Donkey Kong 64 is finally back, and about time to. If you’ve played it before, or if you’re new. Pick up you’re Gamepad, if you wanna play. As we take you through this retro game! Huh!
When it comes to revisiting games from your childhood, the experience will likely lead to one of two very different outcomes: The satisfaction of said game living up to your memories and proving its timelessness, or the disappointment of realizing age has gotten the better of it, and the title falls short of what you remember.
1999’s Donkey Kong 64 falls somewhere in between. It’s a game that isn’t short on ambition or ideas, but one whose execution can leave a lot to be desired.
Donkey Kong 64 takes the groundwork laid down by Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie, and supersizes it. It’s a massive adventure that still feels just as big on the Wii U as it did on the N64. That in itself is an impressive feat.
The story sees tragically-forgotten villain King K. Rool return to Donkey Kong Island with a super weapon powerful enough to blow the entire island sky high. But the weapon malfunctions at the pivotal moment, and it will take K. Rool’s men some time to repair it. To distract Donkey Kong, K. Rool steals DK’s horde of Golden Bananas (think Mario 64’s stars) and has them hidden across the game’s stages. Donkey Kong must rescue and recruit his friends Diddy Kong, Lanky Kong, Tiny Kong and Chunky Kong, and together they traverse seven worlds for their stolen bananas and to put an end to K. Rool’s plot.
While the story may be simple, the game is anything but. Super Mario 64 kept its focus on stars being the goal of every stage, and Banjo introduced an emphasis on collectibles to the 3D platformer. But DK64 didn’t know when to say when. Not only do the Kongs have 201 Golden Bananas to look out for, but each of the game’s stages includes 500 bananas (100 for each kong), which work like Mario’s coins. Banana Medals are awarded to each Kong every time they nab 75 bananas on a stage, while each character also has their own unique tokens to be found and traded to the NPCs. There are Banana Fairies that must be photographed to unlock bonus content, as well as a blueprint for each character to find and trade to a Weasel named Snide.
The sheer number of collectibles can get overwhelming, and it isn’t too surprising that this style of “collectathon” platformer fell out of favor soon after DK64. But the abundance of collectibles are only part of the problem. The excessive backtracking is another pitfall.
As mentioned, every Kong has their own share of collectibles, and you’ll find that very frequently you’ll need to switch from one character to another and back again just to reach a single item. You’ll also have to return to previous levels repeatedly as you gain more moves throughout the game. It’s a unique setup, but when stretched between five different characters, it feels stretched a bit too far.
The Kongs, while all sharing the basic frame of control laid down by Mario 64, are all distinct from one another: DK is well-rounded and (strangely) is the only Kong who can pull levers. Diddy can jump far and gets a jetpack and a headbutting move. Lanky has a longer reach in his attacks, can inflate just like a balloon, and climb steep hills. Tiny can glide through the air and shrink to traverse hidden areas. Chunky is the strongest, being able to lift boulders and grow in size.
The characters all bring some personality to the table, but the three characters introduced here aren’t nearly as endearing as DK and Diddy, with Tiny and Chunky in particular feeling derivative of established characters from the Donkey Kong Country series (why Rare decided Tiny should replace the much cooler Dixie Kong is still a mystery). It shouldn’t be too surprising that the DK64 characters have seldom been seen again.
DK64 did add some fun gameplay elements. Taking note from Banjo-Kazooie, the characters learn a number of their special moves progressively throughout the adventure from Cranky Kong. Guns (which naturally shoot fruit) can be purchased from Funky Kong, while Candy Kong gives players musical instruments that have a range of uses. Gaining new abilities of so many sorts means that Donkey Kong 64 is constantly adding some variety to the experience.
Not all the gameplay is fun however. While the characters all control well enough, they lack the fluidity and precision of Mario or Banjo. The camera can also be a mess, with fixed camera angles being far from ideal, and the player has little control to make them much better.
The boss fights are fun and exciting. Though it’s a shame they’re restricted to one per level, especially considering some boss encounters are recycled later on, and the penultimate boss fight set a new standard in lazy design (in short, it’s literally cardboard).
Mini-games are spread throughout the adventure liberally, and while they usually have simple enough setups (beat a rival in a race, shooting one target while avoiding others, etc.), they have a tendency to stack on a needless amount of complicated elements, which feels like a cheap means of adding difficulty to the mix. A good chunk of these mini-games also have intentionally clunky controls, which leaves them feeling unfair. There are a handful of enjoyable mini-games to be found, but too many of them feel more frustrating than fun.
The overall aesthetics fall short of its predecessors. While the visuals of Donkey Kong 64 are some of the better to be found on the N64, it marked a huge departure for the Donkey Kong series. While the SNES Donkey Kong Country games exuded a sense of atmosphere and mood in visuals and music, Donkey Kong 64 all but abandons those qualities in favor of something far more cartoonish. It’s more akin to the nature of Banjo-Kazooie than Donkey Kong Country, but it lacks Banjo’s humor and originality.
Classic Donkey Kong elements like Animal Buddies show up, but are terribly underutilized, with Rambi the Rhino only serving to break down a single wall in the first level. Enguarde the Swordfish has a slightly larger role, but nothing truly memorable. Thankfully, the mine cart stages make a comeback, and are among the more fun bonus stages. But these elements never reach their potential, which only further deviates Donkey Kong 64 from its predecessors.
At this point it all sounds pretty negative, but Donkey Kong 64 has enough redeeming qualities about it to make it worth a look for those who missed out on its Nintendo 64 release, or those wishing to revisit it: The aforementioned look and sound of the game, while lacking in the sophistication that Donkey Kong Country boasted, are nonetheless enjoyable. The sheer variety of the gameplay would humble a number of today’s games. A few local multiplayer modes still provide some good fun. And the game represents a sub-genre that has all but disappeared, giving it a unique appeal.
Donkey Kong 64 does have a lot going for it, even when compared to more contemporary titles it’s a hefty adventure. Donkey Kong 64 provides fun in some key areas, but it has aged poorly in others. Its scope and imagination may still impress, but the experience can often get overwhelmed in too much of its own muchness.
You could say that Donkey Kong 64 has style, but it has no grace.