Innovation doesn't matter if the core concept is strong enough. This is the lesson the Wii version of Donkey Kong Country Returns taught, building on its tried-and-true foundation with sublime level design and hefty--though always fair--challenge. While these strengths are still apparent in the portable version of the game, washed-out visuals and an unsteady framerate have put a damper on the action. Identifying the exact position of obstacles and platforms is tricky, and this has damaging consequences for the very elements that made the original so great. Because the run-and-jump action is still enjoyable, Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D is another lengthy and worthwhile platformer, but it can't live up to the standards of its big brother.
Returns 3D feels like a relic from a bygone era of platformers. The well-dressed simian runs and jumps through leafy jungles and boiling volcanic caves, collecting bananas with the unmatched determination of a hungry gorilla. Gone are the motion controls from the Wii original, replaced with precise button-tap commands that make it a snap to roll through enemies and pound the ground. Donkey Kong is a heavy primate, and that weight gives his movements a deliberate feel not often found in platformers. Getting used to his moderate jump height takes practice, and coming up short on a treacherous leap is a common occurrence given that it's easy to overestimate his athletic prowess. Thankfully, smashing a DK barrel teams you up with Diddy Kong, and the spry monkey's jetpack makes landing on those hard-to-reach ledges much easier.
It's in the level design that Returns 3D makes its mark. The worlds morph into twisted ruins as you tear through the eight exotic locales. Rocks crumble under your feet, and cliffs erupt from bottomless pits. Deep in the background, a bunch of bananas hangs over a tiny ledge. Leap into a nearby barrel, and you're whooshed to this new location, the world transforming around you to give you a place to run and jump and swing and yell. Returns 3D excels in these moments. The sheer unpredictability keeps you continually on edge, moving with a delicate mixture of confidence and caution as you react in the blink of a monkey's eye to the constantly changing world around you.
Though the geographic restlessness is the most thrilling aspect of Returns 3D, it also brings with it the largest frustrations. Framerate hitches are pervasive, a troublesome annoyance in sections that demand precision. Obstacles that were easy to identify on a large television screen are not nearly as visible when scaled down to the 3DS. Recognizing the danger zones and safe points when standing still takes only a moment of analysis, but problems surface when speed is paramount. Place Donkey Kong in a mine cart that's zooming through an underground cave, and spotting the minuscule specks that can end your life is incredibly tough. If you die a few times, you may memorize the deadly spots, but that's a weak solution to this issue. The same problem surfaces when the camera zooms out. It's clear that the levels and color schemes are ideal for a large screen, so when Returns was shrunk to a handheld, what was enjoyably difficult becomes aggravating.
The higher difficulty is offset somewhat by the aptly named New mode. This gives you special items that you can buy at Cranky Kong's shop that make it easier to stay alive. For instance, the Crash Guard power-up protects you from wiping out in those hellacious mine cart levels. It's nice that there is acknowledgment that the move to the 3DS comes with problems that didn't exist on a console. However, instead of fixing the glaring issue (poor visibility), these power-ups just make it harder to die. It's a lame compromise because these sections that were so incredible on the Wii are often tedious on the 3DS, with or without power-ups. Thankfully, there are only a handful of such levels in the game, and if you do get stuck, you can use the Super Guide feature to have the computer pass them for you.
At least there's one addition to Returns 3D that's a noticeable improvement. Eight new levels are buried within the Golden Temple which awaits at the end of your journey, and should challenge even those who complete the rest of the adventure. There are two ways to unlock this new content. Either play through the entirety of the core journey, including the bonus levels, or just buy a moderately priced orb from Cranky's shop. Either way, the toughest levels in Returns 3D are located behind the golden door, which is a great way to finish this fiendishly tough platformer. And for those who crave even more challenge, conquering this forsaken land unlocks Mirror mode, which strips you of your monkey sidekick and some of your precious hearts. It's a challenge worthy of even the strongest of primates.
Although Returns 3D does suffer on the visual front, the stirring soundtrack sounds just as incredible on the 3DS. The catalog has been pulled from the original Donkey Kong Country games on the Super Nintendo, albeit in remixed form, along with new tracks that fit the jungle-explorer theme quite well. The music echoes the onscreen hijinks. The serene melody as you venture across sandy beaches matches the soothing power of the sea, and the music shifts gears to a more energetic beat when you board a flying barrel to steer through falling debris. It's an excellent soundtrack that does a great job of balancing classic tunes with new instrumentals to make something that stands on its own.
Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D is an uneven update. The core elements that made the original so thrilling are still here, but visual problems turn the satisfying challenge into something that often feels unfair. Multi-card cooperative play doesn't help matters. Throwing anothing player into the mix makes it even harder to see what's going on. However, this is still a good game with tons of levels to explore and collectibles to uncover. Just don't expect to be awed by this aging gorilla.