Rolling Donkey Kong and his little pal Diddy will always hold a special place in my heart. In fact, I can still remember the Christmas morning that gave me the first Donkey Kong Country game. I had a feeling that I was going to be receiving it that day, and was so excited that I couldn’t sleep much, which led to me waking my family up at three in the morning so that we could open presents. Looking back, I feel like an ass, but it’s a great memory that relates to an incredible video game that lived up to every expectation I had.
From that point on, Donkey Kong Country was my series of choice, and countless hours of my life went into playthroughs of the Super Nintendo-based trilogy, as well as a run through its 64-bit follow-up. Those were simpler times, where video game consoles were made for gaming and not watching TV, and the argumentative platform known as the Internet had not yet become a household portal. Understandably, I miss those days, and will always keep them as fond memories, with Nintendo’s monkey-starring franchise being a major reason for that.
Let’s fast forward to this very year, where Nintendo has decided to bring its platforming monkeys back for yet another spin, this time on the Nintendo 3DS. Entitled Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D, the new release cartridge is, in fact, a port of the series’ 2010, hiatus-ending appearance on last generation’s Wii. A Retro-developed title revamped for portable play by Monster Games, the side-scroller was admittedly new to me before I booted it up for review purposes. Yes, despite having purchased the console version, this Donkey Kong Country fanatic had yet to spend any time with it, and had it sitting in a must-play soon pile. As such, it still needs to be played. It was simply important for me to mention that this impressions piece is based on a fresh-eyed playthrough of the experience, and not a second run.
Instead of being a remake, Donkey Kong Country Returns was developed as an all-new experience. Taking cues from its inspiration, it tasked players with utilizing Donkey and Diddy to stop a group of mind-controlling entities from stealing and using their banana horde. Yes, for some reason bananas are an important resource in the in-game world. Of course, it doesn’t make much sense, but it is the jungle, and we’re talking about a game that shows its bosses originating from within a volcano.
Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D, on the other hand, is a port of said game, which has been optimized for the 3DS. Offering the same campaign as its bigger brother, it delivers an 8-10 hour-long core experience, which sends the hairy duo on a trip throughout their home island. The colourful pit stops include the aforementioned jungle, a sandy beach, a dark and dingy factory and a dangerous cliffside, so there’s quite a bit of variety to be found within the environments. Still, with that said, most of the levels aren’t as memorable as they could’ve been, making me pine for some of the classic stages that the original series included. Of course, that’s not to say that they’re bad by any means, because they’re not, but they do lack some of the creative heart that I so fondly remember.
Those who’ve previously played through this campaign will surely remember how unforgiving its difficulty level is. In fact, its normal mode, which is included inside of the Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D code, was made for masochists. As such, there’s a great juxtaposition between the challenge that the early and later stages provide, with a notable difficulty spike occurring part way through. Near the end, you’ll be cursing your 3DS, and will probably end up staring at more than a few game over screens, but that’s what Retro Studios seemingly wanted. I honestly believe that they went out of their way to create one of the hardest games in years, and that’s both a good and bad thing.
While challenge can be a good thing, too much of it can ruin the appeal of any type of game, whether it’s a video game, a board game or a midway game. During my ten hours spent with normal mode, there were moments where the unforgiving nature of the experience made me question why I kept continuing, because things often became more frustrating than fun and control hiccups occasionally led to cheap deaths. Some will like the difficulty, though it’s certainly not for everyone. There is good news, however. For starters, Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D includes a brand new secondary mode, wherein players get an extra heart, plus more power-ups (extra hearts, invincibility and more) with lower price tags, whereas the main mode only offers two hearts per character and expensive power-ups. Going further, many lives lost during one specific stage unlocks a guide that can beat it for you, though that option hurts one’s ego. Then again, if you can’t beat a stage, at least that mechanic is there, especially since vehicle-based levels only offer Donkey and Diddy one hit before they suffer an unfortunate demise.
True masochists will want to take things one step further, by finding every in level puzzle piece and letter, completing each world’s special stage, finishing every time trial and unlocking mirror mode. Combined, all of that will take you hours upon hours to complete, especially when you take into consideration the fact that mirror mode prohibits players from utilizing Diddy Kong, whose jetpack hover ability became a crutch of mine, and limits Donkey Kong’s health to only one heart. Yes, it’s really that much more difficult, but note that Diddy isn’t always an option during the main campaign. Sure, you can unlock him by throwing a barrel (if there’s one nearby), but deadly falls take him away for some stupid reason, making things even more challenging. As a result, I was forced to battle the final boss with only D.K. and his limited hearts.
Despite the above-mentioned downsides, Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D is still a very solid game. Then again, its quality isn’t what may turn people away. Those who can take the included difficulty (or are willing to play in new mode instead of on normal) will find an above-average platformer here, though longtime fans of the series may find issue with all of the new enemy types and how little the game pays homage to its iconic and ageless source material. I would honestly prefer to play one of the previous games again instead of this one, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t respect what it offers, as well as all of the work that went into creating it.
Visually speaking, Monster Games’ port is an impressive specimen for the most part, despite suffering from a bit of frame rate slowdown. The adventure is both colourful and detailed, with some neat filters having been utilized during several stages. Additionally, there are some solid 3D effects to be found, although it’s hard to find a sweet spot where ghosting isn’t an issue. Unfortunately, though, there is one downside to be mentioned, although it may only pertain to those of us who only own standard 3DS handhelds. That’s because the system’s smaller screens make it difficult to play through a few of the platformer’s stages, including one of the campaign’s most challenging boss battles. Why is that, exactly? Well, it’s evident that this game was originally made for larger screens, because the camera sometimes zooms out to where Donkey and Diddy are essentially miniatures of themselves, forcing you to squint in order to see things properly.
As far as the audio goes, it’s thankfully tough to complain about anything. Classic tunes have been remixed, and everything sounds great. Credit goes to the surprisingly robust speakers that Nintendo created for its handheld, but the sound guys deserve the majority of this commendation.
Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D offers a mixture of quality, entertainment and frustration, presenting a game that will appeal to fans of challenging platformers, but definitely isn’t for everyone. The secondary mode is certainly an option for those who would prefer it, but it’s surely still on the difficult side due to the game’s masochistic level design. With that being said, those who can overlook the unforgiving nature of the release, as well as those who happen to be longtime fans of the series, should certainly check this portable version out. It may not live up to the incredible quality of its predecessors, but it’s still a colourful and polished ride.
This review is based on the 3DS exclusive, which we were provided with.