Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D is a tough cookie, and how much you’ll enjoy it will depend on your attitude toward challenging games. For many there’s great enjoyment to be found in the seemingly insurmountable, but for others the challenge may eclipse the fun. For this reason, Donkey Kong Country 3D may divide its audience, albeit in a small way. I say “small” because despite my problems with the game – that are arguably of my own creation – there are many unquestionably great aspects to it as well.
Released on the Wii in 2010, Retro Studios’ platformer has been ported to Nintendo’s 3DS by Monster Studios, who have adapted it well for handheld play. The Wii version as it was is still available, but it comes alongside an easier mode which increases your base health from two to three hearts, and six when accompanied by Diddy. There are also new super-tough levels that are unlocked after the main game is completed. Local co-op play is also brought over from the Wii game.
It all starts when the animals of Donkey Kong’s jungle island are hypnotised by the music of the Tiki Tak Tribe, who have also, far more importantly, stolen DK’s banana stash. Resistant to their spell, Kongs Diddy and Donkey embark on an adventure to bring down the tribe.
In the realm of Nintendo side-scrolling platformers Mario is king, but Donkey Kong has always provided a perfectly robust alternative that plays differently and offers a whole other level of challenge – but we’ll get to that later.
What obviously sets the series apart from the plumber’s tales is the setting, which allows for inventive design both in the levels and the enemies within them. Design has always been something for the Kong series to be proud of and games like Donkey Kong Country Returns only serve as proof of this. Being a port, most of it should be credited to Retro – but Monster have done a fine job recreating the look of the original, reportedly from the ground up. The additional levels made by them also complement the existing work well.
Kong’s abilities are the same as they ever were: he can swing, roll and pound the ground to stun enemies and reveal hidden treasure. He can also, naturally, jump on enemies and throw barrels – which often add Diddy Kong to your game, along with his hover ability and extra health.
The middling soundtrack does its job and does have its moments, but the pleasures of the game are certainly visual rather than audible. Animation is top notch both in the handling of Kong and in the levels themselves; in fact, some of the more memorable moments come when the environments are at their most frantic and kinetic, crashing around you and throwing obstacles your way.
Control of the Kongs is tight for the most part but fiddly on occasion, especially on levels that require exceptionally precise platforming. Which brings us nicely to the issue of difficulty. I’m definitely in the camp that doesn’t find much enjoyment in constantly replaying parts of a level, although I do understand why some gamers find high challenge appealing.
Donkey Kong Country Returns misses the mark somewhat when it comes to tuning its difficulty to a level that would please both ideologies. Some parts of it are satisfying to complete and allow for some sort of flow to build up before the next conundrum, but more often than not the tough parts of the game pile up, causing more frustration than fun. If a game makes players work for that sense of accomplishment, it shouldn’t be taken away from them so soon by another test.
Failure to navigate enemies chips away at health, but in the pure platforming sections there is no room for error, with frequent plunges into the checkpoint-restarting abysses. This is a staple of many platformers, but how common these moments are in this game screams out for some kind of respite or fairer system; set players back at their last position for example, and punish them by taking away some health.
Boss encounters take the skills learnt in the levels leading up to them and put them to their biggest test. As you might expect, it’s repetition that kills the beasts but the short between failure and trying again makes these fights some of the best parts of the game. And that is where the crux of the matter lies: in recent years, games like Trials HD and Super Meat Boy have remedied their high difficulty levels with instant restarts. In Donkey Kong Country Returns trying again takes time, adding to the dissatisfaction where there is no real reason to.
This is a game best enjoyed by seasoned players who, with the benefit of having already ploughed hours into it, build up a delightful flow on already-completed levels. When played by the best, platformers are like the most satisfying rhythm action games, but those who struggle will find far less enjoyment despite the obvious qualities.
VERDICT: Donkey Kong Country Returns is a supremely designed game with tight controls and a consistency that most platformers only aspire to. However, the handling of difficulty falls somewhat flat compared to similar games and particularly more modern games of similar challenge. There is plenty of fun to be found here, but it’s the player’s own preference – and patience – that will measure just how much.
VERY GOOD. An 8/10 is only awarded to a game we consider truly worthy of your hard-earned cash. This game is only held back by a smattering of minor or middling issues and comes highly recommended.