In the late '90s and early '00s, mascot 3D platformers were all the rage and… well, not all of them were great. For every Super Mario 64, you had a… Bubsy 3D, eventually leading to the genre becoming oversaturated and tired. One franchise that was a casualty at the tail-end of the 3D platformers' reign was Dreamcast's Kao the Kangaroo (that's pronounced K-O, not cow by the way), but following a social media push a few years ago paired with a successful re-release of the second game on Steam, a reversal of fortunes led to a brand-new game getting greenlit. This new Kao the Kangaroo is still a 3D platformer, but acts as a reboot that in many ways feels like its own new series. At any rate, it turns out that Kao the Kangaroo is actually a pretty solid new entry; it has some misses here or there, but overall this is an enjoyable game that fans of the 3D platforming genre won’t want to miss.
Kao the Kangaroo places you in the role of the eponymous marsupial as he embarks on a quest to find his lost sister, who went out on her own to find their dad, Koby, who disappeared years prior. On this journey, Kao is assisted by his mentor and boxing coach, Walt, and the Eternal Gloves, a magical pair of talking boxing gloves that were once donned by his father. The story that ensues has the same vibe of a Saturday morning cartoon, filled with tired pop-culture jokes and corny voice acting as Kao and crew set out to find his missing family.
Even so, it’s almost impossible to not be charmed by the lovable and silly characters here. There’s a certain purity to the experience that few other games released today manage to match; it really captures the tone and feel of an early 2000s cartoon. And there’s something in the awkwardly written, but passionately voice-acted dialogue that makes it hard not to roll your eyes and smile. The humor certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but this is a universe in which we wouldn’t mind seeing another entry or two, if only to see these characters return for more goofy interactions.
Kao the Kangaroo is a classic style 3D platformer through and through, as you progress through levels packed with coins and collectibles and slowly amass a larger repertoire of moves and attacks for overcoming obstacles. The Power Moons or Jiggies here are called Runes; each stage has a small handful scattered about and you need certain amounts to unlock new levels. Alongside the Runes in each stage, there are three ‘KAO’ letters to collect, several blue gems, and usually a couple of pieces of heart that expand your health once you get enough of them. Level designs are semi-open in nature, less like Super Mario Sunshine and more like Demon Turf. There’s essentially a ‘main path’ for each stage that will wind you through all the main collectibles, but there are usually several side paths you can take to find treasure chests and additional extras.
We found that most levels feel nicely balanced between exploration, platforming, and combat, as things smoothly transition from one element to another. Brief fights give way to grind rail sections or platforming gauntlets which in turn may lead to an alternate path or two to find some extra collectibles. Though you more or less know what to expect after a few hours of playing, we appreciated how levels still keep you guessing as they develop, like a sudden Crash Bandicoot-esque ‘run into the camera’ segment as you escape a foe bearing down on you.
Plus, it’s satisfying when there’s a ‘story’ being told in some stages, such as how one level centers around you climbing a high tower to destroy a juice-producing machine, followed by a long slide down a now-empty tube. Not every level is nearly so memorable, but we found ourselves looking forward to each new stage as we anticipated what set pieces and platforming gauntlets it could have. Later on, the difficulty ramps up notably, too, offering up a nice challenge even for skilled players. Kao the Kangaroo never feels difficult enough to be downright frustrating, but there are some parts that may cost you a life or two more than you were expecting. This reasonable difficulty level—combined with the inventive and generally well-paced level design—makes for a thrilling 10 to 15-hour journey.
Throughout each stage, you’ll also have several instances where you have to power through a number of foes to progress and it’s here that the surprisingly solid combat system shines. Kao has a few basic combos and finishers depending on which element is equipped to his gloves and the way that he chains to foes and builds up meter for a combo finisher amusingly gave us vibes of the combat system from the Batman: Arkham games. Chaining together dodge rolls, smashes, punches, and finishers feels smooth and satisfying, even though most enemies fold like sheets after you punch ‘em in the throat a few times.
And just about when a combat section feels like it’s beginning to overstay its welcome, it usually ends and you get back into platforming. We wouldn’t necessarily recommend picking up this game on the strength of its combat alone, but considering how much of an afterthought combat can feel like in most 3D platformers, we were pleasantly surprised by what’s on offer here.
For genre lovers, then, Kao the Kangaroo is easy to like due to how much it adheres to classic 3D platformer design, but one element that’s a little too similar to the games of old is the camera, which is less than helpful every now and then. Although you have full control of it, we noted many times where random breakables or decorative objects in the environment partially or fully obscured our view of Kao, leading to taking some hits and missing some jumps. It never quite gets to the point that the camera feels like it’s actively fighting us or becoming an insurmountable problem, but it’s annoying enough that some sections are made more difficult than they need to be.
Further, the camera is just one element of a broader and more vague sense of jank that permeates the whole experience; small but noticeable details that build up to make the adventure feel a little less polished than its peers. For example, we noticed a pop-up for a new sidequest showing a placeholder “QUEST NAME” for the alert. We finished one level with 15/12 collectable gems because some decided to respawn after a death. Some of these rougher edges are more amusing than irritating, but they are quite prevalent and tend to make Kao the Kangaroo feel like it’s in a different league than the games it’s clearly trying to emulate.
As for presentation, we were quite impressed by the colorful and vibrant locales on display here. The art style feels a bit like how we imagine a 3D version of the last two (Retro Studios) Donkey Kong Country games would look, as it mixes general technology aesthetics with a very natural world. Whether you’re traipsing across bridges between huts in a village attached to massive trees or sneaking through a factory built by monkeys out of bamboo and palm fronds, it’s clear that the developers went to a lot of trouble to make a consistent and visually appealing world for Kao to explore.
All this is backed by a soundtrack that reminded us a bit of David Wise’s work in Snake Pass, as various woodwinds and steel drums make all manner of raucous and playful tunes. It’s not a particularly memorable soundtrack, but it matches the world and the tone quite well.
Unfortunately, we did run into some issues with the frame rate dropping in both docked and handheld. There weren’t any moments where it negatively affected our gameplay, but opening a chest full of coins or dropping into a fight with a lot of enemies would see some noticeable frame drops into what looked like the low 20s. Additionally, the resolution appears a little blurry regardless of what screen you’re playing on, which is a bit of a shame as this somewhat obscures your view of the otherwise well-done art style.
Kao the Kangaroo may have been on hiatus for a while, but we’re glad to see that he’s back in good form. Well-paced level design, an appealing art style, surprisingly satisfying combat, and lots of collectibles to snag all come together to make for a thrillingly retro 3D platforming experience.That said, elements like an occasionally misbehaving camera and performance issues hold this adventure back from being the really excellent revival it could have been. If you still find a lot to love about games like A Hat in Time, Demon Turf, or Banjo-Kazooie, then we’re confident that you’ll have a great time with Kao the Kangaroo despite its minor issues. If you’re a bit tired of such games, however, this isn’t going to do much to change your mind. Overall, we’d recommend investigating Kao the Kangaroo if you're the slightest bit interested; despite some rough edges, this is a charming platforming experience.