We've had an awful lot of Nintendo-published 2D platformers on the Wii lately, haven't we? There's Wario Land: Shake It!, Donkey Kong Jungle Beat (sort of), New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Kirby's Epic Yarn, and now Donkey Kong Country Returns. It's a veritable platforming renaissance! There's just something immediately accessible about the genre, and it's great to know that 3D games haven't buried their predecessors permanently. We can have both, why the hell not.

That said, after Donkey Kong Country Returns (DKCR) I'd be happy if we stuck with two dimensions forever. It's really good. Like stupidly good. Developer Retro Studios has proved their mettle across the three Metroid Primes, but this jaunt into a completely different genre and aesthetic seemed a bit of an odd choice. And yet, contrary to all logic, they've managed to cobble together an experience that exceeds its genre predecessors in almost every way. This is a watershed game for Retro, cementing them in my eyes as the industry leader in art and level design.

I'm tempted to just paste a paragraph from one of my Metroid reviews in here. You know what, check this out:

Me, edited, on Metroid Prime 3: Corruption"The worlds you explore in [DKCR] truly feel alive, with surroundings that are painstakingly modeled and animated. Even the most mundane actions will typically be accompanied by an incredibly intricate series of animations that further the idea of an environment with purpose and design, not just a sterile videogame locale. Retro Studios, the developers behind the title, must be commended for being one of the only studios to successfully bridge the gap between concept art and actual in-game design. Everything, from the [densely and uniquely-foliated jungles] to the [obsidian-adorned lava fields], has been meticulously constructed to create the illusion of an organically born environment."

If Retro has any trademark, it's this. They have consistently proven their ability to construct an environment that extends beyond just the platforms you stand on, and the dudes you destroy. The backgrounds in DKCR go on for miles, and you'll actually be launched through and into them from time to time, with changes in the foreground affecting the background, and vise versa. So much of what you jump on will move or collapse, with many levels actually building themselves in front of you, collapsing spectacularly behind you, or a featuring a combination thereof.

DKCR's level design has a strong emphasis on momentum. The minecart levels, and the newly added (though based roughly on DKC3) rocket-barrel levels, feature one-hit kills and require split-second reaction times. As I mentioned before, these stages will often dynamically fall apart all around you, with everything on your tail trying to kill you, and everything in your way... well, also trying to kill you. Plenty of traditional platforming stages are cut from this same cloth, with a non-stop run-and-jump being required for survival. There are more than a few occasions where you'll be required to hop on the heads of several enemies in sequence to stay ahead of the bedlam that tails you so omnipresently.

(Performing a high jump off a dude is a mechanic I actually had a bit of trouble with at first. Here's a HOT TIP if you share my struggle: press and hold the jump button a little earlier. Instead of right when you land on a guy, try right before you land on him. Press then and hold, and you will meet with much more success. I hate that I learned this so late.)

DKCR retains much of what defined the series back on the SNES, including barrel cannons, animal friends, the aforementioned minecarts, rolling into pits, and secrets hidden on the fringes of the screen. New to the repertoire are several Diddy-Kong-based moves, like a jetpack to extend jumps, an infinite roll, and a peanut pop-gun that makes its appearance in the co-op mode. That said, DKCR doesn't just play like DKC with some new moves. Retro looked at what worked in the original three games and then built a brand new experience from scratch. DKCR doesn't feel weighed down by any DKC tropes (except maybe the bonus levels that are far too frequent and not nearly unique enough), and in fact makes the originals feel even more dated than their CG-styled graphics and 90's pop sensibilities already did.

What I found particularly surprising was how DKCR made even recent games feel somewhat archaic. New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Donkey Kong Jungle Beat are among my favorite games of the generation, but I went back to them briefly after completing DKCR and somehow now I'm questioning everything. DKCR feels so lush and varied, so dense and purposeful, that Mario just feels plain and anemic, and Jungle Beat just feels kind of... weird. It's not like DKCR can make them bad retroactively, but I'm much more aware now of how much further they could have gone.

Now to be fair, DKCR's certainly not perfect. There are aspects of the overall presentation that don't match up to the high standard set by the levels themselves. The menu design feels a bit cheap, like something out of a lower budget third party title at times, particularly when purchasing items repeatedly in Cranky's Shop. My Wii actually clicked and whirred loudly any time I tried to buy anything, and it felt like I was gonna have smoke coming out of the thing if I bought too much too fast. It actually locked up entirely on two separate occasions when I first entered the shop, and I had to eject and re-insert the disk in order to load things successfully.

Besides technical failings, the shop seems kind of superfluous in general, due largely to an economy that's absolutely overflowing with currency. There's a level in each world that's only accessible after you purchase a key from the shop for a hefty 20 coins, and it's like woah better save up except oh right I have six hundred coins. The levels might as well have just been unlocked from the start. I could go on with a laundry list of little things like this, but in the end they're not really worth dedicating the space to. Any issues I've got are only with the game's wrapper bits, not the levels themselves. It's a bit odd to find so much polish in one place, though, and comparably less in another.

Perhaps one last "issue" worth addressing is the oft-maligned motion-control roll. I'll admit, I occasionally flub a shake and run off a platform to my doom, but no more than I screw up any other input while in a banana-fueled fit. Any real arguments are against controller-shakes as button-presses in general, not DKCR's particular implementation. My stance is generally "this is what it is, welcome to the Wii, deal with it." I sometimes wonder what all the outrage is about, it's not like we didn't have to all learn how to manipulate the N64's joystick, or the DS's touchpad, or even the SNES's shoulder buttons. We figured them out and moved on with our lives. It seems that some people have managed to reject motion control outright for so long that they never got over that initial learning experience, regrettably, and so here we are four years into the Wii's lifespan and people are still bemoaning it.

But hey, how about this. Forget all of this "Classic Controller support or death" nonsense, Retro could have easily mapped the most important motion-controlled move, the roll, to the B button in the Remote/Nunchuck control scheme. As it is now, it's just duplicating the Z button for no reason. There, problem solved, was that so hard? The ground-pound works and feels great with the motion controls actually, and sure why not even stick the "blow" move on the C button while we're at it, it doesn't really need to be motion-based and the button's currently unused. Maybe this wouldn't be so feasible since it's probably necessary to support the Remote-only control scheme and it doesn't really have the buttons necessary to manage it comfortably, but I think it'd shut a lot of people up.

My preferred recommendation, though, remains the same: learn how to deal with it. It's not broken, it's just difficult. And boy oh boy, if difficulty is a problem, maybe DKCR isn't the game for you anyway. I haven't played a more difficult platformer in... well, I guess I haven't ever played a more difficult platformer. I probably died over a hundred times on a couple levels, and fair amounts all over the place in the rest. What's great, though, is that these were all unforced deaths. Nothing unfair, nothing frustrating, just genuinely difficult to overcome. Retro went and aped (oh god) New Super Mario Bros. Wii's Super Guide almost exactly, and uses it as a license to make the levels as unforgivable and twisted as platforming veterans might hope for.

As if getting to the goal wasn't difficult enough, you have the option of returning to a level to max out on hidden puzzle pieces and K-O-N-G letters that unlock production art and even more impossible secret levels. Then we've got the time trials, where DK has to make it to a level's goal within various time brackets to earn various medals. This is where I draw the line. I have to complement DKCR's level design for being able to actually support these trials, similarly to how the Super Skills videos in New Super Mario Bros. Wii show off how brilliant its level design is, but I'm not touching these with a ten-foot pole. Getting a gold on level 1-1 was traumatic enough, thanks. (The boneheaded decision to respawn a freshly-killed DK at the level start with the clock still running, requiring a manual restart of the level for any hope of earning a medal, doesn't help my resolve.)

And there's even more after that! DKCR is positively packed to the brim with content, and you will almost certainly lament your failure to complete all of it. That's a pretty okay problem to have though, huh? I found myself immensely satisfied by Retro's efforts here, particularly for a genre with which they have no experience. In fact, let's just have them make all of Nintendo's games now. I know there was some flim-flam about an FPS Zelda at some point, but with DKCR under their belts why not have them take a stab at it in third-person? I'd kill to see their rendition of Hyrule. Probably literally kill. It'd give poor old gray-haired Eiji Aonuma a break, too. We need to keep him off the ledge.