In our 2010 review of Donkey Kong Country Returns for the Wii, our own JC Fletcher admitted a terrible truth: He had used the Super Guide. Nintendo gave us the nefarious innovation a few years ago, ostensibly a tool to help less experienced players navigate the trickier parts of its games. Seasoned players recognized it for what it really was: A taunt, a gently whispering devil on your shoulder.
Resisting the shiny, candy-like allure of the Super Guide is still a major component of Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D, Monster Games' 3DS rendition of Retro Studios' Wii platformer. A new difficulty setting tries to soften the Wii version's sharp edges, but the brutal structure of its levels remains intact, and no amount of extra health is going to change that. What's new this time around?
The biggest addition to Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D is the aforementioned easier difficulty level. Called "New Mode," it relaxes the game's hefty challenge by adding some special items and granting both Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong a larger health bar, giving each three hearts instead of two.
It doesn't sound like a huge difference, but it makes things significantly less frustrating. Normally, Donkey Kong can take a single hit, while the second hit will kill him. The third heart lets him take two hits before the final, fatal blow. In other words, you can make two mistakes before dying instead of one, effectively doubling your chances. If you're playing single-player (pretty likely on a 3DS), then picking up Diddy Kong brings your total to a whopping six hearts. When you've got that much health, you can afford to loosen up a little.
Beyond the extra vitality, you can purchase a handful of special items that take the edge off of the more unforgiving elements of Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D, namely its instant death hazards. A new green balloon will save DK from a single fall, and the Crash Guard potion will prevent you from immediately losing a level if you smash a mine cart or rocket barrel into certain enemies or traps. Another item lets DK immediately summon Diddy Kong at any time. Furthermore, you can now equip three items before each level, instead of one. Bottomless pit got you down? Three green balloons make an excellent pick-me-up.
Helpful as New Mode's additions are, they don't completely blunt the challenge of Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D. You still have to navigate precarious platforms, and you can only carry so many life-saving items. Beyond that, these wonderful gadgets can't prevent every death. Even if you're packing a Crash Guard, for example, you'll still die if you fall into a pit or slam into a wall. No matter how many items you have, you're required to actually finish the level – or let the Super Guide finish it for you. Suffice it to say that New Mode gives you some breathing room, but not a free ride.
Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D also features 8 levels not found in the Wii version. Two player co-op returns, provided you've got two copies of the game and two 3DS consoles lying around.
How's it hold up?
New Mode may be a great option for casual players, but Original mode presents Donkey Kong Country Returns with all of its banana-busting difficulty intact. Donkey Kong only gets two hearts (4 with Diddy in tow), the new items are nonexistent and only one item is allowed per level. If you've been playing games since the first Donkey Kong Country, Original is the way to go.
Regardless of which mode you play, the gameplay mechanics remain incredibly solid, with levels showcasing a great deal of variety and requiring a healthy dose of skill. Whether DK is bouncing off of enemies, leaping from crumbling platforms or blasting out of barrel cannons, the game always keeps you on your (prehensile) toes. Each level is littered with secrets to find and, if you want an even greater challenge, four KONG letters to hunt down. Finding all four letters in each level will unlock special temple stages, which are very challenging and, if you can complete them, very satisfying. (Imagine a level where every single platform crumbles the moment you touch it, and you'll have a pretty good picture.)
Visually, Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D compares very favorably with the Wii original, despite the obvious loss of resolution. It also loses the deliciously smooth frame rate of its console cousin, unfortunately. My tests aren't scientific, but I'd peg it around 30 frames-per-second. It doesn't really hamper the gameplay, but it's definitely noticeable.
The game also translates into 3D without a hitch. It's almost as if the Wii original were made with the 3DS in mind from the beginning. Even though it plays in 2D, foreground and background elements make good use of the 3D display (like a tidal wave that rushes straight toward the screen, for example). The effect is also put to good use whenever DK leaps into the background, although he can get a bit blurry when far away from the camera. Turning 3D off keeps things sharper.
It may have started life on Wii, but Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D works incredibly well as a portable game. Levels are short (depending on how often you die), the presentation is bright and colorful and, most important of all, the gameplay is a rock-solid tribute to the tough-as-nails platformers of the 16-bit era. New Mode offers a less demanding experience, while hardened players can dive into Original Mode and track down every single KONG letter and puzzle piece.
Just be warned: The sight of Donkey Kong and Diddy on your 3DS may make you pine for the new Smash Bros.
This review is based on a retail copy of Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D, provided by Nintendo. Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D launches on May 24.