If Mario is Nintendo's Luke Skywalker, then it's safe to say that Donkey Kong is Nintendo's Darth Vader. Originally cast as the primate villain in the Donkey Kong arcade game back in the early '80s, Kong and his many descendants have stepped away from the "dark side" and become forces for good. While it's genetically unlikely that Kong is Mario's father, it's been well documented that Kong and company have been enlisted to rescue Nintendo in times of trouble. Remember when the Super NES was "threatened" by Sega's 32-bit/CD add-on hype? A game called Donkey Kong Country came out, featuring prerendered graphics never before seen on a home console. Not only did it breathe new life into the Super NES' sales, it spawned a profitable series that kept Nintendo's 16-bit scene alive for years to come.
Fast forward to 1999. Sega and Sony again threaten the Nintendo 64 with superior game consoles, and once again Nintendo calls on Kong's descendants to breathe new life into its 64-bit system with Donkey Kong 64. While this much-anticipated 3D adventure game has high-quality gameplay and plenty of variety to fuel Nintendo's sales this holiday season, it lacks enough "wow factor" to exert the revolutionary influence that Donkey Kong Country had.
Donkey Kong 64 starts with a well-worn storyline: Donkey Kong's isle of paradise faces destruction by an invading K.Rool and his crocodile Kremlings. Donkey now has four friends to help him defeat K.Rool: Diddy Kong, his perennial sidekick; Lanky Kong, an ape with super-stretchy limbs; Tiny Kong, a teenybopper who can shrink to fit into small holes; and Chunky Kong, a muscle-bound lunkhead who can lift boulders and smash down doors. Veterans of the Donkey Kong series will also note the return of old-timers like Cranky, Funky, and Candy, all of whom upgrade the Kongs with new abilities, hints, shooting weapons, and musical instruments that help unlock hidden areas. For the most part, Donkey Kong 64 is an explore-and-collect adventure. Those who obtain perverse pleasure from collecting every last coin and item in this type of game will be titillated - and those who don't will be frustrated. The main thrust is to find 200 golden bananas in the main world and in the seemingly standard individual stages: an underwater level, a forest level, a jungle level, an industrial level, etc. As expected, almost none of these bananas are in plain view - multipart puzzles and obstacles impede the way to these treasures. However, there's plenty more to collect: regular bananas, fairies (which you must take pictures of with a camera), banana medals, super-secret Rareware coins, blueprint pieces (found by defeating certain enemies), crowns (to unlock multiplayer games) and boss keys (to unlock new areas on the island). Now, factor in that each of the five characters must find some of these items individually: Devoted gamers will see this as added replay value, while others will see it as a royal pain in the Donkey derriere.
If that weren't enough, it seems the developers threw every gameplay style they could think of into the mix. This gameplay variety is perhaps this title's main strength, although the quality of the games varies. For starters, the game has a separate two-to four-player mode, with games such as a battle arena, where Kongs can beat up each other in a circular ring, or a GoldenEye-type shooting game. In the adventure mode, you earn golden bananas by completing mini-bonus games. Some are true games in their own right, such as a racing track, race-boat water course, or mine-cart roller coaster - all of which look impressive in 3D. Some of these games are less visually impressive but are entertaining nevertheless, such as a maze where the Kong must avoid enemy detection, or a bug splattering stage. The remaining games - such as a simple target-shooting session or a slot machine - are either run-of-the-mill or too easy to sustain long-term interest. Finally, a couple of bonus games are direct translations of old-school titles, including a partial version of the original Donkey Kong arcade game that'll bring back memories for some.
Since the Kongs learn unique abilities as the game progresses, some Kongs have special stages, as well. Remember the barrel-blast levels in the 16-bit games? Donkey now plays them in 3D with a target sight. As the barrel moves, you can shoot Donkey out to other barrels. Diddy gets a jet pack that lets him complete some flying stages, while the other three characters learn other impressive skills, such as shrinking (Tiny), climbing up steep slopes (Lanky), and lifting or breaking heavy objects (Chunky). If that weren't enough, some characters can transform into animals, such as a rhino or a swordfish, to break into boxes or secret areas and kill bothersome enemies. Hands down, there's probably no other game currently on the market that's filled with as much gameplay variety as this title. But at its core, this game is a 3D adventure in the vein of Super Mario 64 or Banjo-Kazooie. Just like Mario, Donkey Kong translates well from 2D into 3D. The rendering of the huge levels and dimwitted enemies seems directly lifted from the 16-bit games - with the expected improvements resulting from technology upgrades.
The most obvious upgrade? Donkey Kong 64 is the first title that must be played with the memory expansion pak, which is sold with the game. Graphically, the high-resolution detail is immediately apparent (there's even an optional widescreen mode), but the jump in quality isn't far above any recent well-made Nintendo 64 game. Even with the pak, the graphics have limits that hamper gameplay: For instance, when a Kong stands above a tree to look around, many faraway objects and icons fail to show up, making it difficult to survey where missing items might be located. In rare instances, there's even slowdown in the frame rate, such as when a large boat is added to a portion of the underwater level. Still, the well-crafted graphics look as good as anything else on the Nintendo 64, and Rare has to be applauded for special graphical details that add flavor to the game, such as special animations for getting bananas from an invention-minded weasel, and little references to earlier Donkey Kong games (for example, pictures of old enemies from the 16-bit games inside a sunken ship).
As the Kongs learn more skills, the controls get necessarily complicated. While the control itself is intuitive, aspects of it do detract from the game. With the exceptions of Diddy and Tiny, the Kongs run slowly. This makes exploration a bit tiresome in levels where that Kongs search for the last golden banana. Fortunately, the game uses teleports to whisk characters from one area to another - but a slight speed boost for the big Kongs would've helped. Otherwise, the responsive control works just fine in most situations. What does fall short - and what is likely the game's biggest flaw - is the camera. This is a game where the enemies and bosses won't kill you, but the camera angles will. This is especially true in some swimming sequences, where the camera flakes out when you're close to walls, and in at least one boss battle, where the camera's fixed location prevents you from seeing the boss half the time - and wild camera swinging makes it a pain to jump accurately. In some cases, when a Kong's behind an object, the camera gets confused and flutters wildly. But 95 percent of the time the camera works decently enough - and since no 3D game has yet to offer a "perfect" camera, it's unfair to hammer this point home. Suffice it to say, the camera is the one aspect of the game that could use improvement, and you will just have to accept the frustrating five percent. The game suffers from other minor flaws. The GoldenEye-type multiplayer mode, while serving up extra gameplay styles such as tag and survival, loses its luster rather quickly. This is mainly because some Kongs move slowly, and there's a woeful lack of weaponry to spice up the destruction. The other multiplayer modes seem a bit too trivial to sustain long-term enjoyment as well.
All flaws aside, strong gameplay reigns throughout Donkey Kong 64, mainly because Rare has preserved the Kongs' cooperative spirit from the 16-bit titles. Simply put, one Kong must complete several tasks (such as activating switches) so other Kongs can complete their quests in that stage. This process gets rather complex in later levels, and you must keep thinking creatively to solve the game's many puzzles. This truly adds to the "cerebral" gameplay aspects, in addition to the jump-and-shoot reflex testing already prevalent in the game's levels.
For those with a high-quality sound system, this game will prove a delight, with the Dolby surround sound effects adding to gameplay - audio clues can help gamers find certain items such as fairies. The audio filters that kick in, such as when a Kong's underwater, are also impressive. Although there's plenty of audio for the intro, it would've been better to add some talking audio for animals or supporting characters within a level, rather than plain text and sound effects.
To best summarize this game is to flip-flop a popular catch phrase of the day: "Don't hate the game, hate the player." Had this game been released with the Nintendo 64's launch, gamers would've gone bananas (sorry, I couldn't resist at least one monkey-related pun) and hailed this game as a gift from the video-game gods. Nowadays, 3D adventures seem to be a dime a dozen, and despite all the exhaustive gameplay Rare has thrown onto this game's plate, jaded players will probably aim "been there, done that" criticism at the title.
That said, this reviewer feels Donkey Kong 64 offers too much solid gameplay to warrant such criticism, even though it's not the technological marvel that Donkey Kong Country had been in its heyday. Those of you who remotely liked Mario 64 or Banjo-Kazooie will be excited to the point of numbness by this game. However, for those of you averse to the "collect everything" gameplay mentality, this game might come off as a chore to complete. In any case, Donkey Kong 64 has high-quality adventure written all over it - despite its camera flaws - and it gives you many reasons to see the good-guy Kongs thrive in 3D.