UPDATE: Nintendo reached out to say that there was a mis-communication between their representative and Retro Studios. Retro clarified, saying that the mine cart level I mention below, "Rickety Rails," actually appears about midway through the game. That doesn't change how hard it is, but it may encourage those frightened by an insanely steep learning curve.
Original Story: About a year ago, I wrote about my experience playing through an early build of "New Super Mario Bros. Wii." I came away rather shocked and impressed by just how difficult the game was, comparing it to "Contra." Turns out "Donkey Kong Country Returns" is being built with the same mindset, as it's nothing short of punishingly difficult. And tremendously satisfying.
"Donkey Kong Country Returns" is being developed by Retro Studios, the fine folks who brought new life to an aging franchise with the "Metroid: Prime" games. Unlike "Prime," "Returns" isn't a reimagining and doesn't make any drastic changes to the gameplay of the original "DKC" games. Retro improved the graphics and added true co-op play, but the gameplay remains extremely close to the original series. Only it's a lot harder.
The difficulty in "New Super Mario Bros. Wii" came from the constant jostling of other players. The difficulty in "Donkey Kong Country Returns" comes from diabolical platforming segments which give the player exactly zero room for error.
In the preview build I played earlier this week, the best example of the hardcore difficulty in "Returns" was a mine cart level, a classic "Donkey Kong Country" staple. But in the original "Country" games, mistiming a mine cart jump usually resulted in passing a few extra bananas. In "Returns," imprecision is rewarded with instant death. One section required that I make nearly a dozen precise jumps, any one of which would instantly send me to the one lone checkpoint in the level.
I died. A lot. Probably close to ten times, just on that section. And yet, I kept coming back for more. It wasn't my duty as a journalist to make me feel the need to see the end of the level. It was my desire as a gamer to get that feeling of accomplishment. Like any well-designed platforming game, "Returns" doesn't feel cheap. Death is in the hands of the player, and every mistake I made could only be blamed on my lackluster performance.
I asked a Nintendo representative how far into the game this mine cart level would be. He laughed, explaining that it would be one of the first levels in the game. Apparently Retro Studios sent along dozens of sample levels to include in the latest build of the game, and this mine cart level was one Nintendo thought was actually finishable in a press event setting. All the others were even more difficult.
Retro wants people to die in "Donkey Kong Country Returns." Designed for hardcore fans, the game doesn't pull any punches.