Review: Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D for Nintendo 3DS

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Thinking about how to approach this review, one word keeps going through my mind: Vexing. You see, Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D is a very, very good game. At the same time, I also found it to be quite difficult, though the developers manage to balance it out nicely in some ways.

Suffice to say, there were parts which angered me a little more than I’d have liked, and yet the game still manages to be supportive enough to keep you pressing on. It’s a strange, delicate balance which the game pulls off well, rewarding your efforts all the while by allowing you to see more of the game. And as mundane as that sounds, the tricks the developers pull off make that a fairly substantial reward– a strong sign of a good game in itself when you don’t need rewards, you don’t need unlockables, you don’t need achievements, you just need more.

Before going on, for the sake of full disclosure: I did not get to review the original Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Wii, and Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D is my first time playing through the game as a whole. As such, I’m evaluating the game as a whole, rather than merely as a port, though I will cite what differences I’ve noticed where necessary.

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One of the first things to take note of is how good the game looks on the Nintendo 3DS. It may not have the screen real estate of a larger television screen, but it manages to feel like it was made to be on this system. This is particularly evident in how well it manages to use the system’s 3D effects; with characters and objects moving back and forth, into and from the background, this feels more like what I was hoping for/expecting from New Super Mario Bros. 2.

The music is quite good as well, featuring numerous remixes of David Wise’s original compositions from the original Super NES, Game Boy, and Game Boy Advance games (hereafter referred to simply as the “Super NES” games) alongside some new tunes. Admittedly, most of the newer stuff didn’t really stick with me as well as the remixed tunes, but nor was it bad; it was the type of music that accentuates the moment without sticking out so much. A nice added touch is in the map screen’s music; much like in New Super Mario Bros. U, the same tune plays throughout all the game’s world maps, but changes slightly more and more as you progress.

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The story harkens back to the original Donkey Kong Country, as DK’s bananas are stolen right out from under him (literally). Unlike the original, however, it’s not the crocodile-like Kremlings who have boosted the bananas, but rather a group of living mask-like creatures known as the Tiki Tak Tribe, who have been awakened by the island’s recent volcanic explosion and used their hypnotic powers to take control of the local fauna and make them do their bidding.

They try to do the same to DK, but for reasons unknown, it has no effect on him… much to his amusement before pounding the unfortunate Tiki into oblivion. Similarly, Diddy, Cranky, Squawks, and Rambi all seem to be immune as well, though we never see them try to hypnotize them. Not to put too much thought into it, but it doesn’t seem that we’re really given a reason for the immunity, though it does kind of leave you feeling a little sorry for all the animals who unwittingly stand between DK and his banana hoard.

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The Tiki Tak Tribe aren’t bad villains, and while they do have some neat quirks, still somehow manage to come off as a little bland somehow. The upcoming Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is going to feature arctic creatures who are vikings, and that seems pretty– pardon the expression– cool. The truth is, I’m kind of stuck on how I feel about these guys– the Kremlings are pretty much the definitive Donkey Kong Country villains, yet I’m afraid to clamor for them too much, lest we wind up in the New Super Mario Bros. situation of a recurring cast instead of expanding the rogue’s gallery.

There should be some sort of balance, but it seems we’ll have to wait before we get to see one.

In any case, between the new cast of characters and the way familiar island settings look considerably different (from DK’s house to the lack of his face in the island’s mountainside), Donkey Kong Country Returns almost feels like a reboot of the series, following what feels like something of a trend in gaming as of late.

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Perhaps the biggest issue for players of the Wii version was the fact that numerous actions required shaking of the Wii Remote, with no allowances for button pressing. Some clever players managed to create a hack which would allow simple button presses to trigger actions instead, though it only worked for those who modified their Wiis. Thankfully, despite having motion sensors, Nintendo has spared us this method of control in the Nintendo 3DS version.

As my wife and I found out, it’s difficult to get a good sense for just how much shaking was required by just playing a demo. Turns out it’s quite a bit, as you’d have to shake to roll (more so for the continuous roll performed by both Kongs together), to ground pound, and to blow, among other things, which you have to do rather frequently. While it is a bit of a workout, the greater problem is that it just didn’t feel precise enough in most cases.

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There are two different control schemes present in Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D, neither of which are customizable or interchangeable. You have one for moving with the Dpad, and the other for moving with the Circle Pad. Besides altering button functions, the main difference is that the Circle Pad allows a full range of speeds depending on how far you tilt it, whereas a secondary run button must be held for the Dpad option.

I went for the Circle Pad, as the rest of the button layout just felt better that way. The controls– the Dpad ones especially– feel a little more complicated than the Super NES titles, in part due to requiring a separate button for grabbing vines/moss and picking up barrels from your run button and your ground-pound/roll/blow button.

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Overall, button presses just feel more precise to me, but even so, this is a very different beast from what we saw in the original trilogy. Simply put: Donkey Kong is kind of clumsy when compared to his past appearances or his side-scrolling contemporaries. Rather than run up to a wall, he runs into it and gets stunned, even from short distances, which can make some jumps a little trickier.

Another issue I had in both versions were with how he jumps and rolls. In the original games, much like in Mario’s, if you held jump while landing on an enemy, you’d be able to gain a boost off of them to reach greater heights; here, you cannot hold it, but instead must press it at just the right moment in order to bounce. It’s trickier to pull off, especially if you tend to lose yourself in the moment as I often do; it works, but is a bit distracting as well, taking you out of the game just slightly.

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The roll is different, too. In the Super NES games, rolling into an enemy would boost your momentum so you could hit the next enemy, and so forth in an ever-faster chain. Here, your roll is pretty much nerfed and its distance is preset, so if you come to an instance where there are more than one or two enemies in a row, then rolling becomes more dangerous to you than it is to them, almost forcing you to remove an effective tool from DK’s arsenal.

The exception is when performing the move with Diddy, who balances on top of DK; you can roll this way indefinitely, and is far preferred for rows of enemies. Unfortunately, you don’t always have Diddy with you, which can all but completely negate the move. I can sort of see why they limited DK’s ability alone, to make the team move stand out, but given the indefinite length of the team roll, it feels like an unnecessary and– to be quite frank– unwelcome change.

As an aside, there were also cases where I would need to roll off of a platform to perform the longer jump (a move carried over from the original games), but despite pressing the button, it simply wouldn’t work. I’m not sure why, but I lost DK to pits a good few times as a result. To me, this just further solidifies the roll as a move they just didn’t quite get right. Moreover, I’m worried this will remain the same for the sequel.

The truth is, these are more likely to be problematic if you’re rather familiar with the feel of the original Donkey Kong Country games. Though some aspects (like running into walls) might be questionable in a game of this type anyway, they mechanics work better in the context of a stand-alone game, rather than as anything having to do with the original legacy of Donkey Kong Country games; rather than going from DKC to DKC, this is more akin to going from Mario to Sonic (just as an example).

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David Oxford

David Oxford is a freelance writer of many varied interests. If you're interested in hiring him, please drop him a line at david.oxford (at) nyteworks.net.