Get funky with the “King of Kings".
Donkey Kong Jungle Beat is quite a surprise. I expected it to be a gimmick game with some fun platforming action and little else. After all, how much can you do in a game played with drums? As it turns out, quite a lot, thanks to a challenging combo system and dense, carefully planned level design. The game is scheduled for a U.S. release this spring, but if you don’t want to wait, the Japanese version is very import-friendly and can be purchased from our import partners at Lik-Sang.
Many people will approach this game knowing only that it is controlled with the DK Bongos of Donkey Konga fame (you can buy the game with or without the special controller). What they may not realize is that the game itself is actually quite similar to Rare’s Donkey Kong Country series. Jungle Beat is a fast-paced platforming game that focuses on DK’s love for bananas and agile movement style. The Bongos seem superfluous at first, but eventually it becomes clear that the game has a built-in sense of rhythm. If you play to that rhythm, enormous combos and spectacular moves will reveal themselves. Certainly you can play Jungle Beat with a normal controller, but it helps to have the aural and tactile feedback from the Bongos. It’s just more fun, and certain actions like pummeling an enemy are easier to do with the Bongos.
The most important part of controlling DK actually involves clapping into the Bongo microphone. Clapping creates a sound wave around DK, in two concentric circles. The smaller circle grabs any bananas within its radius, kills certain enemies, and activates most of the interactive elements in each level. The larger circle stuns certain enemies, breaks bubbles holding bananas (which then fall), and activates some other things. Allowing DK to grab nearby bananas by clapping is a touch of genius. It’s great in terms of play control, because it means you don’t need as much precision movement, which can be tedious with the Bongos. The greater benefit is that the game rewards you with bonus bananas for grabbing multiple bananas with a single clap. That means it’s almost always better to clap than just touch a banana to pick it up, and that you should go for as many bananas as possible with each single clap. This mechanic drives much of the level design, as bananas are strategically placed so that, in many cases, taking risks allows you to grab a ton of bananas at once instead of in two or three smaller grabs.
The other driving mechanic is the combo system, which further multiplies the number of bananas you can earn. Each different kind of move you perform increases the combo multiplier, until you land on the ground. It encourages you to learn how to move fluidly from one enemy and obstacle to the next (and of course, playing to the beat helps), and it encourages you to use tons of different moves and methods in order to keep tacking on more multipliers. The combo system has its own risk vs. reward conflict, too. You have to land the combo to get anything; get hit by an enemy, and you lose everything. It works just like in the Tony Hawk games. By the time you are running up a 400 banana combo, the tension level is extremely high, and you are desperate to find a landing place and claim that big pot. Some levels are built so that you can go from start to finish without ever touching the ground, which would result in a ridiculous combo and be quite an impressive feat of playing skill.
Like any good skill-based game, Jungle Beat makes you want to get better and better and beat your top scores. At the end of each level, you are awarded medals for reaching certain goals: 200 bananas for bronze, 400 for silver, 800 for gold, and 1200 for platinum. New levels require a certain number of these medals before they can be played, and as the unlock requirements get higher, you’ll end up going back to play the earlier levels to get better scores and more medals on them. I was blown away by how much my playing had improved since first starting on those levels. Areas ripe for big combos are easier to see, and secret areas revealed themselves as my jumps got higher and my swings got longer. Some of the secret levels, several of which are not accessible until after you beat the game, require dozens of medals, which means you have to nearly master all the earlier levels to ever see that extra material. The game helps out by offering, at the end of each level, a short gameplay video showing a cool combo opportunity or secret passage that will help you score better the next time.
Jungle Beat’s only real failure is its meager set of boss encounters. The bosses are actually very clever, if a bit easy once you figure out their patterns. The problem is that the same four bosses are reused over and over for the game’s sixteen main levels. When you finally reach the end boss of the game, it’s a relief, not because you’re about to beat the game, but because you actually get to fight something new. And even that final boss is reused, in a supposedly harder incarnation, in a later secret level.
Boss gripes aside, Donkey Kong Jungle Beat is a fantastic platforming game with plenty of new ideas and a great style to call its own. The game also features beautiful graphics which are reminiscent of the technical qualities of Rare’s Star Fox Adventures. It’s been a long time since we had a great action game starring Donkey Kong (I’m not counting DK64), and Jungle Beat makes a strong case for this big ape to stick around for many years to come. As much as Nintendo has done for 3D gaming, here is evidence that they still know how to make excellent 2D platformers. Mario, you’re on deck.