Saturday, May 25, 2013

3DS Review: "Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D"

Since it was first revealed, the 3DS has often been said to be powerful enough to effectively serve as a portable Wii.  In theory, the console is able to play games that are just as large, just as detailed, and just as good as Nintendo's now previous-gen home console.  As of yet, that promise has largely gone unrealized.  As per the norm, 3DS iterations of home console games tend to still be simpler, more basic adaptations of their home console cousins with less detailed graphics, less features, and a much smaller scope.  Some games purpose-made for the system, like Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon, provide console-quality experiences, but even they still usually feel smaller and more limited in design.

Well fortunately, Donkey Kong Country Returns, one of the finest games ever released for the Wii, has returned once more as Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D and at last delivers a full-blown Wii-quality experience on the 3DS.  With very few exceptions, nothing has been compromised in the jump to the handheld.  The same brilliant, beautiful, and incredibly challenging platformer that you loved on the Wii is exactly as you remember it on the 3DS, with a handful of new features thrown in to boot.  If that's all you needed to hear, you can stop reading right now and go buy it.

For the uninitiated, Donkey Kong Country Returns and its 3DS port are much like the New Super Mario Bros series in that they revive the same sort of side-scrolling platforming action popularized in Rare's mega-popular Donkey Kong Country series for the SNES.  Now in the hands of Retro Studios (and Monster Games for the 3DS version) DKC Returns isn't just content to revisit the past as the New Super series does.  It does have all the old school throwbacks one would hope for, but brings a substantial amount of new content to the table as well.

Donkey Kong, as a character, is incredibly fun to play as.  It's obvious that a great deal of time was put into making sure he played just right.  DK is agile, and the levels reward you for attempting daring acrobatics, but he's also heavy.  It does make DK seem very powerful, but you need to make your jumps count, or DK will drop like a rock into a pit.   Bust open special barrels and DK's little buddy Diddy Kong will hop on to DK's back.  In addition to providing some extra health, Diddy has a jet-pack that allows DK to hang in the air a bit longer after jumping.  A second player can even hop in and play as Diddy independently, should they have their own console and a copy of the game.

I really can't stress enough how good DK feels to control.  In fact, he's even easier to control in the 3DS version than he was in the original Wii version, as the waggle-based moves, such as rolling, have been reassigned to buttons.  And, thankfully, the developers resisted adding any stupid new gimmicks, so you won't have to put up with any blowing into the mic nonsense or anything like that.  It's just straight-forward traditional controls.  The circle pad is perfectly adequate for the precision movements required, but the game also offers an alternate control scheme using the d-pad should you prefer to use it.

The level designs are masterful.  This game makes heavy use of large set-pieces and nearly every one of them is memorable.  From giant octopus attacks, crumbling ruins, rolling spiky boulders, swarms of killer insects, and sunset levels that render everything as silhouettes, almost every single level has some sort of gimmick to call its own.  You really never know what you're going to run into in any given level, ensuring that the game feels fresh all the way through.  The only real fault that could be leveled at DKC Returns' level selection is that it is perhaps a bit too saturated with mine-cart levels.  Though a staple of the series, having them sprinkled throughout the game and having an entire world devoted to them feels like a bit much.  As a whole, though, DKC Returns boasts one of the most rock-solid collections of levels ever to be found in a side-scrolling platformer.

Of course, if you played the Wii version, you already know that.  DKC Returns 3D is largely a straight port of the original game.  There are a few new elements introduced here and there, however.  Most notably is "New Mode."  In this mode, DK and Diddy are both awarded an extra heart of health, and Cranky has a few new items in his store, like a balloon that saves you from falling into a pit and a DK barrel that you can use to bring out Diddy whenever you'd like.  Given that the original game's level of challenge bordered on being a little too frustrating at times, New Mode is a welcome way to take the edge off. 

Don't get me wrong, DKC Returns 3D still offers up a considerable challenge, especially if you're trying to track down all of the collectable K-O-N-G letters and puzzle pieces.  You will die a lot.  But New Mode is perfect for those who found the level of difficulty in the Wii version a touch too daunting but did not want to resort to letting the Super Guide beat the levels for them.  That said, Albino DK is still waiting in the wings, ready to hop in should you fail too many times on a single level.  And, if you're a purist, the game does offer up an "Original Mode" which lets you play through the game exactly as it was on the Wii as well.  DKC Returns 3D also features a handful of new levels to entice those who already mastered the Wii version. But, given that they are locked away at the end of the game, veteran players will have to slog through a lot of familiar territory before seeing anything new.

Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Wii was, in my opinion, second only to the Mario Galaxy games when it comes to graphics.  The game was gorgeous.  In fact, if you'll recall, I compared New Super Mario Bros. U to it in my review of that game and found that, despite running on much more powerful hardware, NSMBU couldn't surpass how good looking DK was on weaker hardware.  When the 3DS version of DKC Returns was announced, I assumed the graphics would have to be downgraded considerably to get the game running smoothly on the handheld. 

I'm pleased to report, however, that the visuals appear to be virtually identical to the Wii original.  If there were any compromises that had to made to recreate the graphics on the 3DS I certainly haven't noticed them.  This is about as good as any game has ever looked on the 3DS.  Every level has tons of detail, and given how much the levels focus on featuring multiple layers of scenery and having interaction between the foreground and background, the added depth of the stereoscopic 3D really suits DK well.  This is a gorgeous game. 

Admittedly, the game's framerate is not quite as silky smooth as the Wii original, but unless you're comparing them side-by-side, you'll probably never notice.  Monster Games did an incredible job maintaining the visual brilliance of the original on the 3DS, and the result is the best looking game for the system thus far.  The sounds and music are also perfectly preserved from the home console original, which is good, as the game's soundtrack offers up a nice mixture of familiar tunes from the SNES original and a substantial amount of new compositions as well.

Donkey Kong Country Returns was already a great game on the Wii, but it's even better on the 3DS.  Being able to play it anywhere makes tracking down all the game's collectables a much more manageable task, and New Mode offers up a great way to experience the game in a slightly less aggravating form without having to tone down the challenging nature of the level design.  Admittedly, if you've already played the Wii version to death, there's not a whole lot of compelling reasons to return to Donkey Kong Country Returns again unless you just want to have the game on the go.  But for those who never experienced the home console original, Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D is an absolute must-buy and one of the only 3DS games to truly deliver an uncompromised home console experience on the handheld.  It's as good as side-scrolling platforming gets and you won't find a better looking game for the 3DS around.

Now then, Nintendo, how about Kirby's Return to Dreamland 3D next please?

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