Donkey Kong's always been a Nintendo second-stringer, doomed to live in the shadow of the Jumpman he once antagonised. It's been nearly twenty years since a Donkey Kong game was actually at the front of the pack, with Donkey Kong Country on the SNES pioneering the use of pre-rendered three-dimensional graphics in video games and selling 9 million copies during the SNES's lifetime. Even then, though, Kong still came in last to the plumber, shifting fewer than half the units Super Mario World did.
Perhaps that's because Kong's solo efforts have almost never broken Donkey Kong Country's mould, a mould that Mario helped set. The Donkey Kong sidescrollers aren't carbon copies of Mario - Kong's always been more unwieldy and generally harder to control; there's no emphasis on finishing a level on time and more emphasis on preparing your powerups before a level - but Donkey Kong often stagnated where Mario innovated, sticking to the formula (or, worse, following Mario's formula) whereas Mario branched out and explored different avenues. Yeah, there was a time when you could control DK with bongos, but the basic point remains - Donkey Kong got by because it was the harder Mario.
So we come to Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D, the 3DS port of the necktie-wearing gorilla's Wii revival. Monster Games, the studio in charge of the port, have done their best with Retro Studios' well-received reboot; the game's downscaled well. In-game graphics are slightly more jagged than they should be, but that's for reasons to be addressed later; the bright, cartoonish colours lose none of their vibrancy in the transfer, and the graphics look fine for a Wii port at this stage in the 3DS' lifetime. The 3D stereoscopy is a bit rough, but at lower levels the 3D looks good and is even quite striking when the levels start playing with depth of field.
However, the small screen of the Nintendo 3DS has resulted in some of the features of the Wii original losing something in the transfer. Notably, the action on screen becomes small and hard to read whenever the camera pulls out, meaning that some of the larger levels (such as the boss battle at the end of the Forest world) are more frustrating by virtue of the camera being too far out.
This also means that the game's use of multiple two-dimensional planes – introduced by Retro Studios to more effectively create the illusion of a three-dimensional world beyond two-dimensional playing field – is less impressive than it should be, the challenge of keeping track of Donkey Kong detracting from enjoyment of the technique.
More fundamentally, though, Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D feels familiar, and that's both a blessing and a curse. In taking out all of the extraneous ingredients that have been added to Donkey Kong over the years, Retro Studios delivers a purer strain of platformer that's unashamedly about precise timing, precision jumping and – more often than not – infuriating trial and error gameplay. But it also delivers what feels like homage for the sake of homage – gussying up the past without offering anything particularly new.
'New Mode' offers newer players a slightly more forgiving experience than anything that's come before, and there's some ingenious level design and boss design, but the worlds still wear the same skins, the trinkets remain the same, and even Kong still handles like a Great Dane on an ice rink. Retro Studios never does anything to escape the long shadow of the past, nor does it seem particularly fussed with doing so.
Slavish devotion to the glory days isn't a bad thing, necessarily. For genre hounds, Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D will deliver the thrills and frustrations they've become accustomed to; for newcomers to the halls of Kong, this solid port is as good an introduction as any. For everyone else, though, it's inessential; a nostalgia-fuelled sidescroller that, while challenging, doesn't do enough to distinguish itself.