Version tested: Wii
Times is 'ard, as we're so often reminded. The newspapers are full of stories about how eight-year-olds will soon be charged 15p per times table learned, while Ireland may be forced to solve its financial crisis by auctioning off Enya. Not even being told we've got to pay for the wedding of the seventh richest young millionaire in Britain is enough to cheer us up.
But here's something which might do the trick: Donkey Kong Country Returns. This isn't a HD remake or a franchise reboot or whatever the heck a redux is. It's simply a new instalment in a classic series.
It's so reminiscent of the original titles you can almost forget this credit crunch nonsense ever happened, and pretend you still live in a world where going to the shops on Sunday is a novelty, saying "Psyche!" is acceptable and a long and successful career lies ahead for Chaka Demus & Pliers. The illusion would be complete if Cranky Kong didn't look so much like Vince Cable.
Just like all the old games, Donkey Kong Country Returns features a forgettable storyline revolving around the theft of some fruit. (The old plots have blurred into one in my mind, though apparently they were different. Wikipedia notes that DKC2: Diddy Kong's Quest was "less cheery and more darkly themed" than its predecessor, which must have been seriously cheery, considering DKC2 was about a monkey being held to ransom by a pirate crocodile for some bananas.)
This time the bananas have been stolen by members of the Tiki Tak tribe, weird floating masks which appear to have been stolen themselves from the Crash Bandicoot games. Your mission is to retrieve the bananas, avoiding death at the hands of giant orange spiders, bright pink vultures, animated bongo drums and so on along the way.
You play as Donkey Kong. As usual Diddy can be found hiding in barrels dotted around each level, and smashing them open will free him up to hop on Donkey's back.
You can't switch between the two characters with a button-press, as in previous games, but having Diddy on board is handy as he doubles Donkey's default number of health hearts to four. Plus, he's equipped with a jetpack which enables Donkey to remain in the air for a little longer when he jumps. This is a lifesaver during trickier platforming sections.
The movement mechanics are instantly familiar and perfectly tuned. Donkey's jumps have just the right amount of floatiness and his animations are as fluid as they ever were. However, he's now got some new moves. Giving the Wii remote a swift waggle makes Donkey hammer his fists on the ground, which reveals hidden secrets and stuns enemies. It's a neat addition.
The same can't be said of Donkey's barrel roll or blowing action. If you're using a remote on its own, held sideways, pulling these off involves holding down a direction on the d-pad while you waggle. This isn't too difficult, but it feels awkward and interrupts the flow of the gameplay.
The moves are easier to perform using the remote and nunchuck combo, but miserable purists who prefer good old d-pads to those new-fangled analogue sticks will no doubt whine about this. And they'll probably write very strong letters to their MPs when they learn you can't play DKC Returns with a Classic Controller.
This does seem like an oversight. Old Donkey Kong Country games downloaded from the Virtual Console can be played with the Classic, so why can't this new one? Why not map the waggly moves to the shoulder buttons?
Presumably because Nintendo wants to remind us all that motion control makes for more immersive gaming, as if being a huge primate with the power to cause earthquakes feels just like shaking a small white plastic cuboid, and as if immersive is even a word.
But before you race off to download the old trio of DKC games, hold up. Remember that they weren't designed for the nice big widescreen LCD telly sitting in your lounge today. Know that they won't look nearly as pretty as you recall, but will appear to have been constructed out of thousands of small yet individually distinguishable LEGO bricks.
DKC Returns, by comparison, looks beautifully detailed, smooth and polished. Just as the old games did on the SNES, in fact. (Remember when the height of cutting-edge visual sophistication was snowflakes which went in different directions? Heady days.) This is undoubtedly the best-looking instalment in the series, and a strong contender for the title of prettiest Wii game released to date.
It helps that the environments you get to explore are so picturesque. Lush jungles, sandy beaches, blue seas, pink dawns, golden sunsets, sparkling waterfalls, arching rainbows... Good job there's also the odd rusting industrial power-plant and lake of boiling lava to provide a bit of balance.
But even the darker areas have been designed with a lighter touch. Take the ominous-sounding Caves. As it turns out, these are painted in various shades of purple and populated by massive lilac bats.
Every location is packed with power-ups, collectables and secret bonus areas. Along with the traditional K-O-N-G letters there are hidden puzzle pieces to seek out. Finding them all will require the kind of time, dedication and single-minded focus only possessed by pre-teen children and English Literature undergraduates.
For many people, finishing the game at all will be a challenge. By the time you reach the fifth world, DKC Returns has become a properly hard game. There's always an awful lot happening on-screen and it's often occurring at a rollicking pace. Lightning reflexes and precision control are essential if you're to have any hope of handling all the moving platforms, exploding barrels, airborne missiles and massive lilac bats.
Good job there's a Super Guide feature, then, just like the one in New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Activating this enables you to see how the level should be played through and skip on to the next. Yes, it's cheating, but you won't care when it's a choice between embedding the Wii remote into your own eye socket out of sheer rage or using the Super Guide so you can carry on playing.
And you will want to carry on playing. This is partly because there's so much variation between levels, in terms of both pace and content. Even when you're stuck on a particularly tricky bit you know there's probably a gentler platforming section, a pretty new environment or a fun mine cart race just round the corner.
Yes, DKC fans, mine cart races are back. So are stampeding rhinos and exploding barrels and banana coins and life balloons and silly boss battles. If all that wasn't enough, the same old sound effects and theme tunes are also there to take you right back to the good old days.
All those chirpy hooks, pounding drums and bright sound effects which sound like they were created by someone taking a hammer to a coconut are present and correct. Even the Game Over tune is the same. You know, the one with the ominous pan pipes playing over the mournful synthesiser. I want it played as I go through the curtains at the crematorium.
Unfortunately, the similarities between DKC Returns and the original games also extend to the multiplayer mode. Just as it was in those games, it's a bit rubbish. One player controls Donkey while the other is in charge of Diddy, and you're always on-screen at the same time. Or at least that's the plan - in reality, with so much happening on-screen, such large character sprites and that close-up camera, you spend a lot of time waiting for each other to catch up.
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When it comes to the on-rails levels the two-player mode is seriously flawed. You're both in the same boat, or rather mine cart, so you can't tell who messed up that jump or who was responsible for that leap to victory. Plus, if one player makes a mistake you'll each lose a life. This makes it easy to burn through those red balloons, and impossible to complete the trickier levels if you're playing alongside an idiot.
So forget the formal multiplayer mode. You're better off sticking with the tried and trusted formula my brother and I patented in 1994, where you swap the controller every time someone dies or finishes a level. We call this mechanism, brilliantly, lifeforalifelevelforalevel. We employed it when playing DKC Returns the other day and it was great fun, even though we now have a combined age of 60.
In any case, the DKC games were never about multiplayer. They were about great gameplay, varied levels, plush graphics and staying up all night riding a giant ostrich through a jungle full of angry wasps and golden bananas. Donkey Kong Country Returns lovingly recreates all those elements and presents them in an even prettier package.
You could argue that it doesn't move the series forwards much. There are a few new twists in here, but nothing which fundamentally changes the game or represents a significant departure from the tried and true formula.
But who cares? DKC fans who just want to remember the good old times won't, and nor will newcomers to the series. This game has the potential to win over a whole new generation, and to do so without eliciting any whinges from those of us old enough to remember the taste of a McRib washed down with Tab Clear.
If you fit into either of those categories, and you're looking for a bit of fun, old school escapism this Christmas, pick up a copy of DKC Returns. It's great to be back in the old Country.
9 / 10