The monkey called Donkey returns to the Nintendo DS in DK Jungle Climber, which comes with the lush, prerendered look of the Donkey Kong Country games, but without the traditional platforming gameplay. Instead, you'll flex DK's upper-body strength by climbing and swinging your way across a series of acrobatic levels fraught with enemies and pitfalls. DK Jungle Climber builds on the good work done by 2005's DK: King of Swing for the Game Boy Advance, offering better visuals, bigger levels, and more variety.
The game kicks off casually enough with a Kong family vacation to Sun Sun Island. Once DK catches a glimpse of the giant, crystal banana floating above the island, it's not long before both Diddy and Donkey Kong are chasing regular DK baddie King K. Rool across a series of themed islands on behalf of a bunch of banana-shaped aliens who have a verbal tic inspired by The Name Game. The story's light and harmless, allowing you to focus on getting acclimated to the game's unique controls.
Your objective is usually just to get from one end of a level to the other, though there's also no shortage of item collection. As standard as this sounds, it's the means that sets Jungle Climber apart, as virtually all of the controls in the game are handled by the L and R shoulder buttons. When DK is on solid ground--which, as you progress through the game, becomes less and less frequent--the L and R buttons will move him to the left or right. Tap them both at the same time, and he'll leap into the air. Once he's airborne, the L and R buttons correspond to DK's left and right hands, which he can use to grab onto the pegs, pegboards, switches, and other peglike objects that take up much of the real estate in the game's often bottomless, vertically oriented levels.
It's a control scheme that takes some getting used to, mostly because it's a pretty nontraditional setup. But it's also got plenty of nuances. Grabbing a peg with just one hand will cause DK to swing in circles around the peg until you either grab onto another peg or let go entirely, which will send him sailing in whatever direction he was facing. You can finesse his trajectory in midair with the L and R buttons, an often indispensable ability.
The game is smart about how it ramps up the complexity of the levels, and it takes its time introducing new abilities and challenges. You might start off very gingerly moving one hand over the other as you inch your way across a simple pegboard, but a few islands later you'll be flinging DK through the air as you try to grapple with moving pegboards and harsh winds, or using his weight to roll a gigantic wheel through tides of molten lava. Though you're pretty much always grabbing pegs and dodging whatever calamity Jungle Climber throws at you, the level designs stay inventive throughout. Minigames that see you collecting falling bananas in a giant barrel or dodging logs as they come rolling down a hill toward you also serve as nice interludes.
While your biggest challenge throughout the game is traversing the environment itself, there's also no shortage of antagonistic animals crawling about, and each island ends in a big old boss fight. Donkey Kong has a simple dash attack that you can perform with the A button that is really only effective against the most basic enemies, though it can also be used to smash barrels and barriers, or to get to pegs that can't be reached with a regular jump.
You'll occasionally find specially marked DK barrels which, when smashed, release Diddy Kong, who will climb on Donkey Kong's back and serve a number of purposes. With Diddy in tow, you can double-tap the A button to perform an even longer-ranged dash attack, though you'll also need Diddy around to use rare power-ups such as a pair of wings, an ice-melting flamethrower, and in a turn of events sure to disturb Mario, a giant, highly destructive mallet. You'll also collect crystals by smashing barrels and bashing enemies, which can be used to trigger some time-limited invincibility.
Diddy Kong acts as a buffer against enemies you come in contact with, which is good, because Donkey Kong is kind of fragile in Jungle Climber. A single touch of an enemy or an environmental hazard will cost him a life and send him back to the last checkpoint. It seems harsh, but the game makes up for it by being incredibly generous with extra lives. When you do run out of lives, you'll continue from the start of the last level you were on, meaning that you'll have lost no more than a few minutes of progress.
How long it'll take you to make your way through DK Jungle Climber will depend on how actively you pursue the various collectibles that are scattered across the game, which also figures into how hard the game can be. You might breeze through a level in a minute or two without so much as the threat of losing a life, and collect nothing. If you want to grab all banana coins, the DK coin, and the panels that spell out KONG, though, it'll take a lot more exploration through much more hazardous terrain.
DK Jungle Climber refines the bright and busy visuals of DK King of Swing, which itself borrowed its charm from the Donkey Kong Country games. Improved resolution means that both screens are packed with detail, though it also ends up making Donkey Kong appear fairly small onscreen. Ultimately, though, being able to see more of the environment is more significant to the gameplay than a bigger DK sprite, despite how much we enjoy watching his dangling legs swing about.
Despite being a sequel to a game based on a well-established franchise, DK Jungle Climber still feels surprisingly fresh. While it could've relied on the sheer novelty of its control scheme, it does a smart job of fleshing out the gameplay and offering a well-balanced challenge once the novelty has worn off.