Donkey Kong Country Returns might seem like a 'fun for all the family' type of experience, what with its jolly music, lovable characters and colourful visuals, but don't let that fool you. Retro Studio's Kong game is very much made for the hardcore: it'll test your 2D platforming skills to breaking point, and there are enough collectibles to keep you playing long after all the levels have been completed. But while it's infuriating at points, Donkey Kong Country Returns is the best pure platformer I've played in a long time.
Plot is always a bit thin in platformers and DKC Returns is no different, to the extent that it really doesn't have an impact on the game whatsoever. All you need to know is that the gorilla has to make his way through a series of themed stages while battling an assortment of oddball enemies, collecting bananas and coins and firing himself out of cannon-like barrels. There are also bosses to fight, minecarts to ride and rocket-fuelled barrels to fly; it's a fine blend of gameplay mechanics, with nary a smidgen of plot development in sight.
At its most basic you control DK as he moves left to right through a level, jumping from platform to platform, killing enemies by landing on their heads and using barrels to navigate open chasms. But there's more to it than that. Diddy Kong jumps out of special barrels and onto DK's back, giving the duo the ability to hover. Grass can be clung to, enabling DK to move hand over hand as if on the monkey bars in the local park, objects can be smashed to open locked areas or reveal items, and a roll can be performed to smash through enemies and stubbornly hard obstacles.
Best of all though is the ability to ride Rambi the rhino, a returning character from the Donkey Kong Country series. When on top of this bizarrely cute grey beast you're able to smash through just about everything, which makes for an excellent diversion in contrast to the precision platforming on offer at other times. What doesn't return is the ability to switch between DK and Diddy - playing as the diminutive sidekick is only possible if a second player jumps in. Diddy can fire projectiles at enemies, but his usefulness is hampered by the fact that death of both characters loses you two lives and also because it's hard to keep both players on the screen at all times.
Although the two-player mode feels bolted on, it takes nothing away from the largely superb solo game. Moments of joyous platforming are interspersed with devious sequences that will leave the fragile-minded on the floor in a pool of their own tears. Crucially, as is the way with all the best platformers, failure never feels unfair.
You'll swear countless times as DK's head hits a crumbling cave ceiling because you stopped paying attention for a split second; the Wii Remote will come within moments of being pelted into the nearest wall when you fail a mine-cart jump for the umpteenth time; your head will be buried in your hands when you lose patience and jump into an attack when a few seconds of patience would have seen you through; but it's all forgivable because you know it's almost always your fault. You can, and I did, let the game finish a level for you. The fact I'm not embarrassed to admit that should tell you all you need to know about how tricky the game becomes at points.
There will be an argument from some quarters that the Wii Remote gestures required to perform certain moves (the roll, hand smash and blow) aren't responsive enough, but only twice did I ever feel like the game had let me down - both times when I wanted to blow a flower but ended up rolling off a cliff edge. There's the option to play with just the Wii Remote (instead of the better Wii Remote and Nunchuk combo), but in an ideal world there would have been no waggling at all and optional Classic Controller support.
The key to good visuals on the Wii, from my point of view anyway, is designing a game that doesn't beg to be on a more powerful system. At no point while playing Donkey Kong Returns did I think to myself, "I wish I was playing this on the PS3". The environments are bold, colourful and packed with incidental details; the characters are fun and well animated; and the bosses don't just rely on being huge. There's a ton of variety too, with everything from jungles to caves and swinging on vines to pirate crabs. It's brilliant stuff, made even more enjoyable by a thoroughly joyous soundtrack that does its best to cement a beat into your head.
Nostalgia often paints over glaring flaws in modern games, but in Donkey Kong Country Returns it simply helps create an even more enjoyable experience. When playing it is hard not to think back to simpler times, when all game information came from monthly mags, DLC was a twinkle in the internet's eye and mascots ruled. Retro Studios has managed to make a game that feels new and old at the same time, appealing to young blood and cynical old-timers who've seen it all before. For that reason, Donkey Kong Country Returns is an essential purchase for anyone longing for a bit of good old-fashioned platforming.