Nintendo has a bit of a tradition of mixing things up for game number three. Super Mario Bros. 3 added a world map and the famous Tanooki Suit, Super Mario Land 3 nonchalantly swapped Mario for his arch-rival Wario, and Starfy's third adventure saw him graciously sharing the spotlight with his little sister. It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that Donkey Kong 3 was quite a shake-up as well. Instead of Mario rescuing Pauline from her fate as Donkey Kong's damsel in distress, the story of DK3 hits closer to home: this time, Donkey Kong has invaded Stanley's greenhouse, and is bugging the bees into stealing the poor man's prize-winning flowers.
Yes, you read that right - Stanley. Donkey Kong 3 marks the first and last playable appearance of this forgotten Nintendo frontman, and the gameplay is as much of a departure from its predecessors as the hero. It plays more like a shooter than anything else, feeling as if Stanley's wandered into a Space Invaders cabinet, but with some familiar platforming elements that give it a unique Nintendo touch.
As Donkey Kong descends from the ceiling, you'll use your bug-spray to try and knock him back to the top, while fending off the considerable amount of bees, butterflies, creepies, and crawlies he sends your way. The base of each stage has a few connected platforms, so you'll need to run and jump as you shoot - ever upwards - to avoid enemies and aim your pesticide puffs. Below the platforms, there's a row of roses, and bees will attempt to ferry them away as you're fighting for your life. The more flowers you're left with at the end of the stage, the bigger your bonus - and since this is first and foremost a score-chasing game, they're well worth your while.
There are three different stages, which repeat in a loop for as long as you can hold out, and quite a few different enemy types, each with their own attack and movement patterns. Some of them are rather tricky to avoid, too, and Donkey Kong throwing coconuts certainly doesn't help; this is an arcade experience through and through, and if it's your first time in the jungle, it can be quite a challenge. Patience and practice are well-rewarded, however, and it's always satisfying to progress from dying on the first stage to making it through a few loops. You can save the day by besting all the bees, or by knocking DK into the ceiling (or a waiting beehive!), and the easier option can change in an instant based on what the insects are up to. A super spray power-up lets you make light work of the approaching swarm, and while spamming DK into the sky with your charged up can almost feels like cheating, it's a limited time effect, and there's always another round waiting.
The game's looping structure is great for high-scores, but it also points out its biggest problem. Donkey Kong 3 is focused and fun, but incredibly light on content. The enemies get tougher and more numerous as you go, but you can still see every stage within a matter of minutes - as in two or three, if you're handy with the super spray. There's the customary 'B' mode, but instead of changing up the gameplay in any significant way, it only ups the difficulty. Of course, for players who relish the chance to top their personal bests, there's plenty of replay value in Stanley's Sisyphean task; but if scores aren't your strong suit, there's little to keep you coming back.
The Circle Pad or D-Pad can be used to move, jump up, and jump down, and 'A' and 'B' both fire Stanley's spray can. There's no auto-fire on the aerosol, but there is on jumping; it sounds odd, but it makes for quick, smooth movements, as you can simply hold 'up' to keep on climbing, or hold 'down' to drop all the way to the bottom.
Faithful to the NES original, there's a single-system two-player mode, but it's sadly limited to turn-taking; a shame since the gameplay would be a great fit for co-op. Worse, switching between the two virtual "controllers" in multiplayer requires a cumbersome manual adjustment by holding down the shoulder buttons and hitting 'Y' in-between each player's turn. Unless you're dead set on competing for scores, it's easier to just play in single-player and pass the 3DS when poor Stanley bites the dust.
Graphically, Donkey Kong the Third is about what you'd expect from an early NES game: black backgrounds, small sprites (aside from DK himself), and a pleasing colour palette all come together for that familiar Famicom feeling. It's an enjoyably retro presentation, but it's missing some key details from the arcade version - including Stanley's greenhouse, so that those not in the know would be forgiven for assuming the action takes place in the deep, black night of space. The 3DS' tinier screen also makes the single-pixel projectiles that erupt from defeated Queen Bees even trickier to avoid, and running into these parting shots is one of the more frustrating ways to lose a life.
The soundtrack starts off with a buzz, as a chiptune version of Flight of the Bumblebee plays through the first stage. That gets annoying just about as quickly as you'd expect, but the next two levels feature much catchier jungle beats courtesy of the legendary 'Hip' Tanaka, and the super spray tune is a standout. The sound-effects are standard NES notes and noise channel, though DK's rhythmic tapping on the beehives before each stage makes for a nicely iconic audio intro.
It's not a timeless classic like the original Donkey Kong, but the great ape's third outing still has plenty to recommend for retro fans. It's very simple fun, with a unique shooter/platformer gameplay mix that feels different from any other DK to date, and quick play sessions that encourage high-score chasing and honing your skills. It's dated and silly short by modern standards, but for old-school arcade fans not bugged by a challenge - and anyone looking to get in on the ground floor with a forgotten Nintendo character before the inevitable Year of Stanley - Donkey Kong 3 is worth a shake.