Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D Review
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
No more monkeying around
It's easy to forget, as Nintendo has seemingly decided that it's no longer a definitive unique selling point, but the 3DS has a fantastic stereoscopic 3D screen. It's tempting to be blase about it, but it's still the only mainstream piece of hardware — certainly in gaming terms — that uses it so effectively. The exceptional level design in Donkey Kong Country Returns on Wii featured dynamic shifts in perspective and depth, so this 3DS port makes a lot of sense, in that respect, and we'll ease any lingering nerves right off the bat — Monster Games has done a terrific job with Retro Games' masterpiece.
And it is a masterpiece. If you missed out on the Wii version, you arguably passed on the finest 2D platformer on the system, though it certainly has a lot of competition. While there are enough throwbacks to entertain fans of Rare's Super NES trilogy of titles, Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D nevertheless stamps its own identity on the franchise, with a cartoonish visual style, exceptional performance and weighty physics. This is running and jumping like the old days, but DK has a real sense of weight — appropriate for a large tie-wearing ape — and adjusting to that feel is one of the first challenges and delights that you'll face.
Like almost any platformer with a Nintendo brand, your adventure starts off in the hero's home territory, gently introducing you to the mechanics before ramping up the difficulty. There are eight initial areas/worlds, with between 6-8 levels and a boss encounter, with each progressive area moving around and up DK's island as he battles masked Tikis to retrieve his banana stash. It's not the Citizen Kane of gaming, a title Retro Studios was awarded by some for Metroid Prime, but it's humorous and full of quirky character.
In typical Nintendo style this is gaming at its most irreverent and, most importantly, fun. DK wears a tie, Diddy Kong has a jet-pack and clings to his old ape's back — invaluable for extending and controlling the hefty primate's jumps — while also firing a peanut gun in local multiplayer. Diddy is particularly valuable as the difficulty ramps up, not just for his jet pack but the extra hits he allows. In normal mode DK has two hearts, with Diddy adding his own when he's released from a barrel; lose two hearts and you lose Diddy Kong, which encourages a careful rather than reckless approach.
You explore worlds that incorporate pirate ships firing cannons, sprawling forests with enormous swinging contraptions, a factory full of smog, a brooding volcano and more. Each has its own variations of enemies, twists on the game's conventions and, at times, devious trickery. The tempo's never settled, keeping you on your toes as you go from a steady level heavy on exploration, to rushed stages riding a rhino over collapsing environments, and then terrifically entertaining mine kart and rocket barrel set pieces.
The DK platforming mechanics put to work in these areas are unique from its Nintendo contemporaries, helping this franchise to distinguish itself. Beyond basic moving and jumping, we have rolling — used to make a longer jump or take out enemies — as well as pounding and blowing. All have to be used, particularly when seeking out hidden puzzle pieces — which unlock concept art and other goodies — and the all-important KONG letters.
You're not simply blasting through levels and looking for hidden areas — though they're in there too — but also manipulating plants, fans and other parts of the environment with the blow and stomp mechanics. Figuring out which items can be manipulated is a treat for first-timers once the process clicks, with the title sensibly forgoing time limits and allowing you to progress at your own rate. You can also tackle Time Trials, the gold medals of which require perfect runs, while keen players will eventually unlock a minor but challenging additional variation for each level.
Those unique mechanics highlight one advantage this version has over the Wii original, as waggle has deservedly bitten the dust. While waggling to pound and blow was passable in the original release, tolerated due to being part of an exceptional title, the 3DS setup is a far more intuitive affair. DK now grabs vines, barrels and grasses with either shoulder button, while pounding and blowing is done with X or Y. With A or B to jump, settling your thumb over the two main buttons while keeping a finger poised over the shoulder button becomes second nature, and most importantly removes any quirks of inadvertently shaking the Wii Remote and plunging to your doom.
While we certainly recommend the Circle Pad control scheme outlined above, there is an alternative to use the D-Pad for movement. In this option grabbing is fixed to X, with Y taking over as a Run button, as DK gambols along at a slower rate than he does with the Circle Pad at full stretch — stomping is now moved to the shoulder buttons. It works and apes the Mario run/dash mechanic, and may be good for less experienced players to naturally run at a slower pace, but is less intuitive, while later more demanding levels will likely be too difficult for anyone that can't handle the mascot's lolloping pace on the Circle Pad.
For veterans of the Wii title considering a double-dip there's likely to be one key question; what's new? The headline addition, for experienced gamers in any case, is the Cloud Gateway, which features eight brand new levels as well as the tricky finale from the original. Each is based on one of the eight worlds, and represent some of the most challenging moments in the entire game. They're all excellent and welcome stages, with a few that are standouts due to their length and/or witty level design. Only unlocked after collecting all KONG letters and completing rather tricky Kong Temples, they reward persistent and skilled players, potentially beyond the scope for some jumping into this title as one of their first platformers.
That does bring us to the New mode, introduced to help those that may struggle with the level of difficulty in this game — particularly its sub-objectives of Kong Letters and puzzle pieces. While the levels are the same, the shop in each area not only offers the additional level key, extra lives and energy boosts, but also a DK barrel that you can activate on the touchscreen when in a tight spot, a green balloon that'll save you from a pitfall — though not on a mine kart or rocket level — and a potion that adds two extra hits to the traditional one-hit deaths of the kart and rocket barrel stages. DK and Diddy also have an extra heart each by default, taking you up to six when both are in action, and along with the original items they can potentially be invaluable.
One area where this 3DS port falls short of its Wii predecessor, though not in a substantial way, is with its framerate. The Wii title earned plaudits for its attractive visuals and impeccable performance, never dropping a frame and therefore being one of the smoothest platformers to grace any system. This 3DS version retains the visuals and excellent sound design, but can't match that level of smoothness. The framerate performs well, with just the occasional but minor dip, but doesn't have the silky 60 frames of the home console version. That applies in 2D, too, though there are some moments where the animations are marginally smoother with 3D off. It's a trade-off, but for our money the title looks wonderful in 3D and performs admirably; the level designs and aforementioned dynamic camera shifts feel like they were conceived with the 3DS in mind. Those that are intimately acquainted with the original will notice that this is more 30fps than a stunning 60fps, but it quickly becomes relatively unimportant.
When you throw in local multiplayer — though both players need a copy — we have a faithful and top-notch port of a Wii classic. While occasionally its home console origins betray it, with a lower framerate, this is nevertheless a treat for 3DS owners. Some may say it's a gimmick, but when you've catapulted into and towards the screen from exploding barrels with the 3D slider all of the way up, it's immediately memorable. Combine that with some extra levels and an easier mode, and we have a fantastic portable iteration of the game, even if the Wii version pips it at the post as the definitive version.
Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D may be a port less than three years after its original, but it has a new burst of life on Nintendo's handheld. The 3D effect has arguably never been better used in a platformer on the system — ironic as it wasn't originally designed for the hardware — and it's a technically sound iteration of one of the Wii's very best games. This is platforming at its finest, imaginative, exciting and playful, while also laying on a serious challenge for veterans and skillful players. The New Mode helps less experienced gamers along, though they'll need to learn and improve quickly, and if you're diligent there are eight terrific new stages to discover.
It's not as silky smooth as its Wii predecessor, which strips it of perfection, but it does dispense of waggle. If you haven't played this on Wii and want it on the go, this is a must-buy. If you're wondering whether to double-dip, you can be confident that this isn't a half-baked sloppy port, but does the original justice. It's most certainly on like... well, we're not allowed to say that, but you know what we mean.