Nintendo has made a habit of taking classic 2D game series' and reinventing them in 3D. From Mario and Zelda to Metroid, if any company can find a way to breathe new life into a classic series it's Nintendo. Donkey Kong 64 made a pretty decent stab at taking the loveable ape into three dimensional gameplay, but it was really riffing on what had already been done with Super Mario 64. And now, instead of attempting to re-invent Donkey Kong along the same lines as it has re-invigorated Mario with the Galaxy series, Nintendo has opted to stick to 2D and make a progressive homage to the Donkey Kong Country games instead. The New Super Mario Bros. Wii approach, then.
Why stick to 2D gameplay? It speaks to the fact that Nintendo wants this game to be easy to pick up and play. As Mr Miyamoto told us when we spoke to him at E3: "the gameplay of side-scrolling games is very simple and straightforward, and easy to understand. The more complex that games get, obviously the more demanding they are on people's gaming skills. I think that what's so appealing about the side-scrolling games is just the fact that they're so simple and so engaging, and you can play them very quickly, and pick up the controller and start playing."
Thankfully it's looking really great. Pretty much what you'd expect from Retro Studios. Here's everything we know about the game, broken down into broad categories.
Evolving the Gameplay
As you'd expect, the dynamic duo of Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong are back for DKC Returns, but the most immediately significant difference between this title and the older ones is that it's no longer one player tagging between the two, but a simultaneous two player co-op experience. Each character has his own feel, and fans of the old games will immediately notice that DK has a very familiar weight to his movement. In terms of moves, Diddy Kong now has a jetpack on his back, which allows him to hover during a jump. It doesn't get him any additional height, but it does let him glide along, leaving curls of black smoke in his wake. Donkey Kong, on the other hand, has his normal large - but lumbering - jump, so the timing for long leaps is a little more demanding.
Importantly, DK and Diddy can team up. In fact, when there's only one player, Diddy sits on DK's back as he runs and jumps. This allows DK to take advantage of his jetpack when jumping, and leads to some hilarious animations rolling along in a ball as DK sees Diddy running above him like a person on a barrel. These team-up moves extend to co-op as well. Say you're playing with someone a little less experienced than you, and they're having trouble with a section - just get them to hop on DK's back and you can get both characters through the area. Diddy doesn't have to just sit there, either, he can shoot peanuts at enemies to help clear the path ahead.
As for other moves, both DK and Diddy can grip grass surfaces, so can climb certain walls and clamber across certain ceilings. Both also have a crouch and blow move, which is used to unearth items. Why, we're not sure. Then there's the ground pound (now available to both characters and executed by moving the Wiimote and Nunchuk up and down), which can be used for a few different things, including flipping panels in the ground to drop down to hidden rooms beneath and to interact with plants and other elements in the environments. The coolest use of the ground pound we've seen so far is to pound a big peg platform into the ground, which creates massive earth tremors, reducing the trees and other background scenery to rubble. After they've submerged off screen, a new path in the background pops up, which players can be shot to, via a handy barrel cannon.
Jumping between the foreground and a path in the background seems to be a regular occurrence in Donkey Kong Country Returns, and not only is it a nifty effect, but we can imagine a few ways it could be implemented into gameplay, particularly movement puzzles or boss fights that jump players back and forth. We'll have to wait and see how this idea is fleshed out.
Much like New Super Mario Bros., if one player dies the remaining player can simply shake the Wimote to make them re-appear in a barrel suspended from a balloon that the other player can pop them out of.
Plenty of fan favourite DKC elements return too, such as mine cart rides, vine swinging and being shot from barrel to barrel. Less significant, but important, moves are back too, such as the ability to forward roll out over a gap for an item in space, then jump to safety. One notable absence in the game will be underwater levels, and we also don't know whether any of the rideable creatures will return. Presumably not given the emphasis on co-op play.
Holding the Wiimote side-on for more traditional control will be an option in the final game, but Nintendo and Retro definitely like the idea of the Wiimote and Nunchuk combination, as moves like the ground pound feel more like slapping your hands down. This also means the pointer functionality won't be used at all.
The Bestiary and Extended Family
If you've watched any of the videos of Donkey Kong Country Returns, you'll also know that the Kremlings including King K. Rool - are out. No more ugly anthropomorphic crocodiles. Instead, the new enemies are the Tikis. You can see them in the audience during the E3 demo boss battle and at other times throughout the levels. That said, most of the enemies are basic animal designs like frogs, birds and, erm, whatever Mugley is.
The reason for the swap to Tikis hasn't been revealed, but it's a much better fit for the visual design much more tribal and in keeping with the game's jungles. The story boils down to much the same thing as usual, however: the Tikis are stealing DK's bananas. Inventive stuff.
Still, we're glad to see the backs of the Kremlings, and we're also keeping our fingers crossed that the extended Kong cast won't be returning either. Cranky Kong and Candy Kong served a purpose in the first game (even though the latter was frankly disturbing a blonde-haired, makeup wearing female ape in hot pants? No thanks), but after that it just got ridiculous. Chunky Kong? Kiddy Kong? Wrinkly Kong? Dixie Kong? Funky Kong? Enough already. Probably the biggest 'wow' factor of the original DKC game was its graphics. It came at a time when people thought they knew what SNES games looked like, and weren't expecting to see such detailed pre-rendered 3D graphics. The game's characters looked significantly better than most of the sprites of the time, while the game's lush jungle setting was also richly detailed for 1994.
DKC Returns isn't going to have the same impact, but it does look good more so in motion than in stills, where the basic textures and modeling, and standard definition resolution don't do it any favours. See it in action, however, and this really is a vibrant-looking game that jumps off the screen thanks to the bright colours and amount going on. The entire thing has been built in 3D, instead of the pre-rendered 3D approach of the originals, and this has allowed the team to really play with depth, and have some fun with the world.
The animations are classic DKC the movements of the dynamic duo are really faithful to the original games, with just the right sense of weight, but also plenty of more comical touches. It's not just the lead characters, either. Mugley, the boss from the E3 playable demo, is really nicely animated. He's a huge brute with massive maw and horns atop his head. Everything from the rubbery way its body moves when it lands after a leap, to the way it sways back and forth with it giant tongue lolling out the side of its mouth, is packed with personality. There are some other nice visual touches in this arena too. Sure, the crowd animations might be basic, but they give the setting energy, while the leaves being swept across the screen are subtle but add greatly to the impression of depth and life.
The backdrops in general are impressive. From lush jungles with stone totems and the palms that are so iconic to this series, to underground caverns with massive gnarled trees, toadstools and cascading fog in the distance, this is an engaging world. We love the use of scale too. One tropical level has a huge squid at sea in the background, crushing a ship in its tentacles as the players jump between platforms made up of bits of ship
presumably the squid's earlier victims. Later on the squid has made its way in, closer to the shore, eyeballing the intrepid duo and trying to catch them out with its tentacles.
There are frequent interactions between foreground and background, such as the sequence in the E3 trailer where a ship on the horizon is firing cannon balls at the pair as they run along. The game also uses the space in front of the foreground well too. One enemy is a jumping toad that flies erratically towards the screen like a balloon losing air when hit. In another area butterflies pour out of the mouths of two metal idols, fluttering towards the screen and out.
For us, however, the visual highlight would have to be the silhouette sections, where the foreground and characters are blacked out, with only a couple of shades of colour used to fill the horizon. It's a striking use of contrast and stunningly pretty.
Anyone who has seen the trailer for DKC Returns will already know that one of the signature tunes from the series has returned, and this will be representative of the game as a whole. As Kensuke Tanabe told Mr Iwata in one of the Iwata Asks E3 videos: "Some Nintendo figures, people such as Miyamoto-san and Nintendo of America's Fukuda-san, had very strong opinions about the game's sound. They made it clear we should make sure the music and sound from the original game stayed intact. It's clear that, in addition to the graphics, the music of the series made a big impression on people."
Will DKC Returns capture nostalgia for the series at the same time as moving it forward? From what we've seen so far, we're inclined to think it will.