The most important thing to know about Donkey Kong Country Returns is that it doesn’t try to be anything more than the title implies. Under Nintendo’s supervision, Retro Studios set out to reprise the lush, intricate platforming of the Donkey Kong Country series, which breathed new life into the Super NES during the mid-’90s. The resulting Wii sequel could never feel as fresh as the old games did in their time, but it does succeed in making Donkey Kong feel less tired than he has in a long while.
It takes about 15 seconds for DKC Returns to begin churning out the references and in-jokes: The first extra-life balloon is hidden in Donkey Kong’s treehouse, just as it was 16 years ago. Other familiar touches include the distinctive tropical swing of the soundtrack, which tastefully updates old themes for the post-chiptune era. Of course, there are also a few levels where Kong is stuck in an out-of-control mine cart; this old gimmick still infuses the action with the excitement of knowing you can’t turn back.
Donkey Kong is much the same as ever, bouncing off tires and firing himself out of barrel cannons, but his sidekick Diddy Kong has a reduced role. Except in co-op mode (which is more truly cooperative than, say, New Super Mario Bros. Wii) players don’t get to control Diddy directly. Instead, he rides piggyback and uses a sputtering jetpack to give Donkey Kong a second to hover in mid-air during a jump. Diddy disappears when your health dips too low, which can be a crushing setback. In some later levels, Diddy’s special ability doesn’t make DKC Returns easier so much as it makes the game less insanely hard.
A few sequences transcend mere homage. One sunset level in the jungle world is a stunner, and so is another stylized stage that riffs on the stark industrialism of independent games like Canabalt. For the most part, though, the game works in a pretty but too-slick aesthetic—stringing together meticulously produced setpieces that lack the atmosphere and inspiration of the original. It’s a DreamWorks vibe: Where DKC was a Toy Story-type achievement in its day, DKC Returns is more like Kung Fu Panda.
Like any Nintendo-published Wii game, DKC Returns incorporates motion controls. Here, they don’t make sense. It’s ludicrous to expect that players could have consistent success when split-second maneuvers must be executed by wiggling the controller back and forth. Unsurprisingly, cheap accidental deaths ensue. Nintendo doesn’t offer players the use of the Classic Controller—i.e., the gamepad DKC games are designed for—because of their petulant insistence that the Wii-mote is a jack-of-all-trades. In reality, the control inadequacies only serve as a reminder that DKC Returns would be a better game on any other console.
Still, DKC Returns is too well-designed to be undone by control follies. For every off-key moment, there are highlights to make up for it—a brilliantly hidden bonus stage, or the effortless choreography of the boss fights. The old ape hasn’t learned many new tricks, but this updated take on Super NES standards still manages to entertain.