Donkey Kong is one of, if not the oldest of Nintendo’s franchises, the original’s been referenced almost as much as Star Wars and has even been the subject of a documentary in the form of “The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters”. After making 3 games on the NES that pretty much invented platforming (and Stanley The Big Man, but for some reason that didn’t stick) Nintendo weren’t sure what to do with the franchise on the SNES, after all the central protagonist of the first game (and villain of the second, but he doesn’t like to talk about it) Mario was already a figure of god like proportions with his own series at this point. So they decided to hand over the reins to Rareware, one of their trusted second party developers and Donkey Kong Country was born.
The Donkey Kong Country series was a triumph, often cited with the best graphics of the era, fantastic gameplay and is constantly placed in “Best game ever” (and a 4th has just been released in the US and is out next week in the UK) so all eyes turned to a 3D game to continue the series and finally, at Christmas in 1999, they got it. Kind of.
Fed up with being thwarted by the Kongs, Giant evil crocodile king, K.Rool decides to take his mobile island boat factory hideout thing that conveniently looks like him to Kong Island, a giant island in the shape of Donkey Kong’s head…Rare love doing this, don’t they? Anyway, he intends to blow it up to kingdom come. They also steal Donkey Kong’s horde of golden bananas for what must be the billionth time and capture DK’s friends (DK needs to up his security, clearly) upon hearing this, Donkey Kong decides to get his priorities wrong and get his bananas back first. It’s a platformer aimed at all ages, I wouldn’t expect a Memento style plot here.
Seriously Rare, stop it. It’s just stupid.
It’s fair to say that Donkey Kong 64 isn’t really a sequel to the Country games, whilst the antagonists are still Kremlings and the game shares its alliterative stage names, such as Fungi Forest and Gloomy Galleon, that’s about it. There’s a lot less barrels, which is odd for a Donkey Kong game in itself and more focus on exploration (granted, because it’s 3D) and, wait for it, collecting.
To say there’s a lot of collecting would probably be the understatement of the century. I never really noticed it as a kid, I just kind of went along with it, but now it feels kind of over the top. The main aim is to collect Golden Bananas, which allow you entry into new levels. There’s 25 of those in each level and 201 in total which, believe it or not is double Mario 64 and 10 more than Banjo Kazooie and its sequel combined). Also, within each level, there are 100 regular bananas per character, collect 75 of those and you get a banana medal, plus you need to feed them to a hungry pig to fight the levels boss, who’ll give you a key that unlocks the next level entrance. Also, you have to collect 1 battle crown per level, catch Banana fairies, collect a blueprint and pick up banana coins that allow you to purchase items that aid you on your quest, such as new moves, musical instruments and make-shift guns. It’s basically hell’s shopping list.
The plus side to all of this is that if you’re looking for a game to literally chew away at for a good portion of your life, this is it, I’m convinced only a small minority of people have 100% on the game and they’re probably all locked away somewhere because they’ve spent years worrying about banana fairies. The problem I found with it is that I don’t want to spend a gigantic amount of time with it. Collecting stuff is tiring and slightly repetitive and a vast majority end up making you take part in a hard as nails mini game, all with the same music and an annoying voice-over whenever you start saying something like “Welcome to Bonus Steak”. For some reason, the game is full of small sound bites that get annoying very quickly. You’ll quickly tire of Chunky’s triangle, which funnily enough sounds like a very disturbing euphemism, the “Oooh Banana” jingle that appears EVERY TIME you pick up a Golden Banana to just general Lanky Kong, it’s good that Grant Kirkhope’s music score is so brilliant (Fungi Forest in particular is quite beautiful) or else I’d have played this game with the mute button permanently on, that said though, the game kind of warns you that you’re going to be annoyed by sound effects by kicking off proceedings (just after you’ve turned the damn game on) with the D.K. Rap. Yep. Whilst the image of Cranky manning a DJ deck and Chunky with an afro is actually hilarious, within a few seconds, any sane person would be hammering the start button with the same force that you use to punch out whoever thought the rhymes “His coconut gun can fire in spurts/if he shoots ya’/it’s gonna hurt” or the even worse “He has no style/he has no grace/this Kong has a funny face” were good enough for inclusion.
I’m sure they play this for victims in torture camps. Click the image for video
Donkey Kong Country was known for its eccentric cast of characters and DK64 carries on that tradition to the point that there are 5 playable characters, each with unique abilities. Donkey Kong can go invincible, Diddy Kong can fly, Tiny Kong can shrink, Lanky Kong can inflate and Chunky Kong can grow to gigantic size, I like how it adds slightly different gameplay and is a nice way to mix things up, it’s a bit sad to see the title character only get 1/5 of the limelight, plus of course, there’s always one character you don’t like and inevitably, you’ll have to play as them. Won’t you Lanky? This wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t the length of time you spend with them. The game uses the N64 expansion pack and it shows. The levels are so big, you need warp pads to get around them, which can get a pain, but it’s at least nice of Rare to have thrown that in and at least more often than not, the stages look fantastic, but you’ll still have to sprawl back and forth through it collecting stuff that will zap your energy and your patience, especially towards the later levels.
Whereas I mentioned last week that Banjo-Kazooie’s difficulty spike came in too late, DK64 does the opposite. Mad Jack, the boss of the third level will almost leave a controller shaped hole in your TV and then you have Gloomy Galleon following on from there AND TEN FUTHERMORE the levels get even bigger and the Golden Bananas more spread out. Oh and remember all those other little collectibles?
And if all of that wasn’t enough, there’s also a fun little multiplayer mode entitled “Monkey Smash” which I wasn’t originally going to mention, but a quick gaming session with my flatmates changed that. It’s basically the single player characters, with the same controls and moves pitted against each other and whilst it’s fun and enjoyable, it relies a lot on button mashing and hoping you get an attack in first. The levels aren’t great and it’s not going to get more play than Mario Kart or Goldeneye, but for a quick 5 minutes, you could do worse.
But the thing is, aside from repetitive mini-games, the actual banana collecting tasks are brilliant fun and I still really enjoyed a good portion of the game, the 5 character set-up does work and I do like most of the levels are quite well designed and have some nice touches to them, even though it’s a very stock setting style of level design. There’s also a plot essential playable version of the original Donkey Kong and Jetpac to beat, which are just a blast to play (although are probably the main reason, Rare now being owned by Microsoft aside, that it’s not on the virtual console) yet infuriatingly difficult, and you have to complete them twice. And of course, being Rareware, there’s a ton of snarky British humour that I loved (of course, being British probably helps), all of it coming from one ape who may or may not be the original Donkey Kong. Cranky Kong is just hilarious, if you’re lucky enough in this day and age to find a boxed copy with the instruction manual, you’re treated to Cranky telling you the game’s rubbish and is a rip-off of Mario and Zelda. Which it is, if you follow the logic that every game after 1996 is a rip off of Super Mario 64 because it has 3D graphics.
So that’s Donkey Kong 64, is it a good game? Yes, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy most of it. Is worth your money (and time to track down)? I’d say so. I think if you’ve played Mario 64 and Banjo Kazooie or just have a lot of free time, it’s a good purchase and whilst it’s fair to claim it as a giant collect-a-thon with about a zillion plot coupons, which alongside mass backtracking, occasional difficulty problems and just generally being too big for its own boots are its main flaws, it’s a beautiful looking and charming experience that really pushed the N64’s 3D platforming and the Donkey Kong franchise to its absolute breaking point. So if you like monkey’s, platforming, British humour and beating up crocodiles. You’ll go ape for Donkey Kong 64.