I remember it as though it was yesterday. It was E3 2010 and, although I was starting to really lose faith in the Wii, while I was still checking out all of the fresh Nintendo trailers from E3 on Gametrailers.com I came across something peculiar. It was a trailer said to be belonging to a game called Donkey Kong Country Returns. How odd, last I'd heard of the Donkey Kong series, it was in a bastardized 3D mess clearly designed to cash in on the immense success of Super Mario 64. But my senses were not failing me, and like the Metroid series, Retro Studios had taken a long-dormant Nintendo IP and was revitalizing it the way any true fans would have asked for, then taking it just a little farther. I was there to pick up Donkey Kong Country Returns on the day of its release, and I had it beaten within a matter of days despite the reports of its difficulty being horribly exaggerated. Satisfied, I returned and started the whole game over, getting 100% without the aid of any guides within a week of its release. I was in love. The Donkey Kong Country games on SNES were some of my all-time favorites, and this was the Donkey Kong Country I remembered, save the unfortunate omissions of the Kong family members and the Kremling villains. And now, you can enjoy that glory on the 3DS!
Upon my first set of playthroughs of Donkey Kong Country Returns, I had only a few minor gripes. While the nostalgia-powered rose-tinted-goggles were disappointed at the lack of familiar characters, the only real issue I had with the gameplay was that I hated having to shake the Wiimote to perform such precise motions as rolling, ground slamming, and breathing heavily onto flowers and pinwheels to creep them out so that they run away, dropping their loot in the process. In a game that pretty much demanded perfection of its players, it seemed almost unfair to expect them to jerk their wrist about, hoping the controller would register the shake at the right time and not drop you into a pit of lava or accidentally roll you when you were trying to blow out a candle and make a wish.
As I expected, and much to my delight, that is no longer an issue in Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D. Every move is mapped to a button, and it's very similar to the layout of the SNES originals. I do wish that it was a bit more customizable, though. The developers could have mapped blow to the X button, leaving Y to act as it had in the originals: rolling or slamming when pressing Down+Y. Instead, the Y button completely replaces the stickwaggling, meaning you have to press Left/Right+Y to roll, and Down+Y to blow. Y on its own, rather than rolling like in the originals, is now a slam move. A minor, nitpicky gripe, but a gripe nonetheless. You can change the control scheme, but only to a set-up that switches the X/Y buttons with L/R and the Circle Pad with the directional arrows. Overall, however, it's still a huge improvement over jerky stick-waggling.
Beyond that, Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D also introduces a whole new world to play. In the original Donkey Kong Country Returns, there were 8 full worlds, each with 5-8 levels, a boss level, and a hidden level. In the 3D version, there's also a ninth whole world that maintains the game's insistence on making every level unique or special and is unlocked in a similar manner to the golden temple at the end of the original game. In fact, it is the golden temple, but instead of it being one acid-laced banana trip of a hallucination, there's one level for each of the 8 worlds leading up to said trippy level, and each one of them is a glorious amalgamation of everything that made each of their respective worlds fantastically nostalgic and surprisingly tough. In fact, I would say that the difficulty is finally where the truly hardcore would like it to be during this post-game super-world.
I know I'm in the minority, but I didn't find Donkey Kong Country Returns to be all that hard. It was challenging and demanded perfection, but it wasn't cheap or frustrating because every mistake could be easily seen as a learning experience. Like any well-designed platformer, it expected you to actually get better if you wanted to advance. Luckily for the rest of you, and those new to this kind of remorseless, repeated simian death, there's a whole new mode added to the portable iteration of Donkey Kong Country Returns titled “New Mode”, which might as well been called “Newb Mode” for how generous and forgiving it is. It's perfect for the casual gaming audiences that will likely eat it up. In addition to giving both Donkey and Diddy Kong 50% more health, the DK barrel drops are more frequent and you can buy items that give you spare DK barrels, balloons that lift you back to safety if you fall off the levels, and a crash guard for the challenging rocket and mine cart levels, giving you an extra hit, effectively doubling your health.
There are plenty of options to help you through, which is why this is the definitive version of an already outstanding game. The level design is honestly better than anything in the original trilogy, the difficulty curve is tough but rewarding, the sound design brings back some favorites from the 1994 original, and the sheer volume of things to do will keep even the best players busy for weeks. The secrets are less reliant on the completion of bonus levels and more about actual exploration and investigation, meaning there's a lot more to find than there was in the SNES trilogy. Every level has 5, 7, or 9 puzzle pieces to find (some of which are a real pain to uncover), the K-O-N-G letters are pre-requisites for full completion, and every level comes with a time trial and mirror mode counterpart, the latter of which also takes away a vital component (Diddy Kong), making the game considerably more challenging. Add to that the bonus levels, multiple modes, and hidden galleries, and this game is certainly jam-packed with content.
If I had to complain about any one thing in the game, it's that the graphics aren't as crisp or lush on the 3DS as they are on the Wii, and since the game is virtually unchanged from its console counterpart, the background areas of the stage can make it hard to see all the minute details in the game. This is a game that demands or at least expects perfection, so this can certainly get in the way of the gameplay. On the flip side, the foreground/background dynamic lends itself perfectly well to the 3DS's selling point, and for the first time ever I was urged to keep the game in 3D mode. It wasn't required, but it actually made the game feel deeper and more involving. I still marvel at some of the silhouette levels; it's hard not to be impressed with what some developers can do with the simplest of graphics.
All in all, I give Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D an enthusiastic recommendation. If you can ignore the fact that the Kremlings have been replaced by Tikis and the DK crew are almost entirely absent, I'd say this is in every way an equal to its SNES precursors, and the 3DS version honestly has so much more to offer than its console counterpart since it's now accessible to players of all ability. If you're a fan of Donkey Kong Country, platformers, or quality games with a rewarding challenge, you'd be doing yourself a disservice to not buy Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D.
This review is based on a retail copy of Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D for the Nintendo 3DS.