Editor’s note: I originally wrote this review in 2013, but with today’s release of Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Wii U eShop, it’s a perfect opportunity to revisit one of the most challenging platformer games Nintendo ever released.
If you held a gun to my head and demanded, at the risk of losing my life, that I name my favorite video game ever, I would quickly say, “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.” The matter would be settled.
But what defines a “favorite” game, anyway? I certainly have played Ocarina of Time a lot. I was blown away the first time I played it on my Nintendo 64 as a teenager, and played from start to finish at least three times on that console. I played through it twice more many years later on the Wii Virtual Console, and again a couple years ago when I made The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D my very first Nintendo 3DS purchase.
I enjoyed it on every play-through. But does that really make it my favorite game?
If frequency of play is your metric, then certainly not. I haven’t played OoT more than a half-dozen times. Compare that to Ridge Racer 3D, which, according to my 3DS play time log, is my most-played title on that system, at 55 hours or so. But that’s not even in my top five favorite games on that system, let alone ever. I just played it a lot right after I got it, since it was one of the only games I had for a while.
I’ve probably logged several hundred hours at Tetris, and that’s definitely one of my all-time favorites. But the favorite? I dunno. It’s certainly my favorite Game Boy title. And Super Mario Bros. 3 is my favorite NES game, hands-down. You can guess my most-treasured N64 game.
I don’t have a favorite Wii game, really; I bought the system in 2009 primarily for its Virtual Console, and I used it for that pretty much exclusively for about three years. The first actual Wii game I ever bought on disc was the Super Mario All-Stars 25th Anniversary collection, and that doesn’t even count, because it’s just a Super NES emulation. The first “real” Wii game I bought was New Super Mario Bros. Wii — in 2011, two years after its release.
That brings me to the Super NES, which was my personal “golden age” console. I didn’t have a ton of games growing up, being in a lower-middle-class family with a brother and two step-siblings competing for gifts at Christmas and on birthdays. But! My parents were divorced, so I parlayed that split into maximizing my gaming gifts from each parent, observing two Christmases and birthdays a year, as it were. I remained highly selective, relying primarily on my annual birthday subscription renewal to Nintendo Power magazine as my source of advertorials and propaganda in the guise of game reviews and “news”.
As you might expect, this led to my gaming library being rather heavily tilted in favor of Nintendo first-party titles, but by the same token it meant I had a very high-quality selection of games. I ended up with very few genuinely bad games on my NES and Super NES, with the worst of those being the unlicensed Bible Adventures games my well-meaning Christian family would purchase.
For me, the Super NES arrived at the perfect time: just before I hit my teenage years, with a solid amount of experience playing NES games and yet as I was continuing to grow my skills and interests. And the games for it were AMAZING. I honestly can’t think of any Super NES titles I owned that I didn’t like. It’s much harder for me to decide which one I love the most; I can’t do it.
Super Mario World came with my console, so I played it the most, at first. I beat it in less than two weeks of playing for the first time, then spent the better part of a year exploring all its secrets and unlocking the Star World, Special stages and the bizarre “Mario mask mode” that changes the backgrounds to autumnal colors and the enemies to walking Mario heads.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was the first Zelda game I was able to beat, though it took a LONG time. But I never gave up, because I enjoyed the ride so much.
Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball is easily the game I played the most. I probably completed nine or ten full, 162-game seasons, plus playoffs, not including the hours I spent pouring over newspaper box scores to get the player rosters matched to their real-world counterparts. There was nothing I loved more than leading Juan Gonzalez, Jose Canseco, Ivan Rodriguez and the rest of the Fake 1994 Texas Rangers to a World Series that would never be played, thanks to the player strike.
Then there was Donkey Kong Country.
Like a lot of gamers at the time, I learned about DKC through Nintendo Power. As a subscriber, I also got a little something extra: a VHS tape came in the mail one day, in a green box with jungle leaf patterns:
(That’s not my tape, by the way. Mine has been lost for many years now.)
I popped it in the VCR and was transfixed / annoyed for 13 minutes:
Terrible acting aside, I was floored. I HAD to have this game. And so, I started saving my allowance.
Finally, Donkey Kong Country hit store shelves, and I raced down to Walmart to pick up my copy. It exceeded all my expectations the first time I played through it. It was, to my teenage mind, the most incredible-looking 16-bit game ever created. I had no idea games could look so lush; so alive! The environments — the challenges — it was everything I had really hoped for in a future Mario game, here and now.
So yeah, Donkey Kong Country is the fourth pillar in my quartet of favorite Super NES games.
Who really needs this many bananas? (Credit: Nintendo)
Fast forward 16 years, and Donkey Kong Country Returns is released. I was aware of it, and I owned a Wii at the time, but for whatever reason, checking it out was not a big priority for me. I was happy with the original! When a new copy turned up cheap at the employee store where I work, I picked it up, took it home, and set it aside. I figured I’d get to it later.
“Later” turned into nearly two years. I had played and beaten Donkey Kong Country on the Wii Virtual Console, and it was still a ton of fun, though of course not *quite* as great as I had remembered. (Still very good, though.) I never previously owned the other two Donkey Kong Countrygames on Super NES. You’d think I’d be first in line for those titles, considering how much I loved DKC, but they came out at a time my family was going through a very difficult period, and money for such things was hard to come by. At the time, I went a couple of years without getting any new games at all, and once things had improved, I was off to college, with a new Nintendo 64 in tow. My Super NES days were behind me.
At any rate, I decided I should play the other two DKC Super NES titles first, and eventually I got around to starting Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest via the Wii Virtual Console. It was good, I guess; and yes, fun, but not even close to my memories of DKC.
Also, I got stuck on a volcano level and basically gave up.
“To hell with it,” I said, and I fired up Donkey Kong Country Returns for the first time.
I felt that DKC feeling again.
It was great! I loved this game. Loved playing through it so much. Loved the look; loved the level design; loved the attention to detail that brought this game to life. It was incredible.
I fought through it. I kept on playing. Hour after hour, week after week. Because of my job and other responsibilities, I could only devote any time to playing it on Saturdays.
There were a couple of levels that stymied me so greatly that I was forced to let the Super Guide play through them for me. How embarrassing. I went back to each later and finished it myself. But oh, after I died for the umpteenth time on a later level, there he was again, that stupid pig, smirking at me as he waved his little flag and jumped up and down, mocking me, screaming HEY LOSER! YOU SUCK AND YOU CAN’T DO THIS YOURSELF SO LET THE GAME DO IT FOR YOU!
I wanted to kill that pig.
This game was really, REALLY testing me. I loved it so much, yet I could not remember a game that had vexed me so. Yes, there are other games I have given up on: three, to be exact. ActRaiser, whereupon I am still stuck on the final level and keep telling myself I’ll get to it later; Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, which is an awful, practically broken mess and which I will cheat my way through by using the Wii U Virtual Console’s save states once it releases there; and Ninja Gaiden for NES, because, well, that game is freaking impossible. (I can’t beat the final boss, and no amount of YouTube tutorials have helped.)
I didn’t love any of those games, though. Not like DKC Returns. This game had won me over, only to crush my spirit.
And yet, I pressed on, and finally made it to the final boss.
Well, the final boss stage, to be precise. Because of course, you have to navigate a rocket barrel course — the kind that I found nearly impossible to complete elsewhere in the game — before you can even fight the last boss, and if the boss kills you, you have to start all over and go through the rocket barrel course again.
I would try until I nearly depleted my supply of lives; then I’d go back and play through a bunch of the easiest levels, accruing banana coins and lives, then using the banana coins to buy more lives from Cranky’s shop, then try again.
I used every “cheat” item available, especially the “invincibility” banana juice.
I couldn’t do it.
I can’t do it.
I gave up.
For the first time, I let a game beat me.
I don’t know how I feel about DKCR now. I can’t even look Donkey Kong in the eye on the game’s cover. It’s like a bad breakup or something. And I am filled with shame because of it.