Fourteen years is a long time in the videogame world. If Rare had continued to create new games in the DKC series, it surely would’ve kept evolving and changing in incremental steps. By 2010, it might have become something distinctly different from the games made in the mid ’90s. But Retro Studios’ Donkey Kong Country Returns could be seen as making all those steps at once. I think this tends to draw people’s focus to the differences, and yet it’s still much more faithful to the original DKC trilogy than many of the strange experiments Nintendo tried with the Donkey Kong franchise in the interim.
I think it also undermines how much was actually improved over the original trilogy. Rare’s games tended to become unwieldy with their emphasis on collecting crap. Retro keeps the collection aspect, but hones it down into something more streamlined and purposeful. They also kept the somewhat floaty controls, but added something the original games were always a little flaky about: precision. No more clumsily slipping off ledges or being the victim of weird hit detection. Good ol’ DK controls like a dream.
Oh, and DK is back front and center where he belongs. But what I really love about him here is how incredibly animated he is. Retro’s impressive attention to detail has given DK so many movements, gestures and facial expressions that he really seems alive and exudes a ton of personality. And I don’t mean in the cutscenes, but during actual gameplay. DK responds and reacts naturally not only to things in the environment, but to every controller input and situation. For example, the way he reaches for vines, even if he misses them, makes it feel like he’s completely simpatico with the player.
I suppose this is in the spirit of the smooth pre-rendered animation Rare was able to achieve in the original trilogy. It just goes to show how far technology has come that now it’s even more detailed and rendered completely in real time.
One thing does kind of bug me in Returns, however. While it’s cool how the environments are dynamic and change on the fly, they have a tendency to throw obstacles right in front of you without giving you much chance to avoid them. I wonder if this was an intentional throwback to some European game design that tended to rely on trial and error. It can be frustrating, but I also have to admit that there’s a certain addiction factor to it, and I always wanted to keep trying.
I do have to mention the music, though. The soundtrack was composed by four different people under the supervision of Metroid Prime composer Kenji Yamamoto, and a lot of it consists of new versions of classic DKC tracks. It’s great to hear some of those classic tunes again, and the new arrangements are snappy and energetic. But while it fits the action in the game really well, it’s not something I tend to listen to on its own.
That’s something that tends to get criticized about Returns. The original trilogy was always doing new and original things, almost to a fault. Returns brought back a lot of familiar elements, which gave some players the impression that it wasn’t very original. However, Returns is less of a sequel and more of a revival, and after 14 years, I think it makes sense to go back to basics with themes players would recognize. It creates a fresh, strong foundation for Retro to build off of and create a whole new era of Donkey Kong Country.
And that’s exactly what they would do.