Finally, there's a racing game for people who can't steer.
I normally don't like to start reviews with a history lesson, but a little back story will help explain the weirdness of Donkey Kong Barrel Blast. It started out as a GameCube title that would have been played with the bongo controller from Donkey Konga and DK Jungle Beat. The idea was that you could accelerate by alternating hits on the bongos, and you could shift left and right by hitting the corresponding bongo. Honestly, this didn't sound like a great idea even back then, but it makes even less sense in the final version of the game. Instead of hitting bongos (which aren't even supported as an option!), you shake the Wii Remote and Nunchuk, even though the characters in the game are still hitting bongo-shaped rockets strapped to their bodies. You can jump, even though you're already flying, by shaking both controllers at the same time. Button presses launch normal attacks and items. The Nunchuk's joystick is only used to activate a turbo boost. All of this would have still worked on the bongos, but it wouldn't have fixed any of the fundamental problems with how this game plays.
DK Barrel Blast is clearly inspired by the Mario Kart series, but there are some key differences. Since your characters are ostensibly flying on these barrel rocket contraptions, the race courses are suspended in the air. However, you have no control over your altitude (except the aforementioned, bizarre jump feature), so the net result plays just like any other kart racer. The difference is that, while you are effectively racing on a surface, that surface is invisible. Not being able to see the contours of the track plays some weird tricks on your depth perception anytime the course takes a dip or bend. The other really strange aspect of the racing is that your character is automatically guided down the track as it twists around. This makes it impossible to slam into a wall or slide off the track, which may be helpful for the very young players who are obviously this game's target audience. But the lack of control also adds a lot of confusion once the tracks become more complex, because it's difficult to line yourself up with oncoming objects, power-ups, and opponents. The combination of the shaking gestures and auto-guidance means that DK Barrel Blast has only digital control, no brakes, automatic acceleration (once you make a few taps to reach max speed), and steering that is limited to shifting among invisible lanes. In other words, this is a racing game designed for babies. It makes Kirby Air Ride look like Gran Turismo.
A deeper look at the game reveals some cleverness in how tracks are laid out. By collecting bananas, you build up a meter that lets you use "Wild Moves" – turbo boosts to you and me. The cool thing about this game's turbo boosts is that you get another free boost if you turbo into a wooden barrel or any opponent. The idea here is that you can shift left and right while boosting to slam into objects, which will extend your boost. You can chain boosts in this way to slingshot across a large stretch of track in a very short amount of time. The levels are designed with barrels placed at strategic locations, so if you are quick enough, you can chain several boosts for a huge tactical advantage. Of the multiple invisible lanes on a given track, often one has bananas, one has barrels, and one has unbreakable obstacles, such as steel barrels or explosive barrels. A skilled player will take different paths through the track, collecting bananas on the first lap, then boosting through the barrels on subsequent laps, always trying to avoid the obstacles. Trying to create long boost chains is most definitely where the game's fun is to be found. This is a fairly deep and complex game mechanic, and therein lies the problem. It's going to fly right over the heads of Barrel Blast's target audience, while anyone who might get addicted to finding these racing lines is too good of a player to put up with all the other simplistic gameplay.
Another problem is the game's visual density. With all of these bananas, barrels, obstacles, opponents, balloons, and attack items, it can be difficult to tell what is going on sometimes. And lest ye forget, the game shows you all these doodads but hides the contour of the track and the racing lanes, so you often can't even tell whether you are going to hit or miss an upcoming item. DK Barrel Blast is just plain confusing half the time, and that's going to cause frustration in both children and adults.
DK Barrel Blast is a strange beast full of half-baked ideas and poor controls, yet it contains deceptively clever level designs. Like Kirby Air Ride, it will probably find a small audience of gamers who can put up with its many serious flaws in order to extract some juicy gameplay nectar that few others will ever know. Otherwise, I can only recommend it to families with very young children who have difficulty playing Mario Kart. With four-player races and even a cooperative Grand Prix mode, this game is ideal for parents and children who want colorful characters and aren't concerned with being competitive.