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.
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.
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.
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.
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.