Year of N64 – September – Donkey Kong 64

I have played Donkey Kong 64 to 101% completion at least twice in my lifetime. Possibly even three times, but I can only clearly remember the two. I have fond memories of the game, recalling only a single instance -a mini-game, at that- that caused me fits of frustration. However, in 2014, Donkey Kong 64 seems like nothing but an exercise in frustration.

I’m getting a little ahead of myself there, though. If you’re not familiar with it, Donkey Kong 64 is a 3D platformer developed by Rare. Playing it again, I couldn’t help but feel like it’s more a sequel to Banjo-Kazooie than any previous Donkey Kong game. The mechanics are the same, the games feel the same, even the music is incredibly similar. Both games are packed to the gills with collectible doo-dads.

The big difference, and what works in Banjo-Kazooie’s favour, is that BK only has one playable character. Well, two, but they’re eternally bonded together (at least until the sequel). Donkey Kong 64 has five playable characters, and as such, you need to scour each stage (and the hub!) five times to collect each one’s differently-coloured set of items. Yes, each Kong has a unique set of skills, but Banjo and Kazooie had just as many skills crammed into one character. It feels like having multiple characters is just a smokescreen, making it seem like there’s more to the game than there actually is.

The character-switching isn’t a major gripe though. There are much more pressing and infuriating matters at hand here. Firstly, Donkey Kong 64 has what must be the most openly antagonistic camera in all of video games. It’s not the worst in outdoor environments, but indoors, it basically refuses to ever be in the right place because it cannot deal with walls. It does not pan freely, but rather it always moves in chunks, and is never, ever right behind the player. This makes precision platforming much harder than it needs to be, especially with the somewhat loose controls. Even worse, is that the camera does not stay fixed at the angle you choose, and will start floating all over as soon as you start moving. I’m sure it’s intentionally trying to make me miss jumps.

Camera management woes aside, the game was pretty smooth out of the gate. Everything was going well for the first two worlds. I was collecting bananas, learning new abilities, rescuing fellow Kongs, trampling bosses. It was all well and good. Then came world three. In this world, you’re given the opportunity to play the original Donkey Kong arcade game. In fact, you have to beat it to win a golden banana. This was a pain in the butt, as you only get one life, and when you lose it, you get booted all the way out of the game. If it even just sent you back to the title screen, it wouldn’t have been so bad, but each time you die, it’s a good thirty seconds until you start your next run.

Donkey Kong isn’t terribly difficult for an arcade game. I managed to win after about half an hour. But then you have to play it again. With increased difficulty (more fireballs, DK throws barrels at different angles, etc). This is where it becomes a truly massive pain, as round two seems to be simply to win a unique kajigger. It’s not until the very end of the game, though, that you’re informed that you need this kajigger to fight the final boss. Thanks, Rare. You’re kind of a dick.

Not all the collectibles are quite so bad, though. Each stage has a whopping 500 small bananas to collect, 100 for each Kong. Luckily, you’re awarded a banana medal for collecting only 75 of each colour, and only the medals count towards your game clear percentage, so you don’t have to go out of your mind tracking down each and every one. Of course, if you’re not playing to 101%, it’s not an issue anyway. Also, collecting 15 banana medals unlocks Rare’s classic arcade game, Jetpac, which is a bit more fun than Donkey Kong. You have to win another unique thingamajig from Jetpac. It’s not easy, but it’s much less of a hassle to earn that one.

There are 25 golden bananas (the game’s main collectible) in each stage, 5 to be found by each Kong. Most of the golden bananas are earned by completing a challenge or making use of a Kong’s skill. Sometimes, though, you’ll also have to win a mini-game to get your banana. Some are just boring and simple, like one where you have to win a slot machine several times or collect a handful of coins in a small maze. Some are actually pretty fun, like the one where you have to pilot a minecart around a track while avoiding other, more explosive minecarts. And then there’s Beaver Bother.

Beaver Bother is a mini-game in which you play as a Klaptrap tasked with herding a number of Gnawtys into a hole. Sounds simple. You run around and bark at the beavers, and they fall in. Or, that’s how it’s supposed to work. In reality, the beavers are way smarter than they should be, and are able to consistently run up against the edge of the hole and not fall in, as if there’s an invisible railing around it. Sometimes they do fall in, though. I don’t know what triggers it. The game seems to run entirely on luck, and it took me forever to win each of the four instances of this stupid game. There’s another one, Big Bug Bash, where you’re a flyswatter and you… swat flies. It’s a little tedious too, but that’s just because the flies are quick and unpredictable, not because the game seems fundamentally broken.

It should be noted that the first time you play Beaver Bother is in world three.

Also, for whatever reason, my game did not save properly after I completed world three, resulting in me losing a couple hours of progress. I was almost ready to throw in the towel after that. I’m sure it’s not the game’s fault or anything, but it sure didn’t ameliorate my already soured opinion of it.

I need to stop to say a nice thing about the game here. And that’s that I love the music. It takes a few cues from some more iconic Donkey Kong Country tracks, but then just spins off and ends up sounding mostly like Banjo-Kazooie. Which is just fine, because Banjo-Kazooie has a terrific soundtrack. I always enjoy Grant Kirkhope’s work.

Despite all the things that tried to hard to frustrate me to the point of quitting, I powered through and completed Donkey Kong 64 yet again. Like, to 101%. I know, I’m a little crazy. The pain was softened by a cheat for unlimited resources like ammo  banana coins, and crystal coconuts (which power special abilities). This cheat had been unlocked by a previous save file, and I had no qualms with using it to make my life a little easier this time around. Of course, it didn’t help me with the more frustrating parts of the game, but at least I never had to worry about running out of thingamabobs.

The final verdict is that no, Donkey Kong 64 is not a good game in 2014. I could have defended it in 1999, when most other games were even worse, but it hasn’t got a leg to stand on any longer. I would really like to see a modernized remake that fixes the camera and controls, redoes or replaces the mini-games, and otherwise sands down the other rough edges. Because this is a game I’d like to be able to like. The fact of the matter is that you’re much better off playing the Banjo-Kazooie port on XBLA if you’re jonesing for some Rare-style 3D platforming.

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