Coming back from winter break at the dawn of 1995, our teacher asked us what we all got for Christmas. This informal consumer survey had all the perennial favorites -- clothes, time on the slopes, a stereo -- but at least half the kids in my fifth-grade class reported their tree had sheltered a copy of "Donkey Kong Country" for the Super Nintendo. The game was fun, addictive and, most importantly, had a new kind of graphical style that added texture and depth to the world of the 2-D sidescroller, so it looked like a diorama instead of a flat plane. The lucky kids who had seen "Donkey Kong Country" with their own eyes could barely contain their self-satisfaction as they announced their membership in the club of those who got the coolest gift around.

The scene unfolding as 2011 begins, if teachers still ask their students such probing questions, may not be so different -- only with "Returns" added to the script. In the style of "New Super Mario Bros. Wii," "Donkey Kong Country Returns" aims to simultaneously satisfy nostalgia hounds and bring a new generation into the fold, accomplishing this delicate balance with a robust multiplayer system. Players can easily revive fallen comrades, and newcomers, playing as Diddy Kong, can hop on the back of Donkey Kong, controlled by an old hand, and let DK take over for a while. "Returns" also incorporates the "Super Guide" from "New Super Mario Bros." that lets the game take control if you can't get past a certain part.

Most importantly, all over again, are the graphics. The series' original developer, Rare, was long ago sucked up by Microsoft, so Nintendo handed DK's comeback to Retro Studios, the Texas-based hitmaker who transformed "Metroid" from an action sidescroller into a first-person shooter. Don't worry, "Returns" isn't some kind of first-person banana hunt; instead, it's a 2-D experience of unprecedented visual depth. The action takes place on a flat plane, but happenings in the background affect the foreground and vice-versa. Retro uses this "2.5-D" style to sneak all sorts of graphical treats into the world.

An update of "Donkey Kong Country" could not have been handled better, and fans will be thrilled. Unfortunately, the visual beauty can't hide the odd joylessness built into the mechanics of the series. Whereas levels in a Mario game can be played different ways, requiring different skills, "Donkey Kong Country's" levels are less to be played than memorized. Whether you're trying to remember where a bonus is hidden or which track you must choose to avoid death in a minecart stage, "Donkey Kong Country" can often feel less like a platformer and more like a 2-D Easter egg hunt, or a really pretty side-scrolling game of Memory.