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Since it Is E3 season, I would like to reminisce about one of the best E3 presentations ever: the 2010 Nintendo press conference. I firmly remember watching NOA President Reggie Fis-Aime and company President Satoru Iwata consistently announce brand new games left and right, with many of them launching within the year. We saw for the first time Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Goldeneye, Mario Sports Mix, Golden Sun: Dark Moon, and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, finally ending it with the unveiling of the Nintendo 3DS. I can still hear one portion of the conference when Reggie announced a whole new Donkey Kong Country by teasing viewers with the theme when he was introducing it.
Since it was from Retro Studios, the developers of the wonderful Metroid Prime trilogy, I had the upmost faith that the guys who brought the well-loved and well-respected Metroid to 3D (a feat once thought impossible) that they can bring Rare’s prestigious Super Nintendo series to the here and now. That’s why I was shocked to feel nothing but disappointment when I played Donkey Kong Country Returns. It urked me that the game was boring with little evolution to the franchise and it had some horribly tacked on waggle controls. Now Monster Games, the Nintendo second-party who worked on Pilotwings Resort and Excite Truck, have ported the 2010 Wii game over to the Nintendo 3DS, and I can say that I’m happy that one thing was fixed: no motion controls!
I for one love motion controls when done right. Whether it’ll be Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition or Super Mario Galaxy 2, motion can alleviate the need for another button when your fingers are too busy to possibly do more. I thought DKC Returns on Wii made poor use of the tech, since you had to shake the Wii Remote to do important things like rolling, an important maneuver to span large gaps. Thankfully that’s a thing of the past with Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D where the X and Y buttons replace shaking the Wii Remote, making Donkey Kong much more intuitive for tricky sections. Unfortunately, the hard-to-reach L and R buttons are used for grabbing things like vines, and it cramps the hands when those shoulder buttons get more important later in the game.
When I did my review on Resident Evil Revelations, one complaint I had was when you take a 3DS game and blow it up to a HD console without much improvement, it is not going to look good. DKC Returns 3D flips that concept and took a good looking game on Wii and shrunk to the 3DS’ screen, making it much crisper. In addition, the stereoscopic 3D looks absolutely amazing in this port, as if the game with its multi-layered level design and its busy backdrops was meant for the 3D system in the first place.
New to the 3DS installment is a ninth cloud-based world, where each of the eight levels inside it represent the previous eight worlds. To balance the difficulty, DK and Diddy now have three hearts each and allows the player to buy some well-needed consumable items that’ll help during tougher times like invincibility potions or portable DK barrels. The transition to the 3DS has also cut the framerate in half from 60 frames/sec to 30, but it doesn’t seem to affect gameplay much. Co-op is still intact and as humdrum as ever, but it’s restricted to multi-card play so each player needs his or her own copy.
Monster Games may have did a great job porting the game over to the 3DS, but it doesn’t change my distain of Retro Studio’s execution of a Donkey Kong Country title. Returns in its core is much like the New Super Mario Bros. games, a bastardization of a classic series. All Retro did was take Rare’s brilliant series and based a modern resurrection only by its stereotypical nostalgia.
While Returns has some old school elements like the barrel cannons, stomping enemies with Rambi the Rhino and mine cart stages for example, none of these were delivered in an evolutionary or revolutionary manner. Even the a chunk of the soundtrack, which for the time blew away expectations of sound in a video game, are just boring remakes. Retro also decided to axe many of the ingredients that made the 16-bit series so complete such as underwater levels, Kremlings, Zingers or anything from Donkey Kong Country 2 (a game that improved upon the first in every way), so it feels like Returns is the least fleshed out DKC title of them all.
Not everything in the game was rehashed from Rare, though. Replacing Kaptain K. Rool’s army are these Tiki-like monsters, and while they provide a different style of play, they are pretty boring due to a lack of variety. Diddy’s role changed from a playable character that you could tag in/out into an equip item that gain Donkey Kong extra hearts and the ability to float with the chimp’s jetpack. Retro did create some unique stages rigged with some cool gimmicks like when platforms respond to the beat of the BGM or when the levels are all silhouettes for instance. Some of these gimmicks however weren’t so hot, mainly the rocket barrel stages that controlled like a horizontal shoot-em-up in a clunker of a rocket.
Core gamers and Nintendo fans alike will say that the draw to DKC Returns is its difficulty. While the game is much harder than many of Nintendo’s other 2D platformers, the game’s difficulty lies within Donkey Kong’s lack of mobility. DK moves and jumps sluggishly and the level design doesn’t feel in-sync to his lethargic pace, especially compared to other slower platformers like Kirby’s Epic Yarn. If the game gets to be too much for you, Returns brought along Mario’s Super Guide where if you lose too many lives, the game will give you the option to beat the level for you (though it marks the level as incomplete).
Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D is the definitive version of the half-assed resurrection of Donkey Kong Country. I earlier compared it to the New Super Mario Bros. and it is a prime comparison because they do very little to create a unique identity and instead delivers an experience that’s a shadow of its prestigious NES/SNES past. Returns does exactly that, but has a slight ability to attract core gamers with its brutal difficulty. The problem is that this type of game design has and is currently being done better, whether in Donkey Kong Country 2, Rayman Legends, VVVVV, and Super Meat Boy. Despite the graphical and control improvements on the 3DS, Returns is still a horrible way to modernize and reintroduce a well-developed 16-bit series.
God I sound like Cranky Kong.