Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D review

  • Lush 3D graphics
  • Waggle-free controls and New Mode soften the notorious challenge
  • Old-school gameplay is a glorious throwback
  • Lopsided co-op
  • 3D presents some practical problems
  • Still gruelingly difficult in spots

If only all handheld ports could be this good. Donkey Kong and his pal Diddy swing onto the 3DS with an overhauled version of the Wii's Donkey Kong Country Returns, a loving tribute to the Super Nintendo series of old. If you haven't yet played this nostalgic 2.5D platformer, this is the version to own. It fixes most of the original game's problems, though admittedly introduces a couple others in the process.

The premise remains the same: a volcanic eruption awakens mischievous Tiki spirits, who immediately hypnotize the denizens of the jungle and command them to steal the Kong's banana hoard. Such thievery doesn't fly in Donkey Kong's house, so he and Diddy set out to reclaim his banana stash one bunch at a time. What follows is a run-and-jump romp around Donkey Kong Island, stomping on foes and narrowly avoiding bottomless pits.

Despite the fact that you won't be rolling through waves of Kremling enemies, as in the original games, everything else about Returns 3D captures the brilliance of Rare's 16-bit classics. The level variety is incredible, both visually and mechanically; no two stages look alike, and they all introduce a new mechanic or combine old ones to ramp up the difficulty.

"...Returns 3D captures the brilliance of Rare's 16-bit classics."

There's secrets aplenty hidden in each stage, offering an added layer of challenge for those hardcore enough to chase 100% completion. Longtime DKC fans will also applaud the soundtrack, which delivers arranged versions of the 16-bit tunes in all their ethereal, melodic glory. Gameplay-wise, this is the kind of platformer that teaches you as you go, easing you into intimate familiarity with the controls then rigorously testing your newly developed skills.

In fact, the controls are the most significant improvement in Returns 3D. Without any Wiimote/Nunchuk nonsense to deal with, your hands will be blissfully unburdened by any frustrating waggle controls or unreliable inputs. Playing on the 3DS feels as close to the SNES experience as possible, with either the joystick or D-pad guiding Donkey Kong's fluid movement. The other major upgrade stands out as soon as you boot up the game: the already-gorgeous graphics have gotten a coat of 3D paint, which makes the lush backdrops and colorful enemies pop right off the screen. The stages' parallax scrolling looks particularly stunning on the 3DS, with a number of delightful focal point switcheroos.

"...your hands will be blissfully unburdened by any frustrating waggle controls or unreliable inputs."

Though the 3DS version of Returns looks fantastic, the increased depth of field does present a few trifling issues. With the 3D cranked all the way up, any sharp movement of your hands will play tricks on your eyes with a shift in perspective. That doesn't seem like a big deal until you accidently fall to your death, all because your grip twitched while leaping over a particularly harrowing chasm. Maximum 3D will also occasionally cause some disorienting artifacting with objects at the edge of the screen, though you aren't likely to notice these visual irregularities too often.

New Mode is another huge change, though it won't be as noticeable for those that haven't played the Wii version. The remarkable difficulty of the console version remains fully intact in Original Mode, but New Mode offers an inviting alternative for players who don't feel like dealing with old-school trial-and-error platforming. This mode gives DK and Diddy an additional point of health, as well as access to a plethora of life-preserving items (at a reduced price) in Cranky Kong's shop. 

"...New Mode offers an inviting alternative for players who don't feel like dealing with old-school trial-and-error platforming."

While New Mode seems like it was made as the answer to those who lamented the Wii version's challenge, it doesn't completely solve the difficulty curve problem. Though it's easier to stock up on new items like pit-escaping balloons and life-saving potions, and you can equip three items instead of one, they're still only single-use safeguards. Even with a full inventory, some levels--particularly those of the auto-scrolling minecart and rocket variety--are still liable to drive casual platformer fans up the wall. Of course, die enough times and you'll be given the patronizing option of employing the silver-backed Super Kong to beat the level for you. New Mode may take the punishing edge off Returns' infamous obstacle courses, but the uninitiated should know that it's still damn difficult when compared to the average platformer.

Returns 3D also offers co-op via local wireless play, which requires two copies of the game. Unfortunately, this two-player option doesn't capture the hot-seat-style action of the SNES trilogy. Both players take control of their own Kong, but without Diddy's jetpack assistance on hovering jumps, Donkey feels substantially more vulnerable. On the flipside, Diddy is almost too powerful, able to sail over gaps with his jet propulsion or pepper distant enemies with his long-range peanut gun.

"[Returns 3D is] still damn difficult when compared to the average platformer."

With save data, it's the complete opposite--Donkey is the one with all the power and saved progress, while the Diddy player will retain nothing from their previous adventures. Though the inclusion of a co-op mode is nice perk, it's not all that appealing unless you have a dedicated co-op partner, like a sibling or a roommate, who can play alongside you at a moment's notice.

If you're unwilling to chew through a dozen lives before finally progressing past a tricky stage, this may not be the game for you. But the bottom line with Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D is that the positives undoubtedly outweigh the negatives. With its visual splendor and gratifying, old-school gameplay, this is a fantastic platformer that makes the most of the 3DS. It may test your patience from time to time, but the satisfaction of conquering every last bonus barrel and KONG letter is ultimately worth it.

More Info

Release date: May 24 2013 - 3DS (US)
May 24 2013 - 3DS (UK)
Available Platforms: 3DS
Genre: Platformer
Published by: Nintendo
ESRB Rating:
Everyone: Mild Cartoon Violence

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  • universaltofu - August 17, 2013 8:08 p.m.

    I made it to the 7th area before just being done with the game, I tried the Wii version and hated the wiimote functions, and wasn't too happy this time around with the lack of options since it was so easy to accidentally start rolling out of a ground pound or petal blowing and die because of it. The level designs were top notch and held secrets and challenge and opportunity for perfected replays and speed runs, but the style didn't click with me nor did the music (even though I like the remixed tunes, I wish they brought more to the table than 'remember this?'). DKC was a bar setting series on the snes oozing quality, and this while good n great doesn't deserve to bear the 'Country' moniker. DK Jungle Beat was more 'Country' than this, and I happily platinum'd everything in that game because the gimmicks worked.
  • ObliqueZombie - May 17, 2013 11:18 p.m.

    When I read Cranky Kong, I continuously played his theme song from Donkey Kong 64. I just wish they'd redo THAT for the 3DS, but this is awesome nonetheless!
  • talleyXIV - May 17, 2013 4:44 p.m.

    I didn't realize it was coming out so soon. I am stoked.
  • shawksta - May 17, 2013 12:03 p.m.

  • BladedFalcon - May 17, 2013 9:45 a.m.

    Hell yeah! And the negatives jsut made me smile because none of that bothers me at all! :D Don't give a shit about co-op, never use the 3D anyway, and I'm more than happy to know the difficulty hasn't been toned down. So yeah, BRING IT ON! Fact, I'll guarantee that before June is done, I'll 100% the game, not really bragging to anyone, jsut a challenge to myself.
  • GR_LucasSullivan - May 17, 2013 10:32 a.m.

    Right on! I'm chasing that dream right now, but SCREW trying to Gold Medal time attack all the stages--that shiz is impossible
  • slimjim441 - May 17, 2013 10:52 a.m.

    I completed everything on the Wii version but those damn time trials. It was like Crash Bandicoot all over again; nearly gave myself an aneurism trying to get those done. It wasn't worth the effort...
  • BladedFalcon - May 17, 2013 11:01 a.m.

    Oh you're on! I'm gonna prove to you that it IS possible >:3 People also whined and complained that Rayman Origins was too hard... And i platinum'd that motherfucker within a month.
  • Person5 - May 17, 2013 12:08 p.m.

    My god, I did the same thing with that game but those fricken time trials were awful. I did finish them all but I remember one of them took me like two straight hours to do. But I have a 1000/1000 in that game! Now onto this game, you got the right idea FalconMan
  • BladedFalcon - May 17, 2013 12:26 p.m.

    Heh, yeah, some of those time trials were too unforgiving, and demanded a level of speed and perfection that was kinda unfair when compared to other time trials from the same game. Still, doable is doable, and I'll be damned if I'll let a good platforming game get the best of me.
  • Person5 - May 17, 2013 2:25 p.m.

    I know what you mean, I've played the original Donkey Kong Country enough that I feel I wouldn't do this one justice by NOT 100% it.
  • Fox_Mulder - May 18, 2013 12:16 a.m.

    Took me a while longer, but the Land of the Livid Dead oh my god. I feel if I can get through that, I'll have no problem with Returns 3D. Plus I was somewhat of a DKC savant, I ripped through that game when I was 6, through much trial and error of course. Glad to see the soundtrack is the old music updated. Now all I need is for Nintendo to buck up and release the SNES classics on the eShop.
  • Person5 - May 18, 2013 2:09 a.m.

    Too bad that will probably never happen with the whole Rare/MS thing. I never did Land of the Livid Dead solo though, only coop. I'm kind of scared to do it solo thinking back
  • Fox_Mulder - May 18, 2013 2:46 a.m.

    I don't see why not, I downloaded DKC on my Wii from the Virtual Console. I went back recently and tried to do Land of the Livid dead again, I couldn't get past the third jump. That whole level's layout is lost on me now.
  • BladedFalcon - May 18, 2013 5:29 a.m.

    Really? I found the land of the livid dead was just like a treasure chest chase level, just a bit stricter. So I mean, as long as you can see where you're supposed to land next, and see what's the faster way to do it, you should be able to progress with each try. Also, unlike treasure chase stages, this level DOES contain checkpoints, which makes it much more doable, though you probably need to be committed to finish it in one go still, since I don't think the checkpoints remain if you shut down the console and play again later.
  • Fox_Mulder - May 19, 2013 12:43 a.m.

    You had checkpoints? I sure as hell didn't. What system did you play it on?
  • BladedFalcon - May 19, 2013 7:08 a.m.

    PS3. Although I'm pretty sure that the checkpoints are the same in any system. No offense, but I think that you probably haven't reached the first one yet >>; I mean, it IS kind of a long stage, certainly longer than your normal stage. I am not 100% sure, but I think the first checkpoint occurs between the segment in which you ride a skeletal thing, and a part in which you have to run upward and wall jump over two moving walls. And from what you've told me, you haven't gotten quite past the first part in which you have to jump over zombie grannies, the checkpoint isn't there, I can tell you that much XD
  • Fox_Mulder - June 27, 2013 8:41 p.m.

    LOL sorry this is a month later. I Platinumed Rayman on Vita months ago. Maybe I got screwed on checkpoints.
  • universaltofu - August 17, 2013 7:46 p.m.

    did you do it?
  • austinfloyd85 - May 17, 2013 9:39 a.m.

    I know it's not all about the graphics, but these aren't good at all.

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