Game Corner [DK Day]: Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D (Nintendo 3DS)

In 1981, Shigeru Miyamoto and his team at Nintendo R&D1 created Donkey Kong, an arcade title that was not only one of the earliest examples of the platform genre but also introduced gamers everywhere to two of Nintendo’s most recognisable characters: Mario and Donkey Kong. Mario, of course, shot to super stardom but today’s a day to celebrate everyone’s favourite King Kong knock-off and to say: Happy birthday, Donkey Kong!

Released: 24 May 2013
Originally Released: 21 November 2010
Developer: Monster Games
Original Developer: Retro Studios
Also Available For: Nintendo Wii, Nintendo Wii U, and Nvidia Shield (Original Version)

The Background:
After establishing a foothold in the United States with Donkey Kong (Nintendo R&D1, 1981), which was a financial and critical success, Nintendo quickly went on to capture the home console market with the Nintendo Entertainment System. While their moustachioed mascot, Super Mario, was at the forefront of this, Donkey Kong wasn’t completely forgotten as the character continued to be featured in sequels and spin-offs during the NES’s life. However, legendary British developers Rare breathed new life into the cantankerous ape with the Donkey Kong Country series (Rare, 1994 to 1996), a series of sidescrolling platformers released for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) that expanded upon Donkey Kong’s cast of characters and pushed the SNES hardware to its limits with their revolutionary pre-rendered graphics. After years of being relegated to guest appearances and spin-offs, Donkey and Diddy Kong returned to prominence at the specific request of DK’s creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, with Retro Studios brought in to create a nostalgic throwback title for the Nintendo Wii. Donkey Kong Country Returns was met with generally favourable reviews and sold nearly five million copies by the end of March 2011. This, potentially, led to Nintendo commissioning a revamp of the title for their new 3DS console, which included additional game modes and levels alongside the 3D feature, and saw equally strong reviews and sales.

The Plot:
The evil Tiki Tak Tribe emerge from an erupting volcano and immediately set about hypnotising the inhabitants of Donkey Kong Island to steal Donkey Kong’s beloved bananas. Enraged at the loss of his coveted banana hoard, DK once again teams up with Diddy Kong to travel across the length and breadth of the island to retrieve his bananas and defeat the Tiki Tak Tribe’s leaders.

Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D is a 2.5D action/platformer in which players take control of the titular ape Donkey Kong and travel across nine worlds to collect his beloved bananas and defeat the Tiki Tak Tribe. As with all Nintendo 3DS titles, players have the option of adjusting the game’s 3D effects, which pop out at players during certain situations and provide a great deal of depth to the game’s vibrant stages but, also as with all 3DS games, I chose to keep the 3D option turned down because I find it distracting. Fans of the original Donkey Kong Country might be disappointed to discover that they can only play as Donkey Kong this time around; rather than using a tag team mechanic and switching between Donkey and Diddy Kong at any time to make use of their unique abilities, players are stuck as Donkey Kong and Diddy is relegated to merely a supporting role, buffing your health and forward roll and providing a very limited hover boost with his jetpack. The only way you can play as Diddy (who is apparently faster and can stun enemies with his Popcorn Gun) is if you happen to have a friend to play with in two player mode; otherwise, you’re stuck with Donkey Kong.

Pound, cling, and swing your way over endless bottomless pits and death traps.

Donkey Kong is a bit of a lumbering beast; as he moves, he gains momentum which allows him to go faster and jump higher (he also jumps higher the longer you press the A or B button) but he’s also quite large and cumbersome, which not only makes his hit box quite big but also means it can be pretty difficult to pull off the tight platforming and jumps the game requires. DK can attack enemies by rolling into a ball with L or R when running, pounding the ground or other objects when standing still with L or R, and grabbing and throwing barrels with Y or X. By pressing down and L or R, he’ll also blow out a puff of air which can be used to blow out fires, flaming enemies, or stir up parts of the environment to find secrets and you’ll also be asked to mash L and R at certain points in mini quick-time events to earn extra rewards. Your main aim in every stage is to travel from the left side of the screen to the right and reach the Slot Machine Barrel that awaits you at the end of each stage. This is easier said than done, however; Donkey Kong is tasked with pulling off some tricky jumps and platforming in order to clear each stage and you’ll have to search high and low, passing through hidden areas and smashing through blocks, to uncover every collectible, often at the risk (or cost) of a life. Each stage except for at least one contains a couple of checkpoints, where you’ll respawn after dying. If you die while partnered with Diddy, you’ll respawn without him; however, while you’ll also have to reacquire any KONG letters you collected before you died, your total banana and Banana Coin count carries over and both of these can also be collected again so you can stock up on each and replenish your lives a little faster.

Once again, the Kongs blast across stages using barrels and runaway mine carts.

You’ll definitely need to take advantage of this as the game is very demanding and incredibly frustrating at times, requiring you to bounce off enemies, swing from vines, and cling to ceilings, walls, and rotating platforms in order to progress. Two of Donkey Kong Country’s principal gameplay mechanics also make a return here: Barrel blasting and mine carts. You’ll find two types of barrel cannons in the game, one which launches you when you choose and one which launches you automatically. While barrels often blast you into the background and towards secret areas, they’re just as likely to be moving, requiring you to time your shot to reach other stationary or moving barrels, which becomes harder and harder as you’re faced with collapsing platforms, pillars, and other obstacles that will cause instant death. The mine carts are even worse, though; these will race ahead uncontrollably and unceasingly, requiring split second jumps on your behalf to reach collectibles, clear gaps and obstacles, or reach vines and grassy verges. These sections become incredibly frustrating and unfair when you’re required to jump at precisely the right moment with the exact amount of control and timing to avoid instant death spikes, duck under low ceilings, or hop over enemies; hit anything in these stages and it’s instant death, regardless of how much health you have, which I find to be incredibly unreasonable considering Diddy can boost your maximum health up six hearts.

The Rocket Barrel is just one of the many clunky mechanics you’ll struggle with in the game.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, you’re also required to jump on to a Rocket Barrel for similarly frustrating and difficult chase sequences that see you flying horizontally (and, eventually, vertically) through a stage while stalactites and rocks fall from above, obstacles rise from below, and enemies and projectiles fly at you. While you have more control over the Rocket Barrel compared to the mine cart, it’s extremely imprecise and slippery; you must tap or hold A to maintain just the right amount of height, which can be extremely difficult when you’re forced to pass through narrow, often collapsing and winding, passageways, and it’s far too easy to lose a life because your hit box is so big and enemy explosions tend to linger onscreen just long enough to knock you from your precarious perch. It’s no wonder the game constantly encourages you to take a break with sections such as these, which only exacerbate the abundance of temporary platforms, bottomless pits, and instant death traps that fill every single stage of the game.

Graphics and Sound:
If there’s one area that Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D excels, its in its presentation; a far cry from the digitised graphics of its original incarnation, the game is a colourful, vivid 2.5D adventure that pops out even without the 3D effect. Donkey and Diddy Kong are pretty big and lively protagonists full of little quirks and characteristics, if a bit stilted at times, and their enemies are quite varied and zany. The game’s worlds and stages are pretty varied but nothing that hasn’t really been seen before in previous and similar titles: you’ll swing through a jungle, blast across a beach, smash your way through some ancient ruins, race through a crumbling cave, clamber through a forest, avoid the murky mud of the bone yard that is the cliff, barrel through a factory, and dodge rising lava inside of an active volcano.

Very occasionally, gameplay and stages are varied by unique lighting and effects,

The game is pretty good, whoever, at mixing and matching gameplay mechanics from each world into another; so, you might have to dodge past collapsing pillars in the jungle but you’ll also find collapsible hazards in the cliff stage. Similarly, mine carts and Rocket Barrels appear invariably throughout each world and you’ll be asked to swing from vines and cling to grassy verges across the entire game. While each world has a unique theme and varies up the gameplay quite a bit, the emphasis is always on platforming and various methods of jumping and traversing the environment. This means that you won’t find any underwater stages in Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D, which would be a good thing but it results in water being an instant death hazard and replaces such mechanics with tiny, crumbling platforms, chase sequences, high speed jaunts on runaway mine carts or rocket-powered barrels, and precarious jumps over bottomless pits, beds of spikes, or bubbling lava as you hop from one tiny platform to another or ride a slowly deteriorating egg shell across a dangerous landscape. Other times, you’ll rush down water slides or have to outrun a giant Squeekly or stages are rendered entirely in silhouette or filled with a thick fog that limits your field of view and helps to mix up the presentation, though these instances were few and far between in hindsight.

The cinematics hold up really well but, for the most part, cutscenes use the in-game engine.

Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D tells its incredibly simple story through the employment of pantomime-like cutscenes that are beautifully brought to life through some sadly underused high quality cinematics. When entering a stage or approaching a boss, the in-game graphics take over to show the Kongs encountering the next leader of the Tiki Tak Tribe and each of these can be skipped at any time, which is useful. When you visit Cranky Kong’s shop, the wizened Kong will offer tips and instructions on his wares through the use of speech bubbles and the game also features numerous remixes of classic Donkey Kong Country tunes, such as “DK Island Swing”, which help lend a sense of legitimacy to the title as a continuation of those 16-bit games.

Enemies and Bosses:
Being that the Kongs are going up against an entirely new antagonist force this time around, they are fittingly faced with a slew of new enemies that replace the Kremlings of the classic games with such bizarre foes as sentient bongo-bongo drums that also resemble owls or are engulfed in flames that they toss your way. You’ll also have to hop or, or roll into, crab-like Snaps and Pinchly, Frogoons, bat-like Squeeklys, the parrot-like Awk and Rawk, and the voracious Toothberrys. When in the mines, you’ll have to contend with a variety of moles (who race at you in mine carts of their own or toss bombs your way), jump over massive sharks that leap out of the water in the ruins, avoid being splattered by indestructible octopus tentacles, and bop on the heads of a number of skeletal or wacky robotic enemies when exploring the quagmire of the cliff stage or the mechanical mayhem of the factory, respectively.

Patience is the key to defeating Mugly and the Scurvy Crew.

Of course, eight worlds means eight different bosses to face; before you tackle each one, you’ll get to smash open a DK Barrel and I highly recommend that you take advantage of this as Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D’s boss battles can be quite laborious. The first boss you face, Mugly, is a giant toad-like creature that likes to charge or jump at you from one side of the arena to the other, producing shockwaves in the process. He also protects himself from attack with a row of spikes on his back, meaning your window of opportunity to jump on his back is limited to when the spikes are retracted or the times when he knocks him self silly. The second boss, the Scurvy Crew, is comprised of three crabs that you must jump on when their claws are down or roll into when they’re up. Though they also form a three-tiered totem, you’ll continue using this tactic but they move much faster as the fight progresses and it just seems never-ending at times, which can lead to you making stupid mistakes.

Stu is a walk in the park compared to getting to, and fighting, Mole Miner Max.

To clear the ruins stage, you’ll have to battle Stu (no relation…), a massive, cracked out bird that protects itself with a cauldron. Stu alternates between trying to dive bomb you and tossing bombs into the arena, which you must grab and throw back at him while watching out for the shockwaves caused when he drops a big missile into the arena and the fire that spreads from his incendiary bombs. The big boss of the cave stage is Mole Miner Max but, to reach him, you must first survive his gruelling mole train, jumping over or ducking under axe projectiles (without moving forward or backwards or else you’ll die because of the train’s momentum and physics), and tossing bombs away before they can hurt you. Max himself isn’t too difficult (it’s reaching him that’s the tricky part!) as you can pre-empt where he will appear to bop him on the head, just be sure to avoid standing on the mine carts when they sparkle or else you’ll be thrown to your death!

Bosses will test your wits, reaction times, and require both patience and strategy to defeat.

One of the more frustrating boss battles is against the Mangoruby; this boss requires a far less direct approach as you must cling to the circular platforms dotted around the arena and pound the five triangular switches on each one to get past the Mangoruby’s electrical field. You must then frantically chase it down (preferably without falling to your death) and jump on its back (not its horned head) before the switches reactivate and while avoiding the bombs it eventually drops into the arena. Afterwards, you’ll battle Thugly, who is very similar to Mugly and charges and jumps at you. This time, you need to jump over him at the last possible second and then quickly roll under his jump attack, avoiding the shockwaves he produces upon landing while also dodging rocks that rain down from above, his flame breath, and his fireball projectiles. Thugly gets faster and more aggressive as the battle progresses down the arena and can only be damaged when his protective plates slide back (but, again, watch out as these also glow red hot!)

Before you can even reach the final bosses, you’ll endure a tough Rocjet Barrel section.

Before you can even reach the Stompybot 3000 (and the final boss), you first have to beat a Rocket Barrel section, which requires split second timing on your behalf to avoid the obstacles and moving hazards that appear just off-screen for maximum annoyance. The Stompybot 3000 is another of the game’s more frustrating bosses because of how random it is; you need to stay away from it as it clomps around the arena and roll under it when it leaps into the air (but only when the little flap opens up, otherwise you’ll get hurt), then cling to the bottom of it to deal some damage. Once its legs are broken off, it’ll start dropping BuckBots into the arena that you can attack to try and get some health back. You’ll have to grab on to the green chains to deal further damage to the machine, though, which will also spit flames into the arena if you take too long and try to crush you if you hold on for too long.

The game’s final boss, Tiki Tong, is the most challenging boss battle of the entire game.

Easily the toughest boss of the game, though, is the final boss, Tiki Tong; as mentioned, you must endure a gruelling Rocket Barrel section to even reach this boss, which will most likely leave you with few lives or exhaust your inventory so you lose the much needed edge of Cranky’s items in the battle. Additionally, if you die while fighting Tiki Tong, you respawn right before the final fight but without Diddy, making it even tougher! Tiki Tong first tries to slap and crush you with its hands, which must be ducked under, rolled away from, or jumped over (when they’re at the far side of the arena) to avoid damage. When you dodge its downward slam, quickly jump on the jewel to damage and, eventually, destroy each hand (grabbing any wayward hearts you see in the process) and Tiki Tong will start attacking with its big, stupid head by spitting out Flaming Tiki Buzzes that will home in on you and basically blanket the arena, giving you the smallest window to avoid being hurt (the rare hearts that appear during this time are also on fire and you have very little time to wait or blow them out). Tiki Tong also crashes to the ground, producing a shockwave that you must jump over in a desperate attempt to bop the big red button on its head; miss-time your jump, though, and you’ll simply bounce harmlessly off the button for maximum frustration and the boss also increases in speed and aggressiveness as the fight drags on, giving you less and less time to hit that weak spot and crush it with the Moon when you finally do defeat it.

Power-Ups and Bonuses:
As you explore each of the game’s stages, you’ll find a multitude of collectibles that will aid your quest: hearts will restore one unit of your health, red balloons will award you with an extra life, and DK Barrels will see Diddy join your side. Of course, you’ll also find a number of bananas in each stage; collect one hundred of these and you’ll also be awarded with an extra life but you can also find Banana Coins to spend in Cranky Kong’s shop, Puzzle Pieces to unlock artwork in the game’s Gallery, and KONG letters that must be collected in every stage to unlock a hidden temple for each of the game’s worlds. It pays to explore and experiment with your surrounds, too, as you can find more bananas and Banana Coins by blowing flowers or windmills or by smashing blocks and chests. KONG letters, deposits of bananas and Banana Coins, and Puzzle Pieces can often be found hidden behind parts of the environment, too, as can hidden bonus stages that see you hopping across moving platforms or using barrels to collect everything in the enclosed arena within a time limit to earn extra lives and Puzzle Pieces.

Use Cranky’s items or hop on Rambi to help you out, or just sit back and activate Super Kong.

The Banana Coins you find can be spent in Cranky’s Shop; the elderly Kong has a range of items for sale that can be added to your inventory before the start of each stage. You can equip up to three different items at a time (though some are locked out of certain stages) and these can be incredibly useful, especially in the game’s more frustrating sections. You can purchase an extra heart piece, make yourself temporarily invincible (which actually gives you three extra hit points), spawn in a DK Barrel, and/or protect your mine cart or Rocket Barrel from one hit. You can also purchase green balloons, which will save you when you fall down bottomless pits, hire out Squawks the Parrot to alert you to nearby secrets, or buy a Map Key to unlock an extra stage in each world that can provide a shortcut to the boss. Since the game lacks any underwater sections, the only one of DK’s animal friends to make a return is Rambi, who can charge through special blocks, beds of spikes, and through enemies without fear. You can mount and dismount Rambi at any time and even use Diddy’s jetpack boost to help you plough through stages but he does make the already finicky platforming sections even more troublesome. If you die repeatedly in a stage, you’ll also be given the option (from your last checkpoint), to activate “Super Kong”; in this mode, a white version of Donkey and Diddy Kong will play through the stage or tackle the boss on your behalf. While this allows you to clear any areas that are causing you to rage quit and progress to new stages and worlds, you won’t get to keep any of the collectibles Super Kong picks up and the level won’t appear as completed on the main map screen so you’ll always know that the game bested you.

Additional Features:
Being an expanded version of Donkey Kong County Returns, Donkey Kong County Returns 3D contains everything that was available in the original Wii game plus a few extras. You’re given three save slots to play around with and are asked to pick between two game modes right from the start: “Original”, which plays exactly the same as the Wii version, and “New”, which grants players an additional heart, reduces the cost of items in Cranky’s shop, and allows you to purchase (for the low, low price of fifty Banana Coins each) eight Rare Orbs to enter the Golden Temple rather than forcing you to collect every KONG letter to access this stage. The Golden Temple transports players to the new world, Cloud, where you can take on eight additional stages, each one modelled after the game’s existing levels, before tackling the ninth and final stage, which is, without question, the game’s toughest and most frustrating challenge yet.

Take on the Golden Temple and try to not rage quit when playing the final level.

This stage takes place high in the clouds and, thus, entirely over a bottomless pit and sees you hopping from precarious fruit-based platforms without the aid of any checkpoints. Green balloons and Diddy Kong are a must to clear this stage, which had me tearing my hair out on more than one occasion thanks to DK’s lumbering jump, awkward controls, and the minuscule or slippery platforms that comprise the arena. Clear this final stage, though, and you’ll unlock the delights of the game’s Mirror Mode. However, only a madman would put themselves through the demanding torture of tackling every single stage all over again…but in reverse and with only one heart and no help from Diddy or Cranky’s items. You can also tackle a time attack after clearing each stage and are pushed to find every single KONG letter and Puzzle Piece to not only unlock all the artwork in the Gallery but also achieve 200% completion (because, yes, you need to find everything in Mirror Mode, too) but, if you can do all that, then you’re much more skilled and patient than I am as I tapped out after clearing the Cloud world.

The Summary:
I had high hopes for Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D; being a SEGA kid growing up, I’ve only had partial exposure to a lot of Nintendo’s best titles from the 8- and 16-bit era but I’ve always had a fondness for Donkey Kong Country and tried on numerous occasions to give at least the first game a full playthrough. There’s no denying that Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D looks and sounds fantastic; the 3D is implemented quite well and the game is very vibrant and full of quirky, cartoony appeal that is decidedly at odds with the game’s absolutely horrendous difficulty curve. Donkey Kong is just so slow, clunky, and clumsy; when forced to outrun instant death traps or jump to small, temporary platforms, he struggles to get his big ass in gear and you’ll be fighting with the game’s awkward, slippery controls and frame-perfect demands as often as the split second timing and trial and error of the gameplay. Not being able to freely switch to Diddy was a massive disappointment as it takes away a lot of the appeal of the game for us single players and, ultimately, despite some fun visuals and moments sprinkled throughout, I found the game to be more of a chore to get through than anything that simply required me to throw myself at its toughest sections over and over to barely squeeze past rather than actually enjoying the whole experience.

My Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Could Be Better

What did you think to Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D? If you played the original, how do you think this enhanced/portable version holds up? Did you also struggle with the game’s finicky controls and demanding difficulty or were you able to overcome the challenge without much trouble? Were you disappointed that the tag team mechanic and other recognisable elements of Donkey Kong Country were dropped? Which of the Donkey Kong Country games is your favourite and why? How are you celebrating Donkey Kong’s anniversary this year? Whatever your thoughts on Donkey Kong, sign up to leave them below or share them on my social media.

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