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‘Donkey Kong Country Returns’

For video game fans, 2010 is coming to a close, as nearly every major release is out. It’s been a particularly great year for gaming, and for Nintendo fans, 2010 was very special due to the high quality and quantity of releases.

“Donkey Kong Country Returns” marks the return of a franchise long thought dead. Retro Studios, famous for the “Metroid Prime” trilogy, revived this very old-school design, but with the highest production values and new-school ideas. If you’ve played “New Super Mario Bros.” before, then this is the same idea. However, it is the execution of that idea that makes “Returns” so memorable.

The original “Donkey Kong Country” games were notable for both their revolutionary pre-rendered 3-D graphics technology and their punishing difficulty. “Returns” is in actual 3-D, though restricted to two-dimensional movements, and the difficulty is greater than ever.

In fact, this may be the most difficult release of the year, on par with, and even exceeding, “Super Meat Boy.” It is the complete opposite of Nintendo’s other recent platformer, “Kirby’s Epic Yarn.” Wherein Kirby dying was impossible, death in “Returns” is a very frequent event. Frustration is kept to a minimum, however, thanks to the ingenious level design and a generous amount of extra lives.

“Returns” starts off with Donkey Kong’s bananas stolen yet again, but from there on out, this is a very different game. The presentation is top notch. The animation and graphics are easily some of the best this year, and the music does everything from recalling the original addictive soundtrack to providing new interesting dynamics when needed.

Level design is the most interesting aspect of “Returns,” as the levels dynamically change. Falling platforms is one thing, but after blasting your way through a stone tower, watching it crash into another before it finally shatters into many pieces in the course of a few seconds is something else.

Whether it is the enemies that frequently burst out of hiding, platforms being shredded to bits or something raining death from the sky, no place is safe for long. This constant barrage of new unexpected challenges to adjust to means “Returns” offers some of the most intense action available in a video game.

The spectacles the game frequently presents are reason enough to keep progressing. In one level, a giant octopus appears in the background. After violently dismantling the battleship that was shooting cannonballs at you in a previous level, the octopus proceeds to attack the player. Its tentacles rip wooden bridges and structures apart outside, and even dramatically bursts out of the ground and walls in what appears to be an otherwise safe cavern. Even by just moving around in the ocean, the octopus creates waves that cause platforms to rise and fall.

Experiencing the new ideas and mechanics makes “Returns” even more interesting and addictive. Some levels are done completely in a strikingly beautiful silhouette style. These levels’ challenges are specifically created for that style, which makes them even more unique.

A new rocket barrel creates some of the most intense moments in the game. With the rocket already moving forward, hitting a button ascends the rocket while letting go of it drops the barrel. Even the slightest touch of anything else spells doom, and the physics for the rocket are more than interesting enough before additional chaos is introduced.

One beloved element from previous games was the mine cart levels which return in spectacular fashion. These levels were the most intense in previous games and had they reappeared as they used to, mine carts would be the tamest part of the game.

Thankfully, these have been given the treatment they deserve. The camera zooms out for the most part to better frame the action and show off their scale. Yet it also zooms in to make the action even more intense at times. Loads of enemies hover around or ride the tracks and the rails often violently collapse under the cart.

What is even better than all this is that, as the carts ride down a steep hill, the mine cart becomes blazingly fast. This makes survival more difficult and pushes these sequences over the top. Retro Studios made many creative uses of the mine cart, but saying anything more would spoil the surprise.

Pushing through these fantastic levels isn’t all there is to do. Besides tackling them with a buddy in real time co-op, there are plenty of collectibles scattered around each level. K-O-N-G letters are in obvious sight, but reaching them takes skill. Additionally, puzzle pieces are in hidden areas or awarded for other tasks. Getting all of the letters unlock some of the best new one-off levels, while the more rewarding and often more fun puzzle pieces unlock a variety of galleries.

Yet, the game’s real challenge is the Time Attack mode. The main game is brutally tough as is, but beating the time trials is on a difficulty level of the highest order, requiring perfect play.

“Donkey Kong Country Returns” is the best Wii game for the holiday. It is polished to perfection and provides thrills and action like no other game this year.

Rating: 5 out of 5