Years ago, when Nintendo tapped the American developer Retro Studios to update the Metroid series, Retro responded with Metroid Prime, the prototype example of how to drag a moribund franchise into the future. To resurrect Donkey Kong Country, Nintendo has again turned to Retro Studios. And this time, Retro has performed the opposite trick: Donkey Kong Country Returns charges headlong into the past, doggedly re-creating the look and feel of the 16-bit games. If not for the Wii controllers in your hands, you'd swear you were jamming on your Super Nintendo.
DKCR is a sidescrolling platformer, one that reminds you where the genre got its name in the first place. DK has plenty of enemies to bowl over, but they're not the biggest challenge he faces. Instead, he has to navigate unforgiving environments adorned with bottomless pits, sharp spikes, and so, so many platforms. Some of these are stationary. Some sway under his weight. Some crumble as soon as he touches them. The platforms, man — they'll kill you.
Then they'll kill you again. And kill you some more. DKCR is a difficult game, in the old-school style. None of its challenges is insurmountable, but the margin for error is essentially zero. DK can take only two enemy hits before dying, or four if he's traveling with his old pal Diddy Kong, and insta-kills abound. And each level is spotted with collectibles: hidden jigsaw pieces, bananas, and the letters K-O-N-G. Except for the puzzle pieces, the items reset if you die after picking any of them up — which is to say the game disregards your accomplishments as soon as you're dead. This is something games don't do much anymore. If you're one who pines for the old days, DKCR should be the tonic for you.
After all, that's what games did when we played and loved them as kids. And DKCR aims to please. So there are mine-cart levels that are even more difficult than the rest. There are levels full of floating barrels that fire DK like a cannonball above an abyss. There are pattern-based boss battles that take one attempt to learn and then five more to master. It's all there.
Well, all right, DKCR does make one concession to modern-day standards, and it is — you guessed it — the inclusion of some ill-advised waggle controls. One of the key moves in DK's arsenal, second only to jumping, is the "ground pound," which reveals secret areas and stuns enemies. You perform it by waving the remote and the nunchuk simultaneously. But waggling the controllers will also have you performing a forward roll if you're pressing forward on the joystick. Those of you who have played Wii games before can guess how this shakes out in practice: you're running along, you try to stop for a ground pound, and you wind up barreling straight over a cliff.
Given the Wii's reputation as the family-friendly game console, it's impressive how Nintendo keeps managing to smuggle hardcore games into our living rooms in a casual wrapper. Forget the mostly useless two-player mode in DKCR. This isn't the game to play with your parents or your spouse. This one is for diehards.