No video-game company values its characters as deeply as Nintendo. Visit the company's flagship store in Manhattan and you'll find plush versions of dozens of Nintendo favorites, from icons such as Mario and Pikachu to more obscure creatures such as Mr. Resetti from "Animal Crossing."

Nintendo's fans can generally trust that any game with one of the company's stars on the cover will be, at least, solid, and has the potential to be magical. That reputation means the rebirth of a legend such as Donkey Kong is a big deal for Wii owners. And despite its awkward title, "Donkey Kong Country Returns" ($49.99) will delight fans of the big ape.

This isn't the Donkey Kong you remember from the arcades of the 1980s, the one who tormented Mario from atop scaffolding. No, this is the Kong Nintendo transformed into a hero in 1994, sending him on a mission to recover stolen bananas in "Donkey Kong Country."

Sixteen years later, I still regard that as one of the tougher games I've ever defeated. Old-school gamers will celebrate the news "DKC Returns" is just as brutal; it's probably the most challenging game Nintendo has released in years.

The mission has Kong running, hopping and climbing across more than 70 tropical levels. The first few sequences are fairly straightforward - just keep moving to the right - but the designers continually introduce fresh ideas. You'll surf on the back of a whale. You'll steer a barely controllable rocket past pirate ships crewed by cannon-firing crabs. In tribute to the '90s games, you'll bounce between exploding barrels and ride carts along roller coaster-like mine tracks.

Also along for the ride are Diddy Kong, a smaller monkey whose jet pack helps you glide across wider gaps, and Rambi, a rhinoceros who can crash through most obstacles. So you've got a monkey riding an ape riding a rhino: What more can you ask for?

"DKC Returns" is so hard, it will cause many players to hurl their controllers in frustration, and it's a battle to simply survive most levels. True masochists, however, can hunt down letters and puzzle pieces that open up even more demanding areas. If you really get stuck, you can ask the game to play itself for a level or two - which sounds lame, but at times may be the only way to preserve your sanity.

'Donkey Kong

Country

Returns'

Rated E, $49.99

(Nintendo)