Monday, May 11, 2015

[REVIEW] Donkey Kong 64

Donkey Kong 64
Played on: Wii U (Virtual Console)
Originally available on: Nintendo 64
Genre: 3D platformer, collect-a-thon
Developer: Rare
Publisher: Nintendo

The epic adventures of the Kong family were Nintendo's last trump card for the 16-bit generation. As such, it was pretty obvious they would eventually get a 64-bit outing. Rather than rest on its laurels, though, developer Rare decided to take the series into a bold new direction, and the result is probably the most hardcore 3D collect-a-thon game there ever was. Given that collecting stuff in video games is a passion first instilled in me by the Donkey Kong Country series on the SNES, the prospect of an open-world, 3D, fully explorable DK Isle with collectibles galore sounds like heaven. A few significant flaws aside, that's exactly what it felt like throughout my adventure.

First things first: yes, there's a lot of collecting here. And I mean a LOT. The game features five different playable characters, and each of them has an almost daunting number of collectibles to find in each self-contained world of the game, as well as in the DK Isles overworld. If this sounds good to you (and it certainly sounds good to me), then hop right in. If it doesn't, I still suggest you give it a try, because you certainly don't need to get everything to see the game through. Just the joy of exploring its very well-made open world, while listening to some absolutely killer tunes (more on that later), should be more than enough reason to love Donkey Kong 64.

Oooh, how meta!

So, about the playable characters: two of them, Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong, should be quite familiar faces, as they've been present in pretty much every DK game in one way or another, as well as in stuff like Super Smash Bros. DK is the all-rounder, with decent strenght and so-so speed, while diddy is quite nimble. The rest of the cast is made by equally endearing apes, such as little girl Tiny, comic relief Lanky, and lovable brute Chunky. Their individual abilities feel natural, and it's always easy to figure out which of the Kongs are needed for each task. You can swap between Kongs at tag barrels, which are quite common everywhere.

Secondary characters include Cranky (who makes potions to give the crew new powers), Wrinkly (who passed away, but comes back as a ghost to give hints about each world), Funky and Candy (who are in charge respectively of guns and musical instruments, which are quite important items for each Kong through the game). Animal buddies Rambi the Rhino, Enguarde the Swordfish, and Squawks the parrot are also back, adding more gameplay twists that are generally very welcome.

Enguarde found treasure!

As you can imagine, there's lots to see and do in the game's expansive setting, and exploring every last corner is exciting and rewarding. From the hub world, you get to access each of the eight stages, and those consist of large, open, almost seamless spaces that are as ripe for exploration as the main DK Isles. The world progression is quite linear, but once inside a specific stage, the exploration is as open-ended as it can possibly be, and this sense of freedom is one of the game's very best assets. Of course, the stages are pristinely designed and look beautiful in all their chunky 64-bit glory, which helps making the journey even more memorable.

Go grab the golden banana, Chunky! It's not like you'll end up crushed by giant machinery or anything.

Of course, there's the music. David Wise wasn't responsible for the soundtrack here, and instead we get Grant Kirkhope, another celebrated composer from Rare's glory days. Things get off to a quite worrisome start, as the game's title screen is preceded by the infamously atrocious DK Rap. Soon, however, things get absolutely back on track: each world features dynamic themes, which change in arrangement as you change locations withing the stage, and, like in the SNES games, the tunes range from upbeat to gloomy. They're all excelent, with the compositions in many worlds standing out as true masterpieces of video game music.

I could stay in this room forever just to listen to this tune.

Bonus stages also make a comeback here: many of the main collectibles are sometimes locked behind bonus barrels or specific challenges, and to get them you'll have to beat various minigames. This, unfortunately, is where it all threatens to go sour. The quality of the minigames within the barrels vary wildly; lots of them are clever little diversions, while others are dull, and a few are quite jarring. Likewise, some of the challenges can be absolutely infuriating, especially when they require you to control Diddy's rocket barrel with any amount of precision. Luckily, the Virtual Console offers save states, making those sections minimally beatable, but this doesn't change the fact that those flaws are a terrible game design oversight.

The rocket barrel seems cool, doesn't it? Wait til you get to control it.

Given everything it does right, it's fair to say that Donkey Kong 64 is a classic that should be at least tried by every platforming fan. Its mixture of linear and open-ended exploration still works like a charm to this day, and the setting and cast more than do justice to the SNES series. Of course, getting 101% isn't gonna be for everyone, and even those who might have wanted to go the distance can get discouraged by some of the more unfair sections, which is a shame. Should we someday be given a true sequel, I'll be very curious to see just what a little bit of modern polish can do to what is already a great formula.

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