Hop like it's the early 2000's.
At the turn of the millennium, 3D platformers were in what many would refer to as their golden age. Early successes like Super Mario 64, Spyro, and Crash Bandicoot gave way to an avalanche of new and classic characters jumping from platform to platform in their own colorful adventures. As Nintendo 64, PlayStation, and Sega Saturn gave way to Gamecube, PlayStation 2, and Dreamcast a second generation of 3D platforming heroes were ready to greet players. The list is seemingly endless but includes the likes of Sonic Adventure along with its sequel, Pac Man World 2 and 3, and a whole bunch of Ratchets, Clanks, Jakks, and Daxters. Among these was a Dreamcast game called Kao the Kangaroo. It was Followed by Kao the Kangaroo: Round 2 on PlayStation 2, Gamecube, and the Xbox (fresh from the Dreamcast’s ashes). Kao the Kangaroo: Mystery of the Volcano rounded off the trilogy exclusively on Windows PC. Now, seventeen years later, Kao returns into our modern era of 3D platformer revival. But does this lesser known hero deserve to stand along the best that contemporary 3D platformers have to offer?
This new title, simply Kao the Kangaroo, serves as a reboot for the series. No prior knowledge of the world or its characters is required. After his father Koby and his sister Kaia disappear, Kao discovers a mysterious pair of boxing gloves that give him incredible power. With them he is able to manipulate the elements of fire, ice, and wind by picking up charges scattered around levels. Kao soon learns that strange crystals are affecting the minds of powerful fighting masters around the world, and he’ll need to defeat them if he is to have any hope of finding out what happened to his family.
Gameplay takes place across four distinct hub worlds. Each of these sports several levels, with access predicated on the number of runes you’ve collected. A few runes are hidden within each hub world, but the majority are tucked away inside levels. The hub worlds themselves are quite expansive and contain plenty of hidden areas. They’re genuinely fun to explore, even if you’re not actively in need of their runes to access the next level. Hubs also include shops where you can buy extra lives and health upgrades, along with wardrobe options for Kao. These cosmetics unlock as you go and even include Kao’s classic appearance. Unfortunately, the costumes don’t translate to cutscenes, but still make for a fun use of your coins, which you’ll likely have plenty of at any given time.
Levels are primarily linear, with side areas and alternate paths hidden throughout. Levels are often quite long, especially if you’re looking to collect everything. Each level contains several runes, three letters to spell Kao, and a few hidden diamonds. 100% completion of each level is by no means required, but if you’re like me, you’ll likely spend 10-15 minutes on average exploring every course. Levels are overall well designed, especially those that make ample use of your elemental abilities. For example you may use the ice ability to freeze a body of water, or even to freeze a boomerang which you’ll then hurl at the waterfall to stop the flow of water entirely. Each elemental ability is used in multiple ways, and late game stages do a decent job of requiring you to string together multiple abilities to solve small puzzles. Most significant uses of these abilities, however, do use up a charge, meaning that you’ll constantly be on the lookout for more. I personally didn’t see how having the elements tied to charge rather than simply being a permanent upgrade added anything to the experience. There is almost always an appropriate charge nearby any puzzle, but you can only hold three at any given time. This means late game challenges can require a bit of shuffling as you store up the exact combo of charges you’ll wind up needing.
Where Kao the Kangaroo runs into trouble, particularly this Switch version, is in performance and general instability. When playing handheld, frame rate drops are extremely persistent. They’re rarely debilitating but always there. Docked mode holds up better but busier stages still cause problems, mostly when lots of objects suddenly need to spawn at once. Bugs are also an issue. Kao’s gloves occasionally didn’t accurately reflect the active element I had equipped. Other times the hud element displaying my charges would break, requiring me to look at the gloves themselves to see what charge I had selected. Late in the game, all of the sounds except for character voices disappeared entirely. At one point, I even fell off a stage expending my final bit of health, but when Kao respawned he didn’t move onto his next life and was instead locked in place with no health, ultimately forcing me to reset the game. While the only legitimate game breaking of these only happened once under very specific conditions and was rectified with a restart, the presence of technical issues was disappointingly common.
Ultimately, Kao the Kangaroo has a lot of the same charm you’ll remember from the back half of the golden age of 3D platformers. Unfortunately it also carries with it quite a bit of technical baggage. Since I’ve only played on Switch, I can’t confidently say how much of this is exclusive to this version. None of it is insurmountable, but I can virtually guarantee you’ll encounter some sort of issue while playing. But once again, underneath that is a solid 3D platformer that deserves to be played. I very earnestly hope that the technical issues can be resolved as I think Kao the Kangaroo is worth playing, especially if you have a fondness for the forgotten 3D platformers of the early 2000s. For now, go in with some caution and be ready to battle some bugs along the way.