Talk around the watercooler suggests that the console versions of Peter Jackson's King Kong are thrilling and entertaining, albeit brief in length. If you're interested in playing a video game based upon the big ape's recent silver screen adventure, by all means, pick up the console game and enjoy yourself. Whatever you do, don't give the Nintendo DS game a passing thought, or, heaven forbid, waste money on it. This poor excuse of a first-person shooter is so bad that other developers should study it and use it as a guide for what to avoid when putting together similar games in the future.
Like its console counterparts, the DS game is set up primarily as a first-person shooter and only loosely follows the events from the movie. Everything takes place on Skull Island, which is home to a tribe of superstitious natives, some prehistoric beasts, and a giant ape known as King Kong. Players spend the majority of the 17 levels directly controlling the swashbuckling hero, Jack Driscoll, in first-person-viewpoint environments that are mainly oriented around shooting enemies and unlocking doors. In the movie, key events are set in motion by three of Jack's companions, namely Carl Denham, the pushy filmmaker; Hayes, the expedition guide; and Ann Darrow, the actress that Carl has hired to star in his latest film. In the game, most of the mischief caused by these characters is shown in still-frame cutaways, although they do tag along behind Jack during certain levels and help out as necessary. Approximately every five levels or so, the game shifts gears and puts players in control of the mighty Kong. These levels employ a third-person perspective and mostly involve climbing, jumping, and swinging across the island with some hand-to-hand combat thrown in along the way.
Without question, the idea of being able to play as a human one moment and Kong the next is brilliant. Unfortunately, the action-packed combat and beastly cathartic moments that were realized so frequently in the console game aren't present in the DS game. Progression through the first-person levels is entirely too straightforward. Despite the jungle setting, each level is basically just a long hallway with a few offshoots, turns, and doors incorporated in order to obscure the nagging feeling that, indeed, you really are just walking down one hallway after another. Ironically, even though this is a first-person shooter, players rarely get the opportunity to shoot at things. Enemies are sparsely distributed, to the point that most combat situations involve a lone crab skittering toward you with its claws extended. What's more, every enemy is a crab, a bee, a bat, or a Velociraptor-like dinosaur. Velociraptors are worthy foes, but crabs and bees?
The control mechanics in the first-person levels are fine, but, there too, the developer didn't make an effort to do anything interesting with them. You can move Jack around using the directional pad, change his eyeline by dragging the stylus across the touch screen, and fire weapons or activate switches by pressing one of the shoulder buttons. When you come across a switch that Jack can't reach, you can also double-tap the touch screen to command Carl, Hayes, or Ann to pull it. That's everything players have control over. Aiming is mostly automatic, Jack can't jump or perform any melee attacks, and there isn't any inventory management because Jack can only carry one weapon at a time. As it is, Jack's weapon options are pitiful and extremely limited. He can throw spears and pick up and use four different guns. For whatever reason, though, someone on the development team decided that the spear and pistol should be more effective than the shotgun or machine gun.
The Kong levels aren't much better. They give off a larger-than-life vibe because of Kong's size and the third-person perspective, but all of the tree-swinging falls flat because the majority of Kong's actions are pre-scripted. He can't fall off a ledge, miss a jump, or lose his grip. All players need to do is press the B button over and over again to make Kong progress from one handhold to the next. Combat requires slightly more input. Smaller lizards have to be knocked away by pressing the punch or slam buttons, while larger T-Rexes must first be worn down with basic attacks before initiating the killing blow, which is a neck snap that's performed by rapidly pressing the Y button. Even though the Kong levels aren't that good, they're easily the best aspect of the game. It's a pity that among the 17 levels, only four of them involve playing as Kong.
Clearly, the game was doomed from conception because the design and development staff wasn't ambitious enough with their ideas. On the whole, there isn't much for players to do. The first-person levels are overly linear and don't contain anywhere near what would be considered a satisfactory number of enemies. There certainly aren't enough Kong levels. The control mechanics are fine, but so many actions are automatic or pre-scripted so that it takes away hands-on opportunities that might have helped the layouts and combat seem less boring.
Not surprisingly, the graphics, audio, and pretty much everything else associated with the game's entire presentation are underwhelming. The woefully inadequate 3D graphics engine is about on par with the early Turok games that were on the Nintendo 64. The environments look vaguely like the caves and forests you might find on a jungle island, except that the layouts are numbingly linear, and graphical flaws, such as blocky textures and excessive fog, are ever present. Polygon seams are visible all over the place, too. A fair amount of polygons went into Jack's visible appendages and his weapons, and also into Kong, so those character aspects look sharp. However, the other characters and enemies are downright ugly. The crabs and bees are put together with so few polygons that they look like two-dimensional sprites, and they barely animate. The rendition of Ann Darrow, played in the film by Naomi Watts, looks sickly, as if she were recently bitten by a zombie and decided to trade in her designer duds for a burlap sack. Although the accompanying audio isn't bad, there really isn't much to the soundtrack aside from a dramatic music loop that repeats constantly and a few rudimentary weapon and creature sound effects.
Above all, the entire presentation is just anticlimactic from the get-go. Every single one of the movie's greatest and most action-packed moments is depicted in the game as a series of still-frame images. Kong's climb up the Empire State Building, easily the most recognizable scene from the film, is rendered using the game engine, but it too is a waste of time, since players can't actually control any aspect of the sequence.
Adding injury to insult, the game is full of programming bugs. Bullets and spears will pass right through enemies if they're at point-blank range. Sometimes, Jack can walk through walls, which may cause you to fall to your death in a vague polygonal abyss. The game also has a nasty habit of resetting itself, particularly in the ninth level when Jack and Hayes encounter a set of crabs. A less-annoying glitch, but one that's amusing to witness, is when an enemy slides sideways across the ground, like on a sheet of ice, and eventually just disappears right into a wall. Whether due to bad planning, rushed programming, or poor quality control, there's simply no excuse for a retail packaged video game to exhibit bugs like this.
Mercifully, it only takes about two hours to play through the entire game, although mentally the experience feels like an eternity thanks to the mind-numbing gameplay and presentation. Once you finish a level, you can't replay it without starting a new save file. There is no unlockable content. The reward awaiting any player stubborn enough to finish the game is a brief, non-interactive Kong sequence that's honestly the only part of the game players might actually want to have control over, since it involves the Empire State Building and a few pesky airplanes. No such luck, though. You'll just have to watch Kong do his dirty work and enjoy the credits that roll right after.
The DS hardware is more than capable of handling a competent, well-designed first-person shooter. Even the Metroid Prime: First Hunt demo that came packaged with the first batch of systems is proof enough of that. The DS version of Peter Jackson's King Kong is a wreck, not because of the hardware's weaknesses, but because the developers just didn't put any effort or inspiration into their game.