Revisiting Donkey Kong 64: Did it Kill the 3D Collect-a-thon Platformer?

 

At the beginning of this month, in its Nintendo Direct broadcast, Nintendo of Europe casually announced something I had been waiting for in forlorn hope ever since the original Wii hit the market – the (immediate) release of Donkey Kong 64 on the Wii U virtual console. I don’t know how, but Nintendo’s much-discussed rights conflict with famed British developer Rare that had previously prohibited the game’s re-release has now been sorted out, and you can download the famous ape’s 3D adventure if you so please for $13 AUD. So despite my ever-growing pile of other games to play, I blacked out somewhat that fateful day, and now I write this article having lost another 20 hours to what was once my first-ever home console videogame.

I downed King K.Rool just yesterday, in fact.

My sense of nostalgia may be strong with this one, but a lot has changed in 16 years, and the game isn’t quite as perfect as I may have remembered it. The game has quite a few flaws, actually. What’s more, over the last several years a new critical narrative has built up around the game, accusing it of killing the so-called “collect-a-thon” genre of 3D platformers (think Super Mario 64, Banjo Kazooie, Gex etc) with its needlessly over-the-top bounty of colour-coded things to collect. This line of thought has devolved for some into the act of labelling DK64 a bad game. Does it really deserve this moniker? As we appear to be on the cusp of a 3D collect-a-thon renaissance in gaming, with Conker’s Big Reunion beginning in a matter of days and the impending release of both Playtonic’s “Project Ukelele” and Gears for Breakfast’s A Hat in Time, now is as good a time as ever to try to answer that question.

Let’s do this.

Firstly, though it’s only tangentially related to the topic at hand, it’s worth talking about the Wii U virtual console port of the game. Anyone who has tried to run a Nintendo 64 game of any kind, let alone an intensive one like DK64, on a PC emulator can attest to how difficult it is to get things looking good and controlling well. The N64 development infrastructure was notoriously hard to crack, after all. So it must be said that the porting studio Nintendo saddled with the project has done an admirable job indeed. While occasionally I ran into some sound delays during hectic moments and the odd clipping glitch, these were mostly present in the original version anyway (I mean, just Google “DK64 Speedrun” and you’ll see for yourself) and the upscaling technology used makes the game look surprisingly good on a 55-inch screen. Bravo.

We are dealing with N64 textures here, but this port lets Rare’s art style do the talking.

Translating a game that was designed for the super weird Nintendo 64 controller into something playable in this day and age is problematic, but the Wii U’s almost completely re-mappable controller options help immensely. The biggest problem with N64 controller translation is and always has been the four C buttons, which have been replaced by a second analogue stick on pretty much every controller since. Given how often each individual C button is used for input in DK64, I found myself having to shift the default controls around slightly to make room for actual button substitutes. But I got there in the end, and I found after a period of adjustment that the R button sufficed for camera control – barely.

The Wii U virtual console’s restore point feature returns intact, and it’s reeeally handy here…

Onto the game itself, then, and indeed when it comes to all the collectables strewn throughout Donkey Kong 64, the game does not do its reputation any favours. There are five playable characters, or “Kongs” in the game, and eight explorable worlds, each with 25 “golden bananas” (the game’s main desirables), 500 regular bananas, a handful of blueprints and countless “banana coins” to collect. The thing is, these collectables are all Kong-specific, meaning it is a regular occurrence to be exploring with one Kong and pass dozens of collectables for which you will need to make a mental note and return later.

Not for you, Diddy.

Sometimes their positioning will make sense, leading you to a major task for the corresponding Kong, but just as often there will be a bunch of, say, blue bananas, only collectable by Lanky Kong, that you will find in some random corner of a level far away from any of his golden bananas. These coloured bananas are required in increasingly large amounts in order to unlock each world’s boss fight and therefore progress to the next world, so their haphazard placement starts to become a real problem on the game’s later levels. And then there is the game’s banana coin economy, which is a straight-up joke. Banana coins are used to pay for each Kong’s skill, weapon and musical instrument upgrades, but while these coins initially seem difficult to find, that sentiment lasts barely half a level before you are showered with so many of them that the whole system loses every semblance of value it ever pretended to have.

EIGHTY-FIVE banana coins. The biggest cost in the game for an upgrade is seven.

I’m less convinced, however, about the arguments against the game’s golden banana count. There are 201 of them to find, most of them requiring some kind of concerted effort to obtain. Next to Banjo-Kazooie‘s mere 100 jiggies, Banjo-Tooie‘s 90, and even Super Mario 64‘s 120 stars, this looks like an unnecessarily huge number in line with the game’s excessive attitude to bananas and banana coins. However, you only need 100 of them to finish the game, and though DK64 will throw at you some of the toughest sections of gameplay that you’ll ever find in a 3D platformer (Minecarts, anyone? Beetle races? Barrel minigames?), you can quite easily avoid those and still cruise to 100 through reasonably natural exploration of the game’s diverse worlds.

There is real, tough-as-nails challenge to be found in this game for those who look.

Nightmares incoming.

Speaking of the game’s worlds, they are truly where the game lives or dies. All the economical flaws in the world can be mitigated by strong, immersive and varied level design, and while DK64 isn’t quite as memorable in this area as Rare’s more celebrated Banjo-Kazooie, it still holds up very well indeed if you ask me. There can be little doubt that the game is artistically much darker than Rare’s other platformers, with liberal use of a then-new lighting engine, a regularly foreboding soundtrack and plenty of cave sections. However, this allows some of the game’s worlds to stand out from their contemporaries. Though many DK64 fans will likely gloss over the aptly named water level Gloomy Galleon in their vault of nostalgia, the smartly laid out Creepy Castle is a lot of fun to traverse, as is the night half of dual-phase world Fungi Forest and the unsettlingly brilliant Frantic Factory. Balanced against the saturated colours of Jungle Japes (which has its own share of cavernous areas), Angry Aztec and the daytime half of Forest, there’s quite a bit of trademark Rare variety on show here.

The game’s tendency for darker colour palettes really hits its stride in Creepy Castle.

Though there are certainly brighter locales to explore.

Industry legend Grant Kirkhope was at the peak of his powers when he wrote the tunes for Donkey Kong 64 and it shows. The soundtrack for Donkey Kong 64 is some of his finest work, enhancing the aforementioned Frantic Factory with one of his best-ever pieces, laying a wistful tone onto the DK Isles hub world theme and even managing to turn the frustratingly samey layout of the (admittedly pretty) Crystal Caves world into a wondrously atmospheric place to be. The contextually transforming soundtrack style that he helped to popularise is in full swing throughout the game, perhaps best exemplified in the music that plays, and changes, as you select your Kong.

Selecting Diddy Kong, for example, adds an electric guitar flavour to the selection tune.

DK64‘s structured, level-specific bosses were a new concept for Rare at the time of the game’s release, and they remain some of the most memorable you’ll ever face in a game of this kind. Though some of them do repeat, they do so in a meaningful way that adds a sense of grandeur, not to mention Rare-style humour, to proceedings. The infamous Mad Jack fight is one of the most demanding 3D platforming boss battles out there, and you just won’t find a spectacle as… unique as that of the cardboard K.Rool encounter late in the game.

Just… This guy…

For all its unevenness in terms of level structure and arbitrarily gated collectables, the final stretch of Donkey Kong 64 is in my opinion one of the N64’s most praiseworthy slices of design. The linear test of skill known as Hideout Helm makes great use of a five-character setup, providing ample opportunity for quick Kong switching and urging you along with a time limit completely dependent on how thorough you were in your exploration of the main game, as well as a superbly tense Kirkhope backing track. The game then demands that you test your retro gaming skills by playing through the original Donkey Kong arcade game not once but twice (a big deal when the game launched in 1999) and Rare’s own PC classic Jetpac. Then comes my pick for Rare’s best-ever final boss fight, a multiple-round boxing ring face-off against King K.Rool himself that makes creative use of each Kong’s unique abilities and isn’t afraid to punish your mistakes.

This is stress.

This is great.

And so, while this latest playthrough of the game has given me a fresh perspective on the things Donkey Kong 64 got wrong, on balance I still strongly oppose the idea that it can be called a bad game. The discussion as to whether it killed the 3D collect-a-thon subgenre it exemplified so well is more nuanced, and one that I believe cannot be placed squarely on the game’s shoulders. The likes of both Banjo Tooie (which in my opinion is a superior game) and Super Mario Sunshine came after it with their own share of flaws, and factors like the N64’s rapid early-2000s decline and the arrival of the industry-transforming Halo: Combat Evolved surely deserve a larger share of the blame. Nevertheless, on the eve of what could be a 3D collect-a-thon revival, I sincerely hope that this sudden appearance of DK64 on a Nintendo platform for the first time in a decade and a half will provide its critics with the opportunity to gain some perspective. And have some fun.

You’re alright, DK64.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by wwwarea on April 20, 2015 at 5:15 am

    I think the only problem with this game is how your force to switch Kongs and a lot of back tracking to things that aren’t as fun as other things.

    Personality, 201 bananas aren’t bad if most of it is optional. What I find a long lasting game fun is if it continues to be fun. Many of the ways you get Golden Bananas were fun: mine carts, unique mini games, etc. Exploration is VERY important for a 3D platformer too.
    Yes, my favorites is the minecart mini games..They are not that hard though (Then again I played it so many times!)

    Despite the forcing in many places like I said before, the game still was awesome, the music, and the exploration. Collecting new Golden Bananas for exploration was fair for me; unlocking new areas to explore is good-good. 🙂

    ______

    As for “ruining” the 3D platformer genre. I don’t see how that makes sense because:
    1. It didn’t have much sales
    2. Banjo Tooie came after
    3. Those who don’t like it didn’t have to play it
    4. Not very much proof at all

    Besides, a genre could be considered very bad by some people, but today, it’s still alive for many other ones: RPGs, 2D platforming, Puzzle games, etc..

    I personality want a sequel of this game.. I just don’t want people to think it’s going to “ruin” the 3D platforming again..

    Reply

  2. Posted by wwwarea on April 20, 2015 at 5:16 am

    Oops, I made a mistake, I meant “a game in a genre”, not “a genre” for the part under the list of proofs. xD

    Reply

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