Donkey Kong 64 Review
Posted by Conor McMahon
He's finally back, but does he still kick some tail?
At the mere mention of Nintendo's first 64-bit console, many of us find it difficult not to get swept up by a wave of nostalgia. We drift through countless memories of flickering TV screens and eye-popping graphics, washing up on the shores of 3D gaming's first bold steps onto a Nintendo platform. While it was Super Mario who first triple-jumped his way to the forefront of this revolution, it wasn't long until the competition got...hairy.
Donkey Kong 64 originally swung onto store shelves back in 1999, at a time when British developer Rare had already impressed with such acclaimed N64 titles as Goldeneye 007 and Banjo Kazooie. Anyone who's played the latter will instantly pick up on the similarities that DK's outing shares with the bear and the bird, but Rare's key innovation this time around was the inclusion of a whopping five playable characters. Don't get too excited just yet though - you'll need to rescue them first.
King K.Rool has set up shop right on the outskirts of DK Island, ready to blow the whole place to smithereens just as soon as his crew of slacker Kremlings manage to power up their deadly weapon. In true super-villain style, he's managed to capture a few key members of the Kong family, but allows DK to run free and gather up enough golden bananas to confront the foul King head on.
The game gets off to a slow start with a mandatory training section, proving that the original N64 controls have been translated well to fit the Wii U GamePad. With the option to re-map your button layout or use the Wii U Pro Controller or Classic Controller instead, you're sure to find a setup that works after a little practice. In true 3D platformer fashion you'll be swimming, jumping, climbing and brawling all throughout your adventure, so it's worth taking the time to get comfortable. Fans of the Donkey Kong Country series will quickly realize that although the familiar faces are all here, things have changed...
Cranky Kong has decided to plumb the depths of scientific knowledge and create bubbling potions that grant new powers, while Funky Kong has gone completely gun-crazy, now intent on making sure the Kongs are fully locked-and-loaded with the latest gear. Oh and Wrinkly Kong? Yeah she died, but that doesn't stop her offering hints before each level! Throw in some musical instruments (because why not?), and you've got a hugely versatile set of abilities with which to explore, and sprawling levels that make full use of them all.
The graphics are fantastic for their time, with neat lighting effects, detailed textures and lively animations that bring the characters to life. Seeing a soft-hearted Chunky Kong beg you not to choose him on the character select screen is a particular highlight, showcasing a sense of personality that's become so associated with Rare's adventures. Similarly, Grant Kirkhope's soundtrack is as polished as ever; always fitting the moment and changing dynamically as you move from dark caves to hot desert sands.
Once you've finished with the initial tutorial, stepped out into the hub world and found your first golden banana, the game begins to build steam very quickly. It can get a bit overwhelming, with so many things to see and do that it feels downright excessive. DK64 is a 'collectathon' through and through, with a plethora of items to find around every single corner. There are hundreds of bananas per level, as well as banana medals, coins and fairies, battle crowns, boss keys - and this isn't even counting ammo for your weapons, crystal coconuts for your special abilities, or film for your camera.
It's intense, and amplified by the fact that certain items are colour-coded so that only a specific member of the Kong family can pick them up. Having five playable characters sounds like a huge amount of fun on paper -especially since they all come with their own unique abilities - but it's actually pretty frustrating in practice. For example; you switch to Donkey Kong to pick up some yellow bananas, and spot an ability pad that only Lanky can activate. So you go back to the 'tag' barrel, return with Lanky, only to find that the switch opens a door filled with coins that only Tiny can collect. This would be massively alleviated if you could change between Kongs on command, but it's a chore having to go back and forth from specific points just to make sure you get everything.
The levels themselves range from the usual lush jungles to ghostly sunken galleons and intricate factories, with bosses to cap them off. There are 25 golden bananas to find all over each stage - 5 per character - and they can be picked up in any order at any time you like, offering a great sense of freedom. There's actually less of an emphasis here on platforming than you might expect, which is almost a relief given the amount of times you'll have to navigate the same areas, but the fun and creative worlds do help to alleviate the fatigue somewhat.
It's a delicate complaint to make, since so many fans are quite happy to dive right in to an expansive collectathon, but the key difference between this and other platformers is that a lot of your time with DK64 feels utterly repetitive. It's not a difficult game by any means - save perhaps for the end boss - so it's really only patience that rewards the player. You end up traversing a series of obstacles only to discover that you'll need to do it again as a different Kong, in order to activate a switch that unveils even more switches. We much preferred shorter bursts of play in order to keep motivated, because there really is a great deal of satisfaction to be found in eventually clearing an area.
We'll stress the point that this is a very beefy game, with upwards of 30 hours of gameplay just to reach the end credits. Going after that elusive 101% completion ranking will take even longer, and the inclusion of a fully-compatible multiplayer mode makes for even better value. It's standard enough, but serves up a dose of competitive splitscreen action that has us praying for a certain other N64 Rare game to hit the eShop soon.
If you've got a hankering for some walnuts, peanuts, and pineapple smells, as well as a jungle full of collectables to seek out and claim for your own, then Donkey Kong 64 is a very safe bet indeed. Whether you're a newcomer or a nostalgic fan stopping by once more, there's a huge amount to see and do on DK island, and plenty of fun discoveries (playable arcade cabinets!!) to make along the way.
In the harsh light of modern opinion however, some of the rose-tinted sheen has definitely worn off, and a sense of repetition sets in before too long. The excitement of multiple playable characters is dampened by colour-coded pickups, forcing the player to retread old ground five times to collect everything. This will still appeal to some, but definitely frustrate others at the same time. It's an imperfect adventure-platformer with a bunch of personality, so if you're up for a challenge and have plenty of time to kill, then we say go ape!