Review – Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D

I briefly looked at the original Wii version of Donkey Kong Country Returns when I was doing my Donkey Kong 30th anniversary posts way back near when I first started this blog. However, I never gave it a proper full review, and the 3DS rerelease seems like the perfect opportunity to rectify this situation. The original Donkey Kong Country series was built by Rare, a company who you may not remember since they went completely to hell after leaving Nintendo. While it may be difficult to believe, when the Country series came out, Donkey Kong was a second rate Nintendo mascot, no better than Captain Falcon is today. He even lost his spot in the first Mario Kart game to Donkey Kong Jr., which I can only assume hurt the big guy’s self esteem. Rare turned this around and, through three stellar platformers, which were among the best ever created, they made Donkey Kong a major player in the Nintendo Universe. As previously mentioned, Rare is no longer in the picture, so Returns was made by Retro Studios, the studio that created the fantastic and beloved Metroid Prime series. The original Returns was extremely well liked, but the question is whether the 3DS version adds enough to make it worth double dipping.

Look at that longing gaze from Donkey Kong.
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Donkey Kong Country Returns is what the New Super Mario Bros. series has been trying to be its entire run. The game evokes the excellent platforming and style of the original without completely sacrificing its soul. Like the original New Super Mario Bros. game, Donkey Kong Country Returns is based entirely on the first entry of the original series. In both cases, this was a mistake. Donkey Kong Country and The Super Mario Bros. were excellent and influential games, but their sequels were considerably superior, and being restricted to taking inspiration from the first game is a weakness. Retro wanted to bring the game fundamentally back to its roots, but in doing so, they lost a lot of the advances that were made in the second Donkey Kong Country game.

That all being said, the Wii U version of the NSMB series is easily the best.
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However, what wasn’t lost was excellent level design. With eight, (nine now) worlds following in the Mario tradition of making each world follow a theme. While the fact that there is a jungle world, a factory world, and a lava world, is old and contrived, the individual level design is nothing short but fantastic. There are three basic kinds of levels: basic platforming, mine cart levels, and rocket levels. The basic platforming is great and few complaints could be raised against it. Mine cart levels are a nice way of breaking up the game. Finally, there are the rocket levels. These levels are the most frustrating levels in the game. They are well designed, but the rocket controls lead them to being the hardest you’ll encounter. There aren’t many new additions to the core gameplay. Principally, there is the ability to cling on to grassy surfaces and the ability to blow on things and pound the ground. These later two additions are two of the biggest problems with the game. Taking the time to blow on things or break background elements open, is a major waste of time and breaks flow. Each level has a series of collectibles and a time trial, which makes the levels very replayable.

Hardest levels, but they still have great level design.
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Returns is a particularly difficult game, which is weird considering that the original Country series wasn’t particularly difficult. I don’t know why Retro decided to go this route, but it leads to a rather mixed bag experience. For more experienced platformer players, the difficulty is a major feather in the game’s cap. On the other hand, for newer players, the game can be extremely frustrating. The 3DS version of the game added an easy difficulty mode, which helps to address the difficulty curve for newer players. This is accomplished by allowing you to get hit an additional time.

Cute giant bat cares not for your easy difficulty level.
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The biggest new addition to Returns is the addition of a ninth world. This world is a compilation of nine different levels. Each level is themed after each one of the eight worlds plus the original hidden end level at the end. These levels are much longer than a standard level, but are not very difficult, which is strange considering the fact that to unlock the ninth world, you have to beat some of the hardest levels in the game by unlocking them through the collections of KONG levels. These levels have the great level design you may have come to expect from the game, but there is nothing particularly special about the bulk of them. If this was your only reason to rebuy this game, it may not be enough. That being said, the real reason to rebuy this game is for the portability.

And yes, the names are all vaguely sexual.
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In the original Donkey Kong Country Returns, the biggest problem I had with the game was the fact that Retro decided that rolling could only be accomplished by shaking the Wiimote. This was imprecise, impractical, and almost ruined the original game for me. Fortunately, the 3DS version fixes this by finally allowing you to roll via button inputs. This doesn’t mean that the controls are perfect. For some reason, they decided that there would be two control schemes. One of them allows you to use the classic SNES button layout with one exception. In order to use the classic SNES layout, you have to use the control stick. If you want to use the d-pad, you need to use a strange, really badly thought out secondary control scheme. I have no idea why it is so hard to simply give us the control scheme that we saw in the original Country series. It is mind boggling that Retro is so adamant against this control scheme.

Even the giant octopus doesn’t understand why Retro would do this.
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Donkey Kong Country Returns is an excellent game. It is one of the best platformers we have seen in years. It doesn’t have the charm of the original series, which is one of the biggest strikes against it, but as a retro throwback, this is to be expected. Charm or no, the platforming is stellar and Retro Studios should be congratulated for making such a good game from an older, dead series. The 3DS version of Returns is the best version of the game, with a new world, significantly better controls, and portability. It is absolutely worth buying for fans of the genre even if you already own the Wii version.

Score – 9.0

– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer

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