There are many things to love about Donkey Kong Returns, but one of the biggest is that it knows who its audience is, and why this series matters. This isn't an attempt to reboot the DK franchise or make it work in full 3D or rebuild the whole game for motion controls. Instead, it's an unashamed trip into nostalgia-land, giving us the DK we remember, the gameplay we remember, and a Wii update of the visual style that - hard as it is to understand these days - once knocked the gaming world off its feet. Like New Super Mario Bros before it, DKCR seems to have been designed to hook the generation that played the original some 16 years ago, along with a new, younger audience that might be seeing DK for the first time without party games, a racing kart or bongos. Both groups are going to have a ball.
DKCR also takes us back to the days when games didn't really need some kind of intricate plot nor heroes any real motivation. Basically, some weird flying tiki masks have nicked DK's bananas and mesmerised his jungle-living chums. DK and his son, Diddy, are off to get them back - and that's all there is to it. DK runs from left to right, the screen scrolls with him, there's a whole lot of banana-collecting, along with enemies to be jumped on or rolled over and various deadly objects to be avoided. It's a classic platformer in the vintage mould, and the kind of game that leaves you feeling that, sometimes, we don't really need to reinvent the platform gaming wheel.
There are, inevitably, some attempts made to remind you that you're playing on the Wii. Playing with the Remote and Nunchuck (not quite the authentic approach, but the one we'd recommend), you can waggle the two alternately to make DK slap the ground, or do the same and press right to make him roll. It's a little on the spurious side - you could easily have done either with a button - but in the context of the game it works pretty well, while feeling like a nod to the great ape's efforts in the bongo-powered Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat.
Otherwise, this is Donkey Kong Country through and through. All the old tropes are back. Remember the cannon barrels that fired a whirling ape across the screen? The mine cart chases? The bits where DK climbs on an animal's back and races through the level? They're all here, and they're all as brilliant as ever. Movement and jumping is, if anything, a little bit tighter, but really playing the new chapter is just like riding a bike for the first time; your fingers will know what to do.
Once again, Diddy Kong plays a vital role in the single-player game; release him from a barrel and he hops on Dad's back to jump for longer. What's more, he can also be taken on by another player in an old-fashioned co-op mode, and while the game rather grumpily penalises you for doing this by making you lose two lives every time both apes go down, it's still a brilliant game to play with friends (and a younger player playing Diddy can always make him jump on Donkey's back for the particularly tricky platform sections).
Even scored just for basic nostalgia, looks and playability we'd be happy to recommend this little beauty, but the fact is that the superior processing power and graphical capabilities of the Wii have given the new game's developers license to throw in new ideas and spectacular set-pieces like they have a dodgy job-lot to get rid of. In certain sections, cannons fire you into the background, where you can complete a small section before being fired back into the foreground. In other areas you'll encounter rippling planks that send you flying into the air, huge tilting platforms, impressively monstrous creatures and stone towers that topple you into the screen. And you'll see most of this stuff within the first hour. As with all great platformers, there's always the sense that something new is just around the corner.
The challenge might be getting there. Even more than New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Donkey Kong Country Returns is difficult. As in properly difficult. As in grit your teeth, punch your legs, think seriously about throwing the controller through the TV difficult. There are portions of the first world that will give experienced players pause for thought, and by the time you're through to the third world, you'll be thinking about obnoxious items you could post through to Nintendo in revenge. Luckily, DKC Returns has half-inched NSMB Wii's sneaky super guide idea, which means you can ask the game to run the section that's holding you back on auto-pilot. Of course, you won't get rewarded for your (miserable, lily-livered) efforts. As some of the pleasure - and much of the replay value - is in collecting and completing every section of the game, you know you'll eventually come back and do it right.
Finally, DKC Returns looks pretty scrumptious for a Wii game. The jungle and beach scenery of the early levels is packed with stunning animated details and little “wow” touches, and even when the game moves towards caves and temples, it's still putting out beautifully decorated caves and temples. It's pretty much what you hoped a Donkey Kong Country sequel would look like 14 years on.
We're not going to claim that this is the best or most innovative game of the year, or even the most exciting Wii title of 2010, but it's definitely one of the year's most challenging, and one of the year's most fun. That holds true even if you're too young to have played the original, but goes double if DK addiction played a part in your misspent youth. We might say that you'd be bananas not to buy it, but we'll save the flea-bitten monkey clichés for another bunch of apes.