If you don’t want to pay for a start menu return program, get ClassicShell. It works well for this purpose.
I prefer StartisBack, but there is no accounting for taste. And its only $3 for two licenses.
The underlying operating system in Win 8 is solid, and the 8.1 offers a few improvements, especially in the search behavior.
Tailoring the operating system to fit your own tastes has been something that users have taken advantage of in Windows for a couple of decades now, and I don’t see any differences now. Third party programs have been, and still are available for earlier versions of Windows to adjust the way they work. Using third party programs to get the start menu back is just more of the same…Classic Shell has been doing this for a long time now, adjusting the start menu to look like earlier versions of Windows.
The only other thing you have to do to get Win 8 to work like Win 7 is make certain that none of the new “apps” are default to open any type of file. Once you have this adjusted, and have your start menu program working the way you like, you will be hard pressed to see any differences between Win 7 and Win 8. Win 8 is slightly faster in my experience, and has some built in advantages (ie USB 3, better file copy controls, faster bootup, storage spaces, file history, secure boot, etc.).