Monday, November 29, 2010

Preview Power: Donkey Kong Country Returns

[Part of a series of smaller posts that I'll be doing about various upcoming games. I don't jump on board the hype train too often, but when I do I like to think that there's a pretty significant reason for why, and in this series I will attempt to explain my anticipation for each game.]

Donkey Kong Country Returns. Bit of a silly name isn’t it? Yet it is also a name that breeds immense excitement and anticipation in someone like me, a guy who grew up playing the very franchise it hopes to revitalise. So while the series returning might sound silly, the arrival should be one of sheer pleasure as I reacquaint myself with the dopey but adorable monkey and his companions.

But to understand why I’m so excited for this new installment, first we must reflect back on its predecessors to find out why this rebirth is such an enticing prospect.

I love the Donkey Kong Country franchise for a multitude of reasons -- some of which I will perhaps explore in the not too distant future -- but the biggest one is also an industry staple: the games were just fun. While maintaining the familiar platforming formula of that era, Donkey Kong Country and its two sequels went above and beyond the norm to create a charming personality of its own and a style that was exhibited by everything ranging from its music to its characters to its level design. A good portion of this can be attributed to Rare (then known as Rareware) as their injection of charm and wit into the games plus their demonstration of technical proficiency and expertise allowed the three games to captivate audiences everywhere. Donkey’s foolish, almost Homer Simpson-esque approach to his banana collection ensured that the Kremlings’ continuous thievery of it was inevitable; Dixie’s elegant but forceful approach when she was enlisted to the Kremling fight ensured that things got done as required. The characters might be basic and they may be archetypical to a degree, but the variety demonstrated and the simplicity with which this was achieved guaranteed a series of games that were familiar but always changing. Throw in the incredible levels and the diversity they showed and it made for three games that kept you on your toes but teased you into confidence as you tapped into your repertoire of skills.

The games were good, then, and were enhanced even more by their timeless art directions and marvelous soundtracks. This alone is enough to make Donkey Kong Country Returns a must-have; another strong motivating factor is the people creating it.

Retro Studios are, in my opinion, one of the best developers in the industry today, and while their reputation for quality has been formed on one series of games alone, there’s just no denying the level of care, attention to detail and effort they put into their games. Like the series or not, I think it’s fair to say that Metroid Prime is one of the best games of all time, if not the best Metroid game, while its two sequels -- despite not reaching the same lofty heights as the original -- also exuded a quality that few other games can match. Now I won’t deny that I’m a Metroid fanboy. I’ve stated this a few times on the blog and countless times elsewhere, and I’ll continue to shout that franchise’s brilliance from the rooftops for as long as my voice will allow. But it was Retro who created that passion in the first place so the respect they have from me isn’t just strong, it’s inexplicable. Put simply, anything they make will have my interest; the fact they are making a game in a franchise that I hold dear to my heart is just mind-blowing. For years I have wanted what is essentially Donkey Kong Country 4. I didn’t care what system it was on, what time it came out or which characters it was based around, all I wanted was another installment in the franchise with new levels and challenges for me to see. For years that didn’t happen, and with each passing year and platform I was slowly coming to the realisation that my desires were to be unmet and that the franchise as a whole -- if not the characters too -- were to be left in the past, forgotten. Then suddenly, at this year’s E3 conference, a new one was announced and by the studio that didn’t just create one of my favourite games of all time but also a passion that I didn’t know existed. How can that not be incredibly exciting for someone like me?

As you can probably tell I just can’t explain how much it pleases me to know that later this week, finally, I will be playing a new Donkey Kong Country. My approach to the new game might be extremely enthusiastic but my confidence in Retro is justified. The reviews already confirm it; their talent ensures it.

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