Don't be Kong-fused; this is actually a decent game!
Known as Donkey Kong Jet Race in Europe, Donkey Kong Barrel Blast was originally intended to be a late release on the GameCube, using the DK bongo controller that was used in various unique Donkey Kong rhythm and adventure titles earlier in the console's life. Ultimately, it was released for Wii sans bongos. If any game is worthy of being called underrated, it's this.
The game is, at its heart, still a GameCube game, and heavily focused on the idea of bongo drum controllers. Instead, players shake their hands up and down in a drumming motion using the Wii Remote and Nunchuk, and the overall experience is surprisingly similar to slapping the bongos, with the Remote speaker even filling in for the drumming sound.
The general premise is that the Kongs and Kremlings have decided to compete in a series of races throughout the various locales of DK Island using barrel-built jet-packs. These packs propel the characters when they are drummed on, and the front of them incidentally resembles the aforementioned bongo controller.
The character lineup is certainly true to the series. Players can choose from the standard fare of Donkey Kong, Diddy Kong and Dixie Kong, as well as other members of the Kong family, or choose between some of the more memorable soldiers in the evil Kremling army, alongside four new reptilian villains. All racers have different stats to match different playing styles, but are fairly evenly balanced.
The main game mode, Jungle Grand Prix, is set up as one would expect for a racing game. There are four cups to select from, with an increasing number of courses depending on the cup difficulty. Additionally, there are three speed options in the form of Rookie, Pro and Expert, akin to the engine sizes in Mario Kart. It may be initially disappointing to find that there is only a handful of course locations, such as a jungle, a temple, and a volcano. Later cups revisit these areas, but fortunately the track usually takes very different turns, or visits completely new parts in subsequent visits, most often with more numerous and dangerous obstacles to dodge in the later cups.
To start off a race, players must alternate between left and right drumming for a few seconds to build up power and reach their Max Speed. From this point on, the character will enter a kind of cruise control, automatically following along the track until they collide with something. Turning around corners happens automatically, and this is where the game exits the standard “steer yourself around a race circuit” fare, and begins to show a unique, strategy-based style. Any collision will slow movement to a crawl, and players will need to charge up again to reenter the fray.
Once at the maximum speed, further drumming of the Wii Remote shifts the character to the right, while the Nunchuk edges to the left. Flicking both hands upwards at the same time makes the character jerk upwards in a midair “jumping” motion, which can be prolonged by drumming during the jump's descent. Those who have said that the player must endlessly flail their arms at all times during a race were gravely misinformed. The controls are both functional and precise, and any collisions are due solely to the player's own reaction time. It's easy to pick up, but takes practice to master.
One great feature is the ability to attack while racing, regardless of what items you have. If an opponent cuts you off, you can simply punch the sucker out of your way. Attacking is also used to clear your path of the various enemies patrolling the courses, and you can even swat away some incoming items from opponents.
Furthermore, the courses are absolutely littered with obstacles that can help or hinder you depending on quick thinking. Throughout every track, you can expect a plethora of barrels of various kinds, taken right out of Donkey Kong Country. Wooden barrels smash open when attacked while steel kegs cannot be punched and should be avoided. TNT barrels are the most dangerous, for obvious reasons.
The nods to classic DK games don't stop there. Popping red and blue balloons littered around the track yields attack items like in Mario Kart, and most of them draw from the DKC games and Donkey Kong 64. Players can throw Zingers, Neckys and barrels at each other, steal from other racers with Squawks the parrot, whip out a Pineapple Launcher and shoot homing-fruit at people in front, and so on. Not only do the balloon colors contain slightly different item roulettes, but they also provide a boost in power or longevity depending on who collects them. A Kong character will get a boost from items in red balloons, and a Kremling gets the bonus from blue balloons.
Racers can expect to find several kinds of Barrel Cannons throughout the courses as well, launching them through the air to bonuses and shortcuts, or plonk them into a secret mine cart or sled, which will conveniently skip a large section of track.
Animal Crates from the old games also return, allowing the players to ride on Rambi the Rhino or Enguarde the Swordfish to quickly navigate difficult areas, knocking away all obstacles in their path.
The most abundant of items are, of course, the bananas. They are scattered around the track in singular fruit and bunches, found by smashing barrels and attacking enemies and other racers. Every fifty bananas accumulated will unlock a Wild Move, performed by holding the analog stick down and then letting it flick forward like a pinball shooter. This will launch your character forward at lightning speed for a second or two, during which time any barrels, enemies or racers you collide with will boost you forward again. Mastering the art of successfully building up a combo of Wild Move crashes is vital to winning in later cups, and with enough skill, luck and determination, a single Wild Move could see your character endlessly ricochet through entire laps of the race.
Outside of the Grand Prix mode is some fairly uneventful training and free play options, though seasoned players can visit Candy Kong to participate in a series of small races and missions. This is the primary way to unlock hidden characters and cup customization modes, and some of them are extremely challenging. The prize for completing them all is definitely worth the effort!
All praise aside, the game isn't without its share of downfalls. Being developed on GameCube, the graphics are fairly simplistic and cartoonish, with some texture maps looking quite blurry. While the courses themselves are generally exciting enough, some backgrounds are barren and empty. The character models, however, are quite crisp and clean-looking with very little pixelation, something that many Wii games haven't quite gotten a grasp of yet. Without Rare at the helm, the vocal grunts and comments from the cast are all from the more recent Japanese continuity of the series, so if you dislike Donkey Kong's voice in Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, you're out of luck.
On an interesting note however, a few small Japanese words and phrases are spoken here and there. In particular, the heavyweight Kremling General, Klump, is known to shout “dosukoi!” This is a kind of exclamation used by the proud and honorable sumo wrestlers of Japan, giving the formerly slovenly character a kind of new sense of dignity.
It may be a bit of a nitpick, but Cranky is somewhat out of character in this game. After years of trash-talking, it's nice to see him get involved to show the whippersnappers how it's done, but in this game he's cheerful and polite, even encouraging rookies to perfect the controls in his friendly flight school!
Also strange was the fact that Nintendo decided not to include support for the bongos, even though it would have been fully compatible via the Wii's GameCube controller socket. At times the controls can feel a little unruly as you're pulled around tight corners, as well.
Lastly, while what was put on the table is quite fun, there's not a great amount of content to discover. Everything can be unlocked within a few days depending on skill, and there's not much to do once you've collected all the trophies and completed all the missions.
Nonetheless, this is not the lemon it was made out to be by critics. Fans of DK's platformer games are sure to at least appreciate the amount of cameos and references made to the series, and this is one of the last times King K.Rool and his Kremlings are seen in a Donkey Kong game. Instead of the game rewarding the worst players with the best items like in Mario Kart, Barrel Blast makes no attempt to hold your hand and demands you harden your skills to be able to achieve any sort of victory. As such, this is a refreshingly difficult racing game, and considering the game's affordable price, it's well worth taking a look.