Donkey Kong 64 is a pretty polarizing game. You either love it or hate it. I fall into the former category. I’ll be the first to admit that the game has serious flaws, and it’s not a quintessential platformer on the level of Banjo-Kazooie or Spyro the Dragon. But despite its numerous flaws, it’s a fun game. It’s also the biggest and most complex platformer ever created. That could be a positive or negative depending on your perspective, but it’s an impressively massive creation either way. With its impending eShop release, I’ve been thinking a lot about everything I love and hate about the game, and what makes it an important entry in the adventure platformer genre.
I’ll start with what I dislike. It can be summed up in one word: bloat. There’s always more to do in the game, but a lot of it is lame and unfun. Banjo-Kazooie, Rare’s first 3D platformer, was a tight, fast-paced game. Banjo-Tooie expanded the scope and increased the complexity with larger stages and more character switching. In Donkey Kong 64 the scale gets way out of hand.
Five Kongs is probably too many. Character switching is a mechanic that has never really felt fun to me, and it’s hard to go five minutes in this game with having to switch Kongs in order to open a door, activate a switch, or pick up Kong-specific collectibles. This mechanic is never anything but frustrating because so much of it is arbitrary instead of clever. I like, for example, that Chunky is strong and can lift objects others can’t. What I don’t like is when progress gets restricted by a switch only one Kong can activate, because all this does is impede progress unnecessarily. You end up constantly running back and forth between the Tag Barrel to do simple things like open gates.
The game also goes way overboard with the collectibles. Banjo-Kazooie had 90 Jiggies; Donkey Kong 64 has 200 Golden Bananas. Each world has five bananas for each Kong, totalling 25 per world. There are also regular bananas, coins, battle crowns, shop upgrades, and banana fairies to be had, and most of that is Kong-specific. You’ll end up walking down the same hallway five times just to get all the regular bananas with every Kong, which is nothing but pointless padding. The sheer magnitude of collectibles could have been scaled back a lot without losing any of the fun. As it is, the massive number of collectibles just seems daunting and insurmountable to a new player. For the completionist, it’s easy to grow weary with trying to achieve 100% and just give up altogether.
It’s not just the amount of collectibles that’s the problem, however. The biggest issue with the Golden Bananas is the tasks you have to do to get them. At the beginning of the game, these tasks are the usual platformer fare: the player explores the area, surmounts obstacles, and solves puzzles, with most tasks ending in a Golden Banana. But as the game goes on, Golden Bananas begin to require more from the player. A Kong-specific gate must be opened, then a platforming task must be completed, then some enemies must be fought, and finally a dreaded bonus barrel appears. These last, in my opinion, are the single biggest factor holding Donkey Kong 64 back. Bonus barrels destroy the momentum of the game, many of them are extremely difficult, and worst of all, most of them just aren’t any fun at all.
I also have to mention the bosses. Rare went all out to craft a slew of epic-feeling boss fights, but in many cases this results in needlessly complex battles that drag on and on. If the player dies, which is easy to do against some of the tougher bosses later on, they have a long fight to redo, which can be very discouraging. The worst part about the boss fights, however, isn’t the bosses themselves, but rather the way they’re accessed. Troff & Scoff, the NPCs guarding every boss fight, are the stupidest mechanic in the game. Instead of just opening a boss door once you’ve collected enough bananas, you must go to a separate area and feed Scoff enough bananas (usually several hundred) in an agonizingly slow animation. This is such a pointless time-waster that I can’t even believe it was actually approved. It adds nothing to the game, and it’s frankly appalling that Rare wasted time and resources on it.
In spite of all those flaws, I still really like the game. The biggest thing it has going for it is how fun the platforming is. In many ways the game is the culmination of the N64 platformer genre. Rare built on the foundation established by Mario 64 in making Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie, and Donkey Kong 64 can be seen as the third game in a trilogy, even though it features different characters.
Although I think five Kongs is too many from a character-switching perspective, the sheer variety of ways to move about the game world and interact with objects and enemies is a great source of fun. I love being invincible as Donkey, rocket-barrelling as Diddy, throwing Primate Punches as Chunky, ponytail twirling as Tiny, and hand-standing as Lanky. The addition of shooters and instruments adds a nice amount of variety, even if they’re too often used to activate arbitrary roadblock switches instead of a more interesting challenge.
I also love the vastness and complexity of the worlds. I get the most enjoyment out of a platformer when I have a chance to explore a vibrant area and plumb its depths for hidden secrets. The game’s worlds are full of interesting set pieces, from a desert temple complex, to a sea of sunken pirate ships, to a massive glittering cavern. The levels can at times feel massive and labyrinthine, but I personally love learning my way around them and creating a mental map of how it all connects.
A good platformer needs a fun and exciting atmosphere to carry it along, and Rare was always masterful at that aspect. Grant Kirkhope’s soundtrack is perhaps his best work, especially all the different variations he pulls off for the DK Isle theme or boss remixes of world themes. The scope of the music reflects the scope of the game, and Kirkhope’s music, as usual, rises to the challenge and sets the tone perfectly. The game also has a great cartoony aesthetic, the likes of which we don’t see much anymore. One of my favorite touches is when you highlight Chunky in the Tag Barrel and he gasps in fear, attempting to divert the player to Tiny instead.
Donkey Kong 64, love it or hate it, is an impressive game. It’s so big it had to be packaged with the Expansion Pack, one of the very few games to require it. I won’t fault anyone for disliking the game’s tedious minigames or repetitive character switching, but for me the core platforming, level design, and atmosphere are enough to bring me hours of enjoyment. I’ll definitely pick it up when it releases on the eShop later this month.
In closing, check out my favorite track from the game (no, it’s not the awesome and cool DK Rap):