A quick note on this review: I liked Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D quite a bit more than the original Wii version, which I reviewed back in 2010. Having said that, the 3DS version is still a port of the previously released Wii game, so a lot of what I said then still applies today. As such, much of the content of this review is based on my previous review. Think of it as a port, just like the game!
One of the biggest surprises to come out of Nintendo’s February 2013 3DS Direct presentation was the announcement that Monster Games, developer of Excite Truck and the underrated Pilotwings Resort, was porting Retro Studios’ Donkey Kong Country Returns from Wii to 3DS. Not that the surprise wasn’t a welcome one: the original game was one of the best traditional platformers on the Wii, hampered only by its reliance on clumsy motion controls and a difficulty level that was maybe just a tad too aggressive for the audience it courted. But really, Monster Games, developer of…sports games? Okay, then?
Actually, Nintendo’s had a pretty successful history of gambling on low-visibility developers like Monster, so it should come as no surprise that Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D improves on Retro’s original game in almost every conceivable way. It retains the expertly crafted platforming challenge of the original, while doing away entirely with the Wii version’s frustrating motion control gimmick. It adds a host of fun new stages for completionists and an easier (but not easy) mode for players who weren’t quite up to the challenge of the first release. And it even manages to look pretty good in 3D, a feat Nintendo’s own internal developers struggled with on New Super Mario Bros. 2. Sadly, a few trade-offs were made to cram all this goodness onto the 3DS, with a frame-rate that has been cut in half from the original and a surprising, though slight, reduction in graphical fidelity being the most noticeable offenders. Still, all things considered, this is as close to a definitive version of Donkey Kong Country Returns as will likely exist until the inevitable HD re-release for Wii U.
The artistry on display in Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D is breathtaking, with a lavishness that will be especially pleasing to those who were less than thrilled by Nintendo’s sterile approach to art for the New Super Mario series. Banana leaves blanket jungles with a sense of mystery. Enormous ocean waves crash onto beaches, engulfing anything unlucky enough to be caught out in the open. Mine shafts glow with the luminescence of underground crystal forests. Construction-scape horizons drenched in pollution are suddenly awash in shades of gold and silver as Kong smashes down on the power button to a pair of giant rotary fans, blowing the smog away. And let’s just agree to not talk about the spiders.
Levels have been designed to highlight the fluidity of Kong’s movements, and the sense of exhilaration players will get as they steer him effortlessly from dirt path to vine to hanging grass to exploding barrel is unmatched by any other modern platformer. Promoting this brisk pace is a series of time trials that will keep speed-runners busy for months; thankfully, there are no poorly-implemented motion controls to artificially increase the challenge this time around. Players who take a more methodical approach, stalking through each one of the game’s copious stages on the hunt for for four elusive “KONG” letters, will be rewarded with a bonus level in each world that, upon completion, will unlock an entirely new set of stages designed by Monster for the 3DS version of the game (don’t worry, the lame fruit-in-the-sky level is still here.) If that’s still not enough, there’s a mirror mode for players that finish every single level, bonus galleries that unlock gradually as players collect puzzle pieces, and two-player, local cooperative play if you can find someone nearby with a 3DS and a second copy of the game.
Donkey Kong Country Returns was notoriously difficult on the Wii, and not just because of the motion control issues. Stages were designed to test players weaned on the platformers of the ’80s and ’90s, and I can personally attest to the frustration this led to when playing with young kids, who the game is ostensibly targeted at. Though none of the stages have been reworked to be friendlier to less-experienced players, Monster has introduced a “New Mode” that adds an additional heart for each Kong character, meaning players will be able to take a couple more hits before dying. Additionally, several new bonus items have been added to this mode to make the difficulty that much more palatable, while some existing items have had their coin cost reduced. Longtime players may scoff at the introduction of an “Easy Mode,” but New Mode softens the frustration that comes along with dying 30 times in a row, without making the actual platforming any less of a challenge. It’s actually my preferred way to play the game, and I highly recommend it to anyone playing the game on 3DS.
Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Wii was a beautiful, challenging experience dampened by a few frustrating design decisions that kept it from being an easy recommendation for players bored by Mario. Monster’s 3DS version eradicates those issues. Both in terms of artistry and game design, Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D is leaps and bounds ahead of any other 2D platformer on the 3DS, and even outclasses the three legendary games that preceded it on the SNES. If you’re a fan of that old Nintendo charm and not afraid of a little challenge, then by all means, go bananas. Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D launches at retail and in the 3DS eShop at the tail end of May.