N.B. The following review will have no screenshots due to the 3DS’ lack of screenshot capabilities.
I’ve never played a Donkey Kong game before, they’ve always been on my radar, but I’ve never felt inclined to give them a go. I never even played the much revered N64 versions, as my family never bought it when I was young. So having a lovely 3DS XL, I felt it was time to jump straight in to what is known as a timeless classic when it comes to precision platforming.
The game starts out with a simple premise: Donkey Kong and Diddy are sleeping at home, when some Tiki’s come to their island, brainwash all it’s inhabitants, and use these brainwashed slaves to steal all the banana’s. The tiki’s come across DK and Diddy, and try to brainwash them too, but are unsuccessful in doing so. The reason for DK and Diddy not being brainwashed is never explained, but I believe we’re to deduce it’s because of how stupid they are. DK punches the Tiki in question, which then starts your journey across the island to put a stop to these evil creatures and take back what’s naturally theirs (because, you know, they’re monkeys, and all banana’s belong to them, right?).
The game features traditional 2D platforming, meaning you move from left to right, jumping on enemies heads, or rolling into them to kill them. Levels are made more varied for DK as he can bang the floor whilst stationary to smash plant pots, or cactuses, revealing hidden treasure or bananas. Levels start off fairly easy as the game gets you used to it’s mechanics, and the “floatiness” of DK’s jumps, but soon start getting quite difficult in how precise you have to be to land specific sections and come through unscathed.
Enemies are varied, from crabs that require you banging the floor to get them to flip over, to Tiki drums spitting fire and requiring DK to blow them out, every enemy is out to get you and ruin a perfect streak as you traverse through DK Country Returns beautiful landscapes. Boss encounters are some of the most fun sections in the game, taking it to new heights with runaway trains with a badger at the helm, to robot chickens that try to squash you under their feet.
The are 8 main worlds to explore in the campaign, with a bonus 9th world if the player collects 8 special pearls after completing the game. These pearls can be attained by collecting the KONG letters hidden throughout each level, which in turns opens up an additional level in each world. These additional levels are an acclamation of some of the most challenging set pieces DK Country Returns offers, with precision platforming causing many a headache for those that attempt them.
Each world brings with it a unique style and gameplay dynamic, from the lush trees at the start of the game, to a factory level, and even a volcano, everything shouts originality when compared to the previous section that came before it. Some levels will be big set pieces, with one early sea level having a octopus in the background constantly trying to stop DK and Diddy from reaching the end. These set pieces are rare, and few and far between, but when they do happen it’s invigorating to beat. Regions have unique sensibilities about them, for example, he jungle level later on will have nothing but ropes to swing across to make your way through the level, yet the caves have none and it’s mostly carts that will get you across the level. This makes the contrast between each world unique, allowing the developers to truly mess with your pre-sonceptions of what has to be in specific locations.
Items can be purchased to help you on your quest across the island, which are certainly needed later on in the game. These can be purchased with banana coins, which are hidden throughout levels or gained by successfully landing on three enemies or more. Items range from just buying extra lives (trust me, these are needed in later levels), to buying a balloon which prevents you from falling off a stage.
As was previously mentioned, some levels are special and require you to take control of either a flying rocket barrel, or a mine cart. These will take many revisits to successfully beat, as the mine carts are difficult to control compared to what you’ve been used to throughout the entirety of the game. Touch anything and you’re dead, so most of these levels can’t be done first time, and will need memorisation in order to conquer their challenges. The same can be said for the rocket barrel levels, whose control scheme is strange and doesn’t feel right, so most of the time it feels like luck if you manage to successful avoid a missile of rock.
Replayability is a big selling point of Donkey Kong Country Returns, with every level having multiple collectibles and even a time trial mode once a level is beaten once before. This all becomes so much more challenging once the secret 9th world is beaten, and the game receives a mirror mode to try and conquer, giving the player 1 less heart, no chance to use any items they have purchased, and no Diddy kong to help you out. It’s cynically evil of Retro Studios, but DK Country Returns isn’t for the faint of heart, and will push you to your limits in trying to conquer it’s precision platforming.
I enjoyed my time with Donkey Kong Country Returns, putting 14 hours into it before giving up on the mirror mode and collecting every puzzle piece. I feel Nintendo and Retro Studios have done a fantastic job of making a solid platformer, one which pushes players to their limit, something I feel more studios should strive to accomplish these days instead of holding the players hand. This extreme difficulty could be off-putting to some casual players, but Nintendo made this game to appeal to the hardcore fans, and in making it difficult, have succeeded in that regard. Give it a play if it comes down in price, but be warned, it will take a few hours to get into and a lot longer to master (if you ever manage to master it at all).