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Donkey Kong Country Returns and old design practices

Rarely do I play my Nintendo Wii, but even rarer that I play a Wii game on it. For many, the Wii acts as a way to revisit or play missed games from previous generations, which sometimes are more popular than few a far between releases of newly developed games. Despite my general satisfaction with exhausting the Wii library of its best titles, there was one game that I had forgotten – a game that I had little affiliation with.

Donkey Kong Country Returns arrived at the awkward stage in the Wii life cycle where I no longer cared for the thing. I played the latest Zelda, despite being much newer, but that’s because it’s a Zelda game. Even if it was terrible, I enjoy the franchise too much to not see it firsthand. I have no familiarity with Donkey Kong outside of Smash Bros. and Mario Kart; therefore I have no nostalgia to draw from.  Even with Nintendo’s pedigree, I have difficulty paying attention to Kirby or Donkey Kong since I was never exposed to them. I was however familiar with Retro Studios, and I thoroughly enjoyed the Metroid Prime series enough to trust that I was going to spend my time with a quality product. After playing through 6 worlds, quality is what I received, yet I can’t help but wish it moved away from old design practices.

The platformer is what defined Nintendo as a video game developer, but in the last year Ubisoft set a new standard with Rayman Origins. All of the old, coin sucking tactics of the 90s arcades such as lives, timers and limited checkpoints, were done away with in Rayman Origins. Ubisoft instead employed modern gameplay design philosophies, granting the player unlimited lives, frequent checkpoints and unlimited time to complete each level. Some might argue that the lack of measures cheapen the value of staying alive or eliminates tense scenarios. I can confidently say that Rayman is every bit as challenging as Donkey Kong and Mario – maybe even harder.

The difference between these two gameplay philosophies is frustration. This frustration comes from knowing that I can easily pass, for example, two thirds of the level after a first checkpoint, and only have difficulty with the last third. But because Donkey Kong uses limited checkpoints, I am forced to replay sections of a level that I know I can easily run through. Being rewarded a checkpoint before the section in which I fail to pass doesn’t make the game easier. With Nintendo’s checkpoints, I imagine it as if I misspelled a word in a paragraph and was forced to rewrite the entire paragraph to make the corrections. Ubisoft’s approach to checkpoints is more practical, where instead I just correct the misspelled word, not the entire paragraph. Replaying lengthy sections to just die at the part I have difficulty with, is ultimately a waste of time. I would much rather spend my time trying to pass the section I have difficulty with.

My next gripe is a lives counter. Why in 2012, do games still count lives? I just don’t see its purpose since a 2D platformer can be successful without one (proven with Rayman Origins), especially when lives are so easily accumulated. For majority of the game, I had 30 lives at my disposal. When I dropped lower than I felt comfortable with, I would go to the shop, run by Donkey Kong’s grandfather – Cranky Kong – who sold lives in bunches for the easily collected Banana Coins placed in each level.  The challenge with each level can be inherent in its design; there is no need to put artificial stress on the player by putting a lives counter.

Aside from those questionable design practices, Donkey Kong Country Returns is another quality game on Retro’s always impressive resume. Each level in Donkey Kong, like many Mario games, is built according to the theme of the world. A beach themed world has a lot of water, ships and sea monsters that are perfectly suitable, or utilized to make for an interesting level concept. One level had a tidal wave rushing in from the background to the foreground. The only way to survive the massive tidal wave was to get behind rocks, broken ships or any protective shield, to avoid the wave and run to the next safe area.

Consistent with each level are its collectibles, which vary from consumables such as Banana Coins and regular bananas, to collectibles such as puzzle pieces to unlock in game art and music. The most valuable, and sometimes most difficult, are the letters within each level that spell out K-O-N-G. If acquired in every level of each world, a bonus level is unlocked, which when completed (to my understanding) unlocks an additional world. The KONG letters are handled exactly the way I believe they are of most value – they represent the unlocking of additional playable content, not just useless art galleries and music. Since there is more content to be seen, I have incentive to collect each letter, and even have intentions of going back after I complete each world.

An I issue I have with the inherent game design however, are the motion controlled gestures. Sure the Wii supports waggle, movement and all of that novelty stuff, but they don’t belong in a 2D platformer. Without any other control options, having to shake the controller to perform a Ground Pound or shake it to do a Barrel Roll while running, makes from some unintentional gestures in what seems to be, the worst scenario imaginable. Those moments where I accidentally roll instead of Ground Pound on the smallest of ledges is the reason why I despise motion controls. Even worse is the fact that there are unused buttons on the Wii remote which would be perfect for mapping actions to.

What is now possible with modern technology that was not before, is clearly shown through some of the level concepts, yet Nintendo and most of its internal studios, refuse to let go of old and pointless practices that ultimately worsen the platforming experience. These issues, if they can even be called that, don’t ruin Donkey Kong Country Returns significantly, they just sometimes add a layer of unneeded frustration. Retro Studios has thus far impressed me with every new game release, and Donkey Kong is no exception. However, I would not go as far to stay that Donkey Kong is an amazing game or most memorable among the many platformers for the console. What is memorable is Rayman Origins, and hopefully one day Nintendo can move away from old habits and adopt the concepts of modern game design.