In a week when Rare is under the microscope for entirely different reasons, stepping back three generations to play one of its old hits felt like a bizarre assignment. Would we be left pining for the good old days when the Brit studio was untouchable, peerless, and enigmatic? Would we brush the tears from our dewy eyes longing for the days when almost everything it touched was pure gaming gold and could push every platform it worked with to previously unimaginable heights? Or would our illusions be shattered at just how far games have moved on and realise that, actually it's just another 16-bit port cash cow for Nintendo to earn a bit of free money out of?
All of the above, really.
There's no doubting DKC's impact on the SNES scene during its latter days, delivering visuals that left most gamers agog at what Rare had achieved with the 16-bit machine when the series debuted in 1993. It could even get away with releasing (roughly) the same game three times over and get people to part with the kind of cash that would make grown men cry a decade on.
While my wallet gently weeps
It almost makes us weep to the same extent at the thought of paying almost full-price for something that ought to be part of a retro collection. As well-regarded as the DKC games are, we have to question Nintendo's continuing policy of re-issuing ancient games individually at twice the price of a new release DVD. Reliving the past shouldn't have to cost this much, even if it does have the brand new Pacifica world to explore.
If money's no object, though, the chance to indulge in another quality episode in an all-time classic series comes highly recommended (and a brand new world for the fans will, of course, prove irresistible). As side-scrolling platformers go, the DKC series is definitely residing in the pantheon of the greats, no matter how much things have moved on since. Packed with dozens of hugely challenging, obsessively addictive and sometime blood-boilingly devilish levels, even in this day and age they're a shining example of lock-tight 2D game design. Perfect for commutes or lazy sun lounger-bound holidays, the bite-sized one-more-go premise is as maddeningly compelling as it ever was.
Although the third in the series arguably stretched the well-worn concept to near-enough breaking point, Rare still had enough good ideas left in the locker to make the third every bit as good as previous versions. With Donkey and Diddy Kong having been captured (sigh) by the nefarious K. Rool, the star billing falls to another little n' large duo Dixie and Kiddy. It matters little who gets to kick arse, though. The premise, move set, and feel is almost exactly the same as any previous DKC adventure, and soon you'll be more concerned about negotiating some of the most devious levels ever seen.
There are a few tweaks unique to this one, naturally. On top of Dixie's Helicopter Spin ability, which lets you traverse enormous distances, Kiddy can skip across water and carry barrels like a shield. By and large, the general gameplay sticks to the old tag-team formula: one character of the duo is under your control while the other follows directly behind, with the ability to instantly swap between them and even team up whenever required. The ultimate goal is to reach the flagpole at the end of each level, of course, which sound simple enough - but the journey is fraught with all manner of Kremling-related hazards which, inevitably, cause instant one-hit death if you're unfortunate to be in their path. But, as experienced Kongas (as we're calling them) will know, if you lose one player, the action switches to the other character, allowing you the chance to carry on solo for a while. Progress far enough and you'll be able to 'resuce' your downed team-mate later on in the level (trapped inside a barrel, of course), providing an exceptionally useful 'extra-life' that you'll be enormously grateful for when the going gets really tough. Likewise, the mid-level checkpoint also saves your sanity during some of the more insane levels; it’s the little thoughtful touches like this that keep you going. The bite-sized nature of the level design means that nothing ever feels beyond you - even when it probably is...
While most of the action is typical fireball-dodging, rope climbing, enemy-stomping platforming fare, the odd mini-game, underwater level or one-off interlude breaks up the old routine and keeps you coming back for more punishment. For example, one particularly evil level tasks you with dashing like crazy to the top of a tree while a saw blade moves inexorably up the screen. Touch the blade and you're toast, but zig-zagging your way up from right to left and back again gets you through by the slenderest of margins. Although, yes, it was probably the most taxing level we've played on a platformer for a long time, it's exactly this sort of change of pace that keeps you glued to the GBA. If you're not avoiding blades of death, you're riding carts at high speed, avoiding swarms of angry bees, exploring water levels and skidding around the obligatory snow level. You certainly can't fault the variety.
Elsewhere, the consistent arrival of new mini-games always delivers respite just when it's needed. For example, Cranky's Dojo provide an amusing nod to Archer Maclean's IK+ inter-level ball-bashing escapades, Swanky's Dash has you running down a 3D tunnel collecting stars, while Funky Kong's boat racing interludes provide a frantic and fresh change to the norm. Also, the plethora of bonus games hidden away in hard-to-reach barrels gives innumerable opportunities to gain additional bonus coins. It's an explorers' dream; a determined, completist's attitude reaps excellent reward, and it doesn’t take long to realise that finishing a level is usually just the start. Why are so few games structured like this these days?
Banana split decision
On the other hand, you could just as easily argue that gaming has moved on massively, that some of the levels are just too damned tough for the sake of it, and that it plays almost identically to the other DKC games. By and large, you'd be right, but so long as that's what you want, you won't be disappointed. In fact, you may simply prefer games the way they used to be; this sort of twitch gaming memory puzzle where progress is judged as much on dogged persistence as it is skill. Judged on this basis and against other GBA platformers it's still easily one of the best out there, but perhaps that's largely by virtue of the fact that so few 2D platformers seem to get made these days.
Regardless, we still got a lot out of DKC 3, and that's despite having played pretty much everything going in the genre old and new. The stylised visuals looks great after all these years (and better than most things on GBA, it has to be said), and the exacting, refined gameplay formula still had us as hooked now as it did back then. That it doesn't represent what gaming's about today is hardly the point, and for many that will be the precise thing they like about it. Whether it's worth the cash is another discussion entirely (for the record, it's hugely overpriced) - but for those of you looking for another classic platformer for your GBA that strikes the right balance between old school bloody-mindedness and plain fun, this fits the bill nicely.