Review: Donkey Konga (GCN)

Moving to a new beat

Donkey Konga is a pretty average rhythm action title when purely viewed as a piece of software engrained upon a small disc that one slaps onto the GameCube's spindle. Without a "true" Donkey Kong platformer on the horizon Nintendo rather shamelessly took the beloved characters of the franchise and transposed them into a title for the rhythm action crowd in 2004, one year before Guitar Hero would stake its claim on the genre and ultimately grind it into the ground.

With its influences derived from Bemani, though in a less abstract manner than similar show and repeat games such as Pop 'N' Music and even Beatmania, Donkey Konga presents just four commands to be followed: tap left, tap right, tap both together and clap, immediately removing much of the fiddly physicality inherent to the multi-hold combos found in Activision, Konami and MTV Games' juggernauts.

The track list too reads like one found in your typical 'Mania title and though this article focuses on the songs included within the PAL outing – each territory having a repertoire to call their own – the aural direction remains constant. Covers of popular tunes of each region feature, taken from across a deep cut of genres. Nena's 99 Red Balloons float past Richard III by Supergrass, watched by the punky stylings of Blink 182 who look on from afar, too busy with All the Small Things. Indie, rock, pop, funk, dance, classical, even a few modernised renditions of Nintendo themes; it's all here and it's all music that even the meanest spirited music critic would label "instantly recognisable".

"Instantly recognisable" is also what the meanest spirited games critic might call the title's play structure too. Aside from a few largely forgettable mini games that experiment with the title's unique controls – that would clearly come to inform much of Donkey Kong Jungle Beat's off-kilter rhythm action – the main thrust of play is selecting a song and playing it well. A stream of coloured circular symbols slide from right to left, as they cross a line underneath your on-screen avatar of Donkey or Diddy Kong striking them at the correct time results in a Good or Perfect being awarded. These add to a running total that when tallied up as the final bars play out, determine whether your run of that track has been successful.

This all sounds remarkably familiar doesn't it? It's a form and structure not dissimilar to the niche titles that came before it, albeit wrapped up in a primate skin. Yet it is not the software that makes Donkey Konga special.

To see why DK deserves attention years after its release, you need to avert your attention from the TV screen and instead to the lump of plastic resting on the floor in front of you. The controls are simple and this is streamlined further by the title's greatest asset: the DK Bongos. With the exception of the input method of Let's Tap, there is perhaps no more obvious an analogy for rhythm in a game than a small barrel-shaped peripheral to beat in time. It's immediately obvious to participants how the real world act of hitting the tactile plastic "skin" of these drums will translate to the percussion of the selected song and herein lies its beauty.

Being able to provide meaning to an abstraction of music performance encourages inclusion. With inclusion comes group play, and it's here that Donkey Konga's true strengths are revealed. If we fast forward two years to 2006 and the release of Nintendo's Wii, a system that promised a stripped-down game experience for players of all ages, we see the similarities between the Wii Remote and the DK Bongos.

Just like the Wii's pack-in title Wii Sports, the method of control is reduced, given physical actions everyone can relate to. To hit a drum, you hit a drum; to swing a golf club, you swing a golf club. Since "non-gamers" can translate real world skills to the title more easily than learning title-specific actions and button presses, their inhibitions towards play in public weaken. For those of a shy disposition the size, shape and design of the DK Bongos is knowingly ridiculous and requires the participant to be seated, again removing the barrier of standing up and "performing" to a room of friends. Couple this with the software's selection of diverse tracks and you're left with an experience that's difficult to resist for even the most stubborn curmudgeon.

Donkey Konga was ahead of its time in terms of the rhythm genre; its focus on a social experience, pipping to the post the mainstream rhythm action scene by a year and Nintendo's own strategy for enticing the casual gamer by two. Without the bongos the title is an average addition to the Bemani pantheon; with them it's a remarkably forward-thinking outing from one of the most remarkably forward-thinking companies in video games today.

Conclusion

Easily overlooked by an audience that has seemingly had its fill of music based titles, this is a staggeringly fun party title that shines with four players. Even if the rhythm action genre isn't you thing, Donkey Konga marks a transition of MO change at Nintendo, enticing gamers from all walks of life in to sample its simple bongo-based wares, while retaining the core principle of playability first that the publisher is synonymous with.