Does it still have style and grace, or is it just a funny face?
Donkey Kong 64 was often talked of as the game where Rareware overdid their tried and tested “collect multiple A to unlock area B” game design formula, even back in 1999! Designed as a 3D update to the classic 2D Donkey Kong Country games, you get to see a lot of familiar enemies and locations, albeit represented in chunky polygons. Donkey and Diddy make a return, along with Dixie and Kiddy lookalikes Tiny and Chunky, as well as the frightening orangutan called Lanky.
The game’s structure is similar to other Rareware 3D platformers like Banjo Kazooie; collect golden things (bananas) to gain access to a new world. But there’s a catch. To fight the boss of each world, you have to feed a hippo regular bananas (stay with me) in order to open a gate. Once you beat the boss, you get a key that unlocks the next world. To recap; get golden bananas, then regular bananas, beat the boss, get the key, go on to the next world. Sounds simple, but the twist (and it’s a big twist) is that the amount of regular bananas required to unlock bosses increases exponentially. Here’s the killer - each Kong has 100 of their own colored bananas to find per level. You actually only need 75 of each color to 100% the game, so you can ignore some, but there’s still a hell of a lot of bananas just to proceed to each successive world.
Collecting the golden bananas is done by accomplishing various tasks; shooting switches, finding hidden areas, helping friendly characters, defeating specific enemies, or even flying through hoops with Diddy’s jetpack. However to get all of the bananas, you are going to need to collect and use even more items, many of which require ammo or other perishable doodads. Crystal coconuts, banana film, musical instruments, pineapples (and four other fruit/nut weapons), banana coins, and orange grenades are all dotted around each level for you to use. Some items and switches are color-coded and require a specific Kong to activate or collect. This leads to a lot of backtracking to a Kong barrel to switch characters. In fact, you will spend most of your time in DK64 backtracking, even to do just the minimum requirments to pass onto the next world. This ultimately ruins the flow of the game, and compared to the masterpiece that is Super Mario 64, it can feel incredibly antiquated and frustrating. The controls are also quite clumsy, especially on the Wii U controllers. You can definitely feel the disconnect between this emulation and old analog sticks such as when walking along a narrow path or aiming in first person.
Despite all these shortcomings and annoyances, this is a charming game. The music is joyous and creates a fantastic atmosphere. All the themes are memorable and reminiscent of earlier Rareware games such as Banjo Kazooie. Other aspects of the audio design are also great, like the sound effects, voice clips and of course, the DK Rap.
It is hard to recommend DK64 in this day and age, yet it is equally hard to completely dismiss it. If you have the time and patience to collect all the things necessary to proceed through this game, and you have a hankering for a 3D Rareware platformer, this is all you’re going to get on a modern Nintendo system. If you are going in fresh expecting this to be a good follow up to Nintendo’s seminal Mario 64, you may find yourself getting quickly frustrated with all the arbitrary barriers and backtracking.