In the twilight years of the 16-bit era Nintendo was faced with a dilemma. Having already decided to abandon all efforts to create a 32-bit add-on for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) and faced with the inevitable decline of the console in the years between 1994 and what would eventually become the Nintendo 64’s launch in 1997. That’s a long time in any industry, but in videogames you could squeeze another console generation onto that window. So that’s exactly what Nintendo tried to do.
The SNES had grown tired and both developers and consumers were looking for something new. SEGA’s ill-fated 32-bit add-ons were doing the rounds and the PlayStation was gearing-up to bring gaming to the masses. Nintendo needed to convince gamers that there was still life left in the SNES, and it was left up to British studio Rare to do just that. Utilising one of Nintendo’s IPs for the very first time, Rare refreshed Donkey Kong in a way unimaginable at the time, but unforgettable ever since.
Nearly twenty years later the coat of Donkey Kong Country’s pre-rendered graphics may have lost its sparkle, but its achievements have not. It was a platform videogame delivered at a time when the genre was dominated by me-too titles and cash-in releases. Its graphical techniques set a standard that have since become common place, and its constant efforts to deliver varied gameplay design in what is otherwise a strict genre-piece echo in all corners lf the industry even today. Donkey Kong Country was – and is – a fantastic example of inspired videogame design.
Given this heritage it’s unsurprising that Nintendo would wish to capitalise on the reputation that Donkey Kong Country established. After a lukewarm reception for Donkey Kong 64 and our hero being relegated to niche experiments on the GameCube, Donkey Kong was surely due to be kicked into gear when Donkey Kong Country Returns launched on Wii in 2010. The videogame received a significant amount of critical acclaim, though criticised for being very difficult, and achieved considerable sales success. Now set to make a splash on Nintendo 3DS – with an audience hankering for a return of many Nintendo classics – Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D remodels the Wii’s Donkey Kong Country Returns for a new audience, and new hardware.
While the videogame was reportedly developed from the ground-up for the stereoscopic 3D feature of the Nintendo 3DS hardware, the comparable specifications of the Wii and Nintendo’s latest handheld system mean that the jump would’ve been relatively painless. This can be seen in the quality of the visuals, as Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D looks very much like a straight conversion opposed to a port, and it plays like one too.
The core gameplay experience remains untouched. Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D is a platform videogame that is designed to be a return to the gameplay of Donkey Kong Country whilst still looking ahead. Retro Studios has always lived in the shadow of Rare thanks to their respective ties to Nintendo, and in picking-up the mantle for one of their most beloved series this could’ve been the nail in that coffin. In Donkey Kong Country Returns the team were right to try and innovate with that template, and the result has paid dividends.
In addition to the running and jumping, Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D features numerous other mechanics to liven up the action. The infamous mine cart levels return and are accompanied by rotating rails, gusts of wind and much more besides. Furthermore, the characteristics of both Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong have changed substantially and the occasional graphic effect – such as silhouette levels and moving between fore- and background akin to the Virtual Boy’s Wario Land, which of course promoted the ideals of stereoscopic 3D long before the Nintendo 3DS – providing even those well versed in the ways of Donkey Kong Country with enough intrigue to warrant a return.
As a port of the Wii videogame Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D includes all of the original title’s gameplay options, including two-player co-operative play. When playing alone Diddy Kong acts as an aid to Donkey Kong, extending his jumps with a burst from his jetpack, but little else. In two-player mode there are two options: acting independently or simply offering an assist for less experienced players. And should the latter wish to take on the challenge of Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D for themselves there’s the brand new ‘New Mode’ included, which offers Donkey Kong an additional hit before death and a number of new items available for in-game purchase intended to make the experience a little gentler.
Despite being a port of a videogame that is nearly three years Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D manages to feel fresh and inviting throughout. It’s very true that those who have completed the Wii’s Donkey Kong Country Returns will find little reason to invest in Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D, but those who missed the opportunity first time around have no excuse with this second outing. Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D pays homage to a classis era of videogame design whilst still innovating with the benefits of modern hardware, presenting a platform experience made for the core gaming audience but adaptable enough to welcome their casual gamer friends and relatives.