Donkey Kong 64 does not aim for immensity for the sake of being big; it does so to make room for the insurmountable amount of ideas it explores
By late 1999, more than one year after the release of Banjo-Kazooie, Rare had already perfected the gameplay focused on item collection that dominated early tridimensional platformers. The bear and the bird had covered a considerable amount of terrain with great success, tackling everything from mini-games and tight jumping challenges to quests whose structure bordered on what would regularly be found in role-playing titles. As a company that was not looking to perform the same trick twice, as it is evidenced by the surprisingly varied lineup of excellent software that it put out during that era, when Rare had as its task Donkey Kong’s transition from his sidescrolling universe to the newfound freedom of the big worlds of the Nintendo 64, it did not merely choose to safely recreate what had been done with a new coat of paint: it opted to try to push the gameplay it had mastered to its limits of grandeur and variety to see what would happen. Donkey Kong 64 is the result of that experiment.
Following three straight defeats in the Donkey Kong Country games, King K. Rool decides to take a slightly less delicate approach to foil his nemesis. Instead of stealing the gorilla’s banana hoard, he aims to blow up the DK Isles to pieces. The failure of his laser canon, however, and the fact that his floating headquarters ends up, following a series of humorous acts of incompetence, facing Donkey Kong’s home just a few yards from its shore, forces him to buy some time while the weapon is repaired, upon which he kidnaps four members of the Kong family and, to preserve tradition, steals the banana hoard.
Donkey Kong 64 is, in equal measures, bold and big. And in its particular case, both qualities are intimately connected: much of its audacity is employed on making everything as huge as possible. Starting with only Donkey Kong at their disposal, players will explore seven immense worlds and an intricate overworld that are visually impressive and exploding with secrets, unique locations, and a great range of amusing challenges.
Cleverly, both the overworld – which nicely alternates the sunny nature of Donkey Kong’s home with the ominous menace of the area around K. Rool’s base – and the levels themselves alternate references to the Donkey Kong Country saga with brand new themes and concepts. In thematic terms, that means the classic Jungle Japes, now a gargantuan set of hills, trees, and caves, shares space with other nods to the sidecrolling games – such as the desert world of Angry Aztec, and the oceans and lagoons of Gloomy Galleon – and fresh settings infused with charm and creativity, like Frantic Factory, which produces toys that come straight from a child’s nightmare; and Fungi Forest, a place of natural exuberance.
That same mixture of old and new is felt in terms of gameplay, enemies, and bosses. Transformations into animal buddies, mine-cart challenges, vine-swinging segments, and blasting out of a series of barrels to clear nerve-wrecking mazes where one mistake sends Kongs to their doom all make a return, albeit with nice little shifts in implementation. At the same time, the tridimensional world gives birth to plenty of original ideas that turn Donkey Kong 64 into its own creature not only within the franchise itself, but also among other 3-D platformers.
The most noteworthy of these fresh elements, and the one that is most responsible for the game’s epic scope, is certainly the fact that there are five controllable characters, each with its own abilities, physical attributes, and collectibles. Donkey Kong is joined in his quest by Diddy, Tiny, Lanky, and Chunky, all of which need to be rescued before they can be summoned into action, which can be done in Selection Barrels placed around the levels.
As one would expect, such a varied cast gives players, and developers, a mighty arsenal of tools to work with, and Donkey Kong 64 certainly takes advantage of that abundance. All characters have a specific weapon and musical instrument; moreover, worlds are packed with pads and barrels that are assigned to each, unlocking their special abilities in the process. Donkey Kong, for example, can pull levers and become temporarily invincible; Diddy Kong can use his tail as a catapult and go for a thrilling jetpack ride; the nimble Tiny Kong can warp between pads, hover with her ponytails, and shrink to the size of an insect; the elastic Lanky Kong can inflate like a balloon and use his handstand to achieve high speeds and climb steep slopes; and Chunky Kong can break metal gates, grow in size, and turn invisible.
With five golden bananas, the game’s main collectible item which is used as a currency to open the door to new worlds, awaiting each of the Kongs in all of the eight levels, Donkey Kong 64 features a boggling amount of 201 prizes. It is a lot but, given the flexible nature of its protagonists, it is the right quantity to exhaust all of the available possibilities, and the game does it with style. It mixes exploration activities with puzzle-solving, combat and platforming, creatively throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the adventure, including races, talking characters desperate for help, mini-bosses, mini-games, and much more.
Developers, then, end up coming away with a quest that lasts over thirty hours and that, as far as ideas are concerned, never runs out of steam. That is certainly its most stunning achievement, more than its other defining characteristics, like its gigantic settings, immersive locations that trigger feelings that go from wonder and awe to tension and terror, a flawless soundtrack composed by Grant Kirkhope, or its visuals, which stand side-by-side with those from Banjo-Tooie as the best ones in the Nintendo 64.
Donkey Kong 64’s knack for collection does not stop at its 201 golden bananas, though. It is as if Rare set out not only to explore the limits of how big platforming worlds can be, but also of how much players are willing to collect. All worlds hold, for each Kong, 100 regular bananas, 1 banana medallion, 1 blueprint, and bunches of coins; and that goes without mentioning 2 banana fairies, 1 golden crown, and other minor collectibles like gun ammunition, crystals that are used when Kongs activate certain special powers, and more.
Truthfully, all of the major items have an application: a certain amount of regular bananas must be collected to unlock the door to each worlds’ boss, whose defeat – in turn – opens the way to the next level; a few banana medallions, which are acquired when 75 regular bananas are gathered for a Kong, are necessary to unlock Jetpack – a Rare arcade title that must be cleared to allow access to the final boss; the blueprints, meanwhile, extend a critical countdown that takes place towards the end of the adventure; a couple of crowns are minimally required to beat the game; coins are used to purchase new abilities; and, finally, fairies unlock extra content that can be reached through the game’s menu.
While some of those obstacles are acceptable, such as the banana-count requirement to enter the boss’ room or the coins needed to buy abilities, many of them push the envelope in a bad way. In fact, it is impossible to beat Donkey Kong 64 without going through some hardcore level of item-collection, meaning that a serious degree of dedication – one that is sometimes reserved to those who go after full completion – is required to watch the end credits roll, something that will certainly frustrate many.
The most critical ramification of that mountain of items, though, is that, joined by the fact there are five characters to control, it ends up entailing a whole lot of exploration and backtracking. Worlds, therefore, need to be traversed numerous times during gameplay so that each Kong can tackle their specific challenges and collect the items assigned to them. It is worth noting that, as another display of the exquisite level design the game offers, items are arranged in a thoughtful way: bananas, coins, blueprints, switches, and barrels destined to a Kong are placed in locations that will be visited by them as they look for golden bananas. However, the fact remains that constant switching between characters and back-and-forth trips through the same areas with different Kongs are frequent, and it will certainly be too much for some.
Another area that is bound to exhaust a few players is Donkey Kong 64’s numerous mini-games. Many of the adventure’s golden bananas are only acquired after the finding and clearing of a mini-game barrel. The fifteen different mini-games are fun and varied, providing some unexpected twists on the Donkey Kong gameplay – including a brilliant assortment of shooting-based tasks that would be right at home in a carnival. Sadly, the difficulty reached by some of them – especially towards the later worlds – can be anger-inducing, especially considering how finding the barrels themselves is sometimes challenging enough and will undoubtedly cause some players to think the effort was already worthy of a golden banana.
As a pleasant little complement to its lengthy and demanding regular quest, Donkey Kong 64 also packs an entertaining multiplayer mode that centers around fighting other Kongs either in a circular arena or in a large map. Although fun for short bursts, and carrying quite some setup options, it does not hold much value in the long run, getting a tad repetitive after a short while.
It is hard to deny the greatness of Donkey Kong 64. As a game that, even before release, wore on its sleeve the intention to be as big as technologically possible, it delivers in every single way. Given games of its kind would sadly fall out of favor during the generations that followed, it has remained as the largest and most demanding collection-based platformer ever since then, with no palpable contestants in sight. It is a game that may occasionally go overboard in its quest for scope and challenge, an exaggeration that will alienate many souls that will drown in backtracking and frustration. But the bottom-line is that it is fun. It does not aim for immensity for the sake of being big; it does so to make room for the insurmountable amount of ideas it sports. It is not a hollow behemoth, but a juggernaut exploding with spectacular moments.