Narrative in Video Games #10: Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D

Donkey Kong’s place in gaming history is unique to say the least. After debuting as the titular antagonist of the arcade classic Donkey Kong, the character fell into obscurity in the wake of his nemesis’ meteoric success. When the character finally reemerged in 1994’s Donkey Kong Country, he carved out a beloved series of his own with a dedicated following. Donkey Kong became largely relegated spin-off titles by the end of the 90’s, but returned to the spotlight once again with 2010’s Donkey Kong Country Returns. Our subject today is the 2013 Nintendo 3DS port: Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D.

Returns, like most 2D Platformers in the Mario tradition, makes it quickly apparent that a complex, in-depth narrative is nowhere to be found. The game is split into worlds and levels that at best create self-contained vignettes rather than drive an actual narrative. It’s episodic in a way that brings to mind a rerun of a classic cartoon. You can revisit them whenever you like, as often as you like, but the experience will be just as enjoyable every time. The appeal is on a more simplistic, primal level and that’s reflected in the game’s presentation, particularly in regards to the characters.

What Returns lacks in plot it more than makes up for in characterization. As a platformer, the game places heavy emphasis on movement and animation to characterize both the player and the enemies. Cutscenes are pantomimed and the repertoire of animations for both Kong and his enemies in regular gameplay convey their personalities clearly. From the jumping, to the climbing, to the swinging, to the occasional ground pound, Donkey Kong comes across every bit the dumb, strong, good-hearted ape that he is. It’s characterization at its most basic level, and it’s a tool that a lot of more dialogue heavy narratives often forget. Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D may be light on story, but there’s something to be said for the power of body language.

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