Out of all of the games on show at the Ninty showcase on Tuesday, I approached this one with probably the most severe trepidation. You see, much as I love Nintendo's staple characters and their adventures, I fear that there's a certain amount of laziness that's been creeping into proceedings of late, most wholly epitomised in last year's New Super Mario Bros. Sure, it was pretty fun, but for the first time I can remember with a Mario game, I wasn't shown anything new. This might sound harsh, but for me it was an exercise in nostalgia and very little else.
Donkey Kong has had an even rougher deal if I'm being honest, having found himself (along with his crew) mired in a kind of 'well what shall we do with him next?' sort of limbo ever since Rare decisively proved that Nintendo weren't the only ones who could pull off exceptional platforming with DK64. The lumbering ape has hardly been hiding, I mean he's put in a lot of the usual cameo face time in games sporting the plumber's name, but his own titles in the wilderness decade that followed the N64's demise have been few and far between. The less said about Donkey Konga the better.
The 'Returns' part of the title doesn't bode well, suggesting a shiny reboot that has plenty of old-school charm and no innovation to speak of...a desperate move in desperate times. But, unlike New Super Mario Bros., this doesn't feel so much like a step backwards as a true celebration of what it is to be a DKC game.
Part of that has to do with the fact that all of the things that made Donkey Kong a household name are back: mine cart levels, banana collection, KONG letters and a difficulty setting that oscillates between the friendly and the fiendish. The expansion of the game into 2.5D, using barrels to blast one's way into the background, is a welcome one, a nod at least to modern times in a thoroughly nostalgic game. Gone are the days of tag team play, two player co-op is there from the start and, unlike NSMB, it actually works. Instead of bouncing off of one another into fiery pits of doom, it's actually possible to work in conjunction with one another, you can walk past you compatriot or have Diddy leap on DK's shoulders to help give him jumping boosts with the jetpack.
The game looks fantastic, as you'd expect, and it plays like the Platonic form of what Ninty were trying to achieve back in the 90s but, again, that's part of the problem. I know Nintendo are on a big nostalgia trip right now, and they've always regurgitated their favourite characters time and time again on each of their different consoles, but they seem to be stuck and treading water. Waggling the nunchuk and Wiimote to do a ground pound is not justification enough for why there's a 2D game like this coming to the Wii when both the machine, and Nintendo, are capable of so much more.
That said, it's really fun, and the new additions do make a difference. The 3D environments at least lend the game another dimension of sorts without pulling you out of that classic style, the multiple uses for the ground pound (especially when it comes to uncovering hidden items) make collecting everything a painstakingly cerebral task which is as it should be, and the difficulty can become excruciatingly unforgiving but never alienating. Beating it becomes a true crusade of sheer pride. The co-op feels so natural as well that it took a moment for me to realise that this was in fact a new feature, assuming that it had simply been there all along.
So it does tick all of the right boxes and, if you were already a fan of the series, you'll be quivering with anticipation at this one. Nintendo have succeeded I suppose, at least at first glance, in creating a game that's fun to play on your own and with another person, updating the gameplay with subtle modern elements while keeping the core mechanics reassuringly familiar to allow for the player to wallow in the bath of nostalgia. But, after revolutionising Metroid with the Prime trilogy, I can't help but feel that Retro and Nintendo are selling themselves a little short.