Hello all! Last week brought us a hysterically fun game that did justice to its source material.
Today brings us to a game that’s a masterpiece of game design. Which isn’t too surprising, given its pedigree.
Note: This article is based on the 3DS version of Donkey Kong Country Returns, which is the only version I have. I’m not familiar with the Wii version, so your mileage may vary.
Donkey Kong Country Returns is the long-awaited sequel to, of course, the three Rare-developed Donkey Kong Country SNES games. Here, once again, you play as Donkey Kong, out to retrieve his stolen banana horde from Bad Creature Things.
It’s DKC; you’re not playing for a rich backstory and lore. What you are playing for is the gameplay. Like its predecessors, DKCR is a basic side-scroller. You jump on enemies and navigate platforms. You find hidden puzzle pieces and extra lives, if you look hard enough. Basic stuff.
Where the magic happens, like all expertly designed games, lies between the basic elements. It’s kind of hard to explain if you’ve not played DKCR; suffice it to say the game controls perfectly. There’s nothing quite like a game that controls perfectly; games that control well, you don’t really notice, but a game with perfect controls sticks with you. That’s part of what keeps you coming back.
It goes hand in hand with the level design, which is the other part of why DKCR is a masterclass in game design. DKCR’s levels have a way of explaining themselves in a fashion we don’t see a lot these days—hell, we barely see it in old games. It works like this: in early levels, the game not only introduces its mechanics, it gives you an opportunity to test them out. In other words, you’re eased into even the most basic things like jumping. Rather than tutorial you to death, you’re learning by doing—and yet the game explains itself, too. Without getting in its own way.
It’s different from, say, Dark Souls, a game that (allegedly) teaches you by killing you over and over—DKCR saves that for the later levels; the game gives you a bunch of lives, and you’re gonna need them. It’s a retro game with retro difficulty.
And yet that difficulty is never unfair, nor is it the result of bad design, as is the case with some old games. When a game is designed this well, player death is never the result of cheap enemies or blind jumps, where you can’t see where you’re jumping to (lame). Every time you die in a game like DKCR, you say to yourself, “Oh, I see where I messed up.” You always know what you need to do in DKCR, but knowing what to do and pulling it off are two different things.
And it’s all worth it in the end. DKCR is nothing short of a masterpiece; retro and modern all at once, flawlessly designed, and most important of all, fun. Pick up the 3DS version if you can; it’s got an extra zone and it’s portable.
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Next week, we check out a slightly obscure JRPG with guns and other nonsense.