If you pop in the original Donkey Kong Country from 1994 and give it a whirl today, you'll see it's aged like a fine wine. It still looks great, plays great, and has that perfect mixture of challenge and fun factor. Therefore, it was no easy task to replicate the wonderful experience that Rare thrust upon the Super Nintendo nearly 20 years ago, one that Rare couldn't even quite match themselves with the DKC sequels. Therefore, in 2010, Nintendo tapped Metroid Prime developer to bring back Donkey Kong Country. The game was a big success, and now it's back in portable form on the 3DS. For the most part, it feels like the platform this game was designed for all along.
I actually didn't play too much of the original Wii version of the game, but most of the package remains the same. The game has you playing as Donkey Kong as he tries to get back his banana hoard from a bunch of floating hooligans who are hypnotizing DK's animal friends in order to to get them to do their evil bidding. When you spring into action, you'll traverse jungles, ruins, industrial factories, boreal forests, temples and more, all of which just ooze personality and charm. Pitch perfect controls ensure that you'll blame yourself and not the level designs when you die, even if you go through ten lives in 3 minutes. I personally think the game is better without the tacked-on motion controls of the Wii version as well.
This is a very challenging platformer, especially if you're trying to collect the myriad of collectibles in every stage. Fortunately, while you can play the game with the two-hit life bar of the original game, you can also play a friendlier but still devious "New Mode" that bumps the life bar to three hearts and lets you buy helpful items from Cranky Kong, such as extra lives, item finding parrots, extended life bars, and the like. I played through most of the campaign without using most of the items, which was a mostly fair and rewarding challenge. The 3DS version also packs in a new world with eight new levels that were not present in the original version. If you have the original, the value proposition to you is whether the game is worth buying for one new world and the portability factor.
The challenge in the game stems mostly from making perfectly timed jumps, getting into tight squeezes, and occasionally from fiendish enemy patterns. The mine cart and barrel rocket levels that do away with the life bar and require near-flawless runs to survive are particularly pesky, yet somehow never so frustrating to make you rage quit. Fortunately, if you die a couple of times on one level, the game subtly gives you the option have the game beat the level for you, at the expense of any collectibles you may have gotten up to that point. I only tried it out once or twice, but the fact that game shows you the path through the level as it clears it for you is a nice touch to learn proper timing. Make no mistake though, this game can be a punishing throwback to the tough-as-nails platformers of the 8 and 16 bit eras, and I frankly wouldn't have it any other way.
DKC mainstay Diddy Kong makes an appearance in the game, but he's mostly a power up instead of a playable character. When you find a DK barrel, you can release Diddy to hang out on your shoulder, which allows you to float for a short while with his jet pack, as well as doubling the length of your life bar. Consdering how agile Donkey Kong is in the first place, this was a wise design decision on the part of Retro. In the included two player co-op mode, two players can locally team up to take on the levels, one as Diddy and the other as Donkey. It's great fun if you have another friend with a copy of the game.
The replay value for the game is excellent. The basic campaign has dozens of unique and well-designed levels and takes hours just to see the end. Finding every last puzzle-piece, hidden bonus room and KONG letters in every level will take a good long while. There's also time trials for the speed-run focused player.
DKC on the smaller 3DS screen looks fantastic. I thought the standard definition Wii version's standard definition graphics didn't do justice to the game's wonderful art design. On the smaller screen, the bright and colorful environments don't suffer from the blurriness and jagged edges that blowing up the game on a big HDTV suffered. The frame rate stays smooth (but not quite as smooth as the Wii version) throughout the game, DK and enemies alike animate beautifully, and the differing and unique visual styles of each world shine. My favorite were the levels that put all the characters and platforms into blackened silhouette, making a starkly contrasted and beautiful experience. Since the game is a pretty intense platformer, the game is practically unplayable with the 3D feature turned on since it's pretty hard to keep the system perfectly aligned to your eyes while you're making quick movements with different buttons.
DKC also sounds incredible. There's no cheesy voice acting, and the hop and bop sound effects are just one more wonderful throwback to the series' roots. But oh man, the music in this game is something else to behold. Between toe-tapping new tracks, the remixed tracks that will be instantly recognizable to anyone who grew up with the SNES games will get stuck in your head all over again. Seriously, if this game released an album, I'd be first in line to buy it.
Besides being my new favorite 3DS game, Donkey Kong Country Returns is a simply a great gaming experience, made better by its portability and lack of motion controls. Look no further than this exemplary port of a fantastic game if you've had an old-school platforming itch that's needed scratching.