Nintendo’s booth is one of the busiest at E3. Which is as you’d expect, what with shiny new hardware on show, a fresh bunch of never-seen-before titles to play and a huge fanbase desperate to give them a go. But it’s not just twentysomethings in Mario hats and Zelda t-shirts who are lining up. Spotted at the booth this afternoon: Electronic Arts superboss John Riccitiello, standing next to a massive queue and looking like he was wondering whether he was really going to have to join it.
Riccitiello should have wandered a little further into the booth, where he’d have found the cordoned-off area set aside for retailers, high-profile media types and silver-haired business executives in charge of massive third-party publishing operations. Despite failing to fit into any of these categories, but with the help of a friendly PR man, I managed to sneak behind the cordon and jump on one of the specially set aside Wii demo pods. I was there with only one mission: to play Donkey Kong Country Returns.
The original DKC was the reason I became a games journalist. Not because its charming, sumptuous visuals and brilliantly balanced platforming gameplay instilled in me a profound and life-changing love of videogames, but because I spent two terms at university playing it instead of reading Ulysses, and failed to earn a good enough degree to get a proper job. Worth it for 101* per cent completion though.
So I was excited when the DKC Returns announcement was made at Nintendo’s E3 conference. I was even more excited as I approached the demo pod and realised the menu music was exactly the same. By the time I saw that the first option on the screen was a level titled Jungle Hijinx, I was so excited I almost had to have a sit down on one of Nintendo’s blindingly white lifestyle sofas.
However, I managed to remember I am a grown woman and get a grip on myself and the remote and nunchuk. The controls are instantly familiar, even though no one could have imagined waggling was the future of gaming back when the original DKC was big. You press A to jump and use the nunchuk’s analogue stick to move around. It all feels brilliantly smooth, fluid and fast. Donkey Kong’s jump has just the right amount of float, which makes bopping rows of enemies on the head just as simple and rewarding as it ever was.
But this is a Wii game, so of course there’s a bit of waggling to be done. Shaking the remote and nunchuk while standing on stone blocks will make Donkey Kong bash them to bits. A sharp downwards jerk sends him spinning through trapdoors and into secret passages, while a quick flick left or right makes him perform a roll. Perhaps the neatest new move on show involves crouching down next to a dandelion then shaking the controllers to blow away the petals.
Otherwise, however, it’s all familiar stuff. Diddy Kong accompanies Donkey on his adventures, skipping and jumping around behind him. Levels are littered with bananas to collect and checkpoint balloons to grab before they float out of reach. Look harder and you’ll find hidden goodies, such as gold coins and K-O-N-G tokens. Plenty to keep people who should probably be reading Ulysses busy.
The other good news for serious DKC fans is that the difficulty level doesn’t appear to have been lowered just because this is a Wii game. Enemies are plentiful, fast-moving and varied. There are lots of falling blocks and deadly spikes to look out for. Even in this opening level, there are sections where moving enemies and environmental hazards combine to make staying alive a properly tricky prospect.
You might need some help, then, which is where DKCR’s two-player mode comes in. As you might expect, one player controls Diddy while the other controls Donkey. On dying you respawn in a floating barrel which your partner must jump into to release you. There are sections where you have to work together to progress – for example, Donkey must bash a platform into the ground to make the one Diddy’s standing on pop up, which sends him soaring over an obstacle.
Pressing the B button will make him jump on Donkey’s back. Then whoever’s controlling Diddy can flick the remote to make him lob projectiles at enemies, while the other player takes care of negotiating jumps and hazards. The chap manning the demo pod explains that Diddy also has a jetpack which can be used to make both him and Donkey fly through the air for a short time.
However, I don’t get to try this myself. Turns out the VIP area of Nintendo’s booth is just as crowded as the rest of it. There’s only time for a quick run through of Jungle Hijinx and a brief trial of the two-player mode before I’m booted off so someone more important can have a go, someone who’s probably more interested in the potential market value of resurrected intellectual properties in the run-up to the lucrative holiday sales period than whether you can ride the frog.
So I don’t have time to get anywhere near being able to answer the big question which hangs over Donkey Kong Country Returns: can Retro Studios recreate that Rare magic? Will the finished game be the comeback fans are hoping for? Or will it end up being a poor imitation which sullies our happy memories? It’s too early to tell. But I’ve booked October to March off work, is all I’m saying.
Donkey Kong Country Returns is due out exclusively for Wii this autumn.