When I entered the first level of Donkey Kong 64, the overwhelming impression I got was that this game was Banjo-Kazooie supersized. Take the average world from that game, scale it five times its size and add about five times as many collectible knick-knacks to it. That's Donkey Kong 64. There are moments when you can take Diddy Kong up into the air with a rocketpack so that you can see the entire level below you. The sight is intimidating, overwhelming, bewildering, yet somehow breathtaking and compelling. The thought of exploring such a huge world with your meager monkey characters on foot is discouraging, but you know that if you just do it, you'll inevitably find stuff and make progress. Such is the nature of 3D platformers, particularly those on the Nintendo 64 console, which never really evolved all that much from their Super Mario 64 roots.
The point of Donkey Kong 64 is to run around a 3D world and collect items by performing various unrelated tasks. Collect enough crap and you can move on to later levels, even before you've completely finished the current one (hence, the non-linear structure). Although Super Mario 64 invented this style of play, at least that game still adhered to the idea of a difficulty curve. The worlds at the bottom of the castle were the easiest, the worlds on the middle floor were a bit harder, and the ones at the top were undoubtedly the hardest. In Donkey Kong 64, any given world is no more or less challenging than any other. It's just that random tasks scattered here and there can be really difficult. This is a result of developers abandoning the difficulty curve in favor of creating larger and larger worlds while simultaneously challenging themselves to come up with as many different ways to get a banana from that world as possible. Because of this haphazard design, good parts do exist, but you'll have to rummage through a lot of mediocre stuff to find them.
In an opening sequence that defies logic even more than usual for videogames, King K. Rool, arch-nemesis of the Donkey Kong Country series and leader of the villainous Kremlings, pilots a giant seafaring tank that vaguely resembles his reptilian self to the shores of DK Island, which is implausibly shaped exactly like Donkey Kong's head. The tank runs ashore and is stranded because the idiotic Kremlings couldn't avoid a rock. Apparently what was avoided was any kind of a point to these cutscenes, as similar ones occur each time you enter a new level, and they are completely devoid of any plot developments, or worse, humor. If there was an explanation as to why K. Rool doesn't just simply fire his doomsday weapon on DK Isle after arriving, I've missed it.
Moments later, K. Rool's minions capture and imprison all of Donkey Kong's friends somewhere around the island. They have also, once again, stolen DK's giant hoard of bananas. I do not understand the Kremlings' obsession with stealing DK's bananas. In Donkey Kong Country they wanted to sell them because Kremlings are pirates after all, but can those bananas really be so valuable that it warrants repeated attempts to pull off this same scheme? Are they worth the trouble of setting up elaborate carnival-like skill tests to retrieve them? It's more or less because we're dealing with characters that are self-aware they're in a 3D platformer and know the conventions.
DK's mission is to rescue his friends and, with their help, reclaim his lost banana hoard while attempting to permanently evict K. Rool and his minions from his peaceful island. As you rescue each Kong, he/she becomes selectable at the switching barrels, and they each have the potential to earn a plethora of special moves that will enable you to accomplish many goals. These simian sidekicks include Diddy, Tiny, Lanky, and Chunky. Diddy is your swift-moving chimp buddy from the original Donkey Kong Country. Tiny is a little girl monkey who can shrink in size and float short distances. Lanky is a long-armed orangutan who's dressed like a country bumpkin and seems to have a few screws loose. And then there's my personal favorite, Chunky, a large gorilla with a split personality: He has the power to lift boulders over his head and he has a menacing roar, but he whimpers like a child when you try to select him in the switching barrel and even urges you to choose Tiny instead.
The old supporting cast from the Donkey Kong Country series are on-hand to help out, but they all seem like "alternate universe" versions of themselves. Cranky Kong has become a mad scientist toiling in a makeshift lab. Funky Kong now owns a military outfit, and Candy Kong, who's gotten a complete redesign, runs a music shop while making various creepy double-entendres about instruments and melons. And Wrinkly Kong? Poor Wrinkly is reduced to a cackling ghost. And after all that time she spent exercising and staying fit in DKC3.
It is easy to cite that the biggest problem with DK64 is that Rare went overboard with the amount of items you have to collect. There are (takes a deep breath) 5 golden bananas, 100 regular bananas, 5 banana medals, and 1 blueprint piece per Kong, per world (exhales)! There are also 2 banana fairies, 1 battle crown, and 1 key per world, and no points for guessing there's stuff hidden around the "hub" world of DK Isles, too. The prospect of collecting thousands of bananas probably does not sound fun to most people, including me. However, it wasn't quite as bad as I had expected it to be. Some items are gained as a result of collecting others (a banana medal is awarded for finding 75 normal bananas, a golden banana is given for each blueprint piece), and you're going to find most stuff just by running around the world. The biggest problem occurs when you are missing one or two things and can't figure out where in samhill it is. Because the worlds are so damn huge, it's literally like searching for a needle in a haystack. Since the Kongs can only collect their own items, another annoyance is backtracking to the switching barrel to change all the time. (This is mitigated somewhat by the fact that switching barrels are usually placed in multiple convenient spots around each world, and sometimes there are warp pads that take you directly to them, but all things considered, it still borders on being tedious.)
A more immediate issue I want to cite is the lack of structure. One of my favorite levels in the game was "Frantic Factory", because it featured a room-by-room layout. At its heart is a large central room with branching paths that lead up to the top, most of which can only be traversed by one specific Kong. The other levels, however, are huge, open, and sprawling with too much empty space. It's far too easy to get lost or run in circles around the same area. (Some kind of mapping system would've been appreciated.)
What makes the collecting in DK64 bearable is that many of the tasks are fun to perform and some are actually quite daunting. Most of the toughest quest's are Diddy Kong's. One really antagonizing sequence has him swimming within a time limit to enter a submarine. Once inside, you'll find yourself again under a time limit to destroy the "heart" by shooting between moving propellor blades. In another part, Diddy must destroy eight enemies in a log cabin in such a strict time frame it seems virtually impossible at first. Four enemies are situated on a platform in the middle of the room, but you can't land there to fight them because they'll bump you off right away. The other four enemies occupy the corner platforms of the room. I will not spoil the strategy for conquering this situation, as it was the last banana I was able to obtain in the game.
Some of the absolute best parts of DK64 are the races against friendly characters. There are two hectic high-speed sliding races against a spinning beetle, reminiscent of the penguin race in Super Mario 64 only much harder. Repeated attempts are needed to learn the course not only so you don't go flying off at the turns, but also so you can get ahead of your opponent while collecting enough coins. In another particularly harrowing race, Diddy must fly through rings around a tree to keep pace with a snooty owl.
Some gold bananas will be given to you immediately upon completing a special task, but the particularly sadistic ones force you to play a mini-game first. Some of these mini-games are really easy, some I won without even knowing what was going on, some take a few tries but are no big deal after you know what to do, and some are extremely annoying. But the annoying ones, like "Beaver Bother" in which you must force a herd of stubborn beavers down a drain hole, are also the hardest and most memorable. Again, it might be easy to accuse Rare of going overboard with these things, but I wasn't really bothered by them because playing mini-games is no less random than anything else you have to do to earn those bananas, and they can be a welcome departure from all the "hit switch at Point A, then run within time limit to Point B" puzzles.
One area in which Donkey Kong 64 scores over Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie is in its boss fights. Although no boss in DK64 is as difficult as Gruntilda of B-K, it is enough that more of them exist. (B-K sorely missed the opportunity to have each world culminate in a boss battle, a mistake which DK64 rectifies.) Most of them were easy enough to beat on my first try, but one of the more interesting (and hilarious) fights involvs cannonballing your Kongs into a giant cardboard cut-out of K. Rool that springs up over the wall of a castle while firing laser beams at you. The final boss, a multi-part showdown in which you'll use each of your Kongs, is fairly difficult and takes some time and practice. I do not want to spoil this fight, but I can say that each phase requires you to do something completely different. (I am slightly concerned that I made it through the final phase just by luck, not because I truly figured out the necessary timing, but phases 2, 3, and 4 are difficult enough to make up for that.)
One extremely positive aspect of Donkey Kong 64 is that it looks beautiful. The graphics boast the same brightly-colored, highly-detailed cartoon-like style of Banjo-Kazooie, a look I often find more attractive than that of modern 3D games. One of the most impressive areas is Fungi Forest, a serene woodland setting that is explored during both day and night and is punctuated by a gargantuan mushroom. The mushroom is so tall, it cannot be seen in its entirety in one, two, or even three screens. Another area I really liked was Frantic Factory, which has some interesting atmosphere. At one point, I stepped into a room that was dominated by a towering stack of toy building blocks piled to the ceiling. That, combined with the level's dark color scheme and the weirdness of the evil toy enemies running around, was a moment of eeriness that stood apart from everything else. (It helps that it reminded me of a very similar area in the N64 horror-themed game, Shadow Man.)
I'm guessing that the expansion pack was used to create some of the really high-resolution images, like the round and shiny characters Troff 'n' Scoff and K. Lumsy. I also liked some of the music in DK64, particularly the DK Isles, Angry Aztec, Crystal Caves, and Troff 'n' Scoff themes, although the overall soundtrack is not as strong and memorable as Banjo-Kazooie's.
Giving a recommendation for Donkey Kong isn't easy. If you want it because you want a home version of the Donkey Kong arcade game, then by all means go for it, because short of the Commodore 64 version (which is much more difficult to obtain), no other home version comes this close to being arcade-perfect. As for the game itself, if you're someone who did not like Super Mario 64 or Banjo-Kazooie, then aside from the arcade game, there is nothing here that would make you like this one any more. But even if you did like SM64 or B-K, you still may not like this one because of the excessive amount of exploring, collecting, and backtracking. On the other hand, if your favorite thing about those games is the exploring and collecting, Donkey Kong 64 will provide hours and hours of it (I beat the game in just under 41 hours with 101% of everything collected). But for all intents and purposes, the main reason to recommend Donkey Kong 64 in the past was to get the Nintendo 64 Expansion Pack it came with, which is something that I strongly suggest getting ahold of if you're at all into N64 gaming. (Please note that Donkey Kong 64 will not work without it, so do not buy the game loose if you don't already own one.)
I could not possibly end this review without mentioning the "DK Rap", which serves as the game's opening sequence. No matter how good or bad Donkey Kong 64 ever gets, if you can sit through that, you've already gotten past the worst part.
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