagged edges where the Wii fails to provide any kind of anti-aliasing.

The actual characters themselves – both DK and Diddy, and some of the enemies – lack the smooth curved finish, and impressive fur shading effects from DK Jungle Beat, which is a shame, and sadly the environments don’t fare so well either. Although solid enough in artistic terms, technically they don’t share the same sparkle as the likes of DK Jungle Beat and Super Mario Galaxy, with much of the game currently looking slightly angular in places and a little blocky overall.

Coming from the powerhouse that produced the stunning Metroid Prime series, what we’ve seen so far is a little disappointing and not quite as smooth and polished as it could have been. At least the game does run at 60fps though, whereas all the trailers we’ve seen have been encoded at 30fps highlighting the rough edges slightly more than you’d actually see when seeing it first-hand.

Thankfully the animation itself is first-class, and is full of subtle little nuances packed full of personality. This really gives the characters and environments an organic, living feel to them. It also helps glaze over some of the less impressive parts of the game’s visual make up.

Of course, all this talk of slightly disappointing graphics and more outrageous gameplay mechanics may not make all that much of a difference as long as the game is really fun to play. And case in point, although I rather dislike some of the enemy designs in DKC 3, and found the soundtrack to be nowhere near as engrossing as the first two, I did still find myself having a massively enjoyable experience with plenty of little magical touches to be found along the way.

With DKCR it’s pretty clear that Nintendo and Retro Studios are taking a leaf out from Rare’s book in expanding the formula whilst not loosing sight of where it originally came from. And whilst I don’t like all of the changes, there’s no doubt that every facet of the game looks far better than the mediocre travesty that was DK64, and also appears very much in-keeping with the original DKC games when you start to scratch under the surface. Plus much of DKCR is strictly under wraps at this point.

Despite seeing so much new stuff in the E3 trailer for the game, there are still a few things that go unanswered; such as whether or not we’ll see the return of the map screen and hub world overview from past titles; how the save system will work; and if any of DK’s charismatic buddies will return. So far nothing has been confirmed with regards as to if any of the rideable animal friends will make an appearance, or whether members of Kong’s extended family will play some part in the overall grand scheme of things. Hopefully they will, but please, leave out any of those sorry souls from DK64.

We should hopefully find out about these things, and more, if we get a chance to go hands-on with game, and if not, then Nintendo will certainly drip-feed us with more essential info.

In the end I’ve loosened up quite bit to the game's change of direction and overall art design on offer here, along with the spiced up gameplay adjustments. And well, to be honest, simply appreciate another 2D instalment in the series regardless whether or not it is quite the way it would have been imagined back in the day. If anything DKCR is shaping up to be exactly what DK64 should have been - slight issues and personal disagreements aside, and minus that god-awful DK rap.

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