Donkey Kong Jungle Beat

By embedding features and quirks of musical games into a platformer, Nintendo creates a unique sidescroller that is more about pulling off combos by banging on bongos with extreme precision than clearing stages

The gaming industry is constantly moving forward. Unfortunately, that statement is more accurate when it comes to the technical aspects of consoles than to the ways through which players have been interacting with the virtual worlds those systems house. Aside from punctual outliers that dared to go against the flow, such as the Wii’s introduction of motion controls and the DS’ foray into the powers of touch screens, all consoles – from the NES to the latest machines – have, in common, joysticks with an increasing number of buttons. As such, gamers have been controlling their electronic avatars through a mean that, generation after generation, has not experienced the same kind of technological advances that can be clearly seen in the development of the visual and musical aspects of the videogame medium.

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Although the interface between gamers and games has not changed all that much, credit needs to be given where credit is due, and, in that case, from the entertaining NES Zapper to the groundbreaking Wiimote, it is hard not to highlight Nintendo as the gaming company that has dedicated itself the most to bringing changes to that particular front. Feeling that hardware evolution is nothing but a natural step between generations, the Big N has put much of the creative power of their developers and engineers into coming up with new gameplay implementations rather than focusing it on squeezing as many transistors into a board as possible.

It is only natural that such a daring, and nearly stubborn, philosophy has given birth to a good number of sub par games, devices, or systems that just did not fulfill their ambitious concepts. At the same time, that approach has also yielded idiosyncratic gems that could only have been brought to life by Nintendo. Among those products that have attempted to alter gaming not by what they contain but by how they are controlled, Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat is unquestionably among the most unfathomable and unlikely. After dabbling into the music genre with Donkey Konga, which took a shot at the Guitar Hero formula by replacing a plastic guitar with a pair of bongos, Nintendo (probably seeking to give more purpose to the quirky accessory) dared to build a sidecrolling platformer starring gaming’s most famous gorilla and using the percussion instrument as a controller.

It is a premise that, by all means, seems to be way too unorthodox to possibly work. Yet, as Nintendo is often bound to do, the outlandish idea materializes as a successful product. As one would expect from a platformer that needs to be cleared by banging on a couple of drums, there is a sense of looseness and lightness that permeates the entirety of Jungle Beat. Through presentation, music, and general ambiance, developers make it pretty blatant that the game is not meant to be enjoyed in the same way as other platformers of the era. Jungle Beat does not thrive in cinematic value or in grandeur; it is, in fact, so freewheeling that a plot is barely detectable, as it focuses, instead, on exuding a party vibe. And the tone, undeniably, goes along nicely with the game’s ultimate goal, which is bringing players a new fun take on the side-scrolling genre.

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In the midst of that relaxed vibe, Donkey Kong walks through different kingdoms of the jungle in order to wallop bigger and meaner creatures that seem to have been possessed by some evil entity. As he does so, he can be controlled in two ways: with the standard GameCube joystick, which ought to be a relief to those unable to acquire a set of bongos or that are not exactly inclined to trying alternative control schemes, and the aforementioned pair of drums; regardless of the choice, players will be met with generally responsive gameplay that is quite easy to learn. Still, given the game was clearly designed with the more unusual option in mind, the bongos rank as best the control scheme, and one that brings to the surface level design aspects that are not so noticeable when the GameCube’s joystick is employed.

With the bongos, touching either the right or the left drum will send the character moving in that direction; tapping them quickly will make Donkey Kong run, a soft beat will move him slowly, and holding down the leather will cause him to walk. Beating both drums simultaneously, meanwhile, triggers the jump; doing so while in mid-air executes the classic ground pound; and the clapping of hands (which is detected by a microphone in the central part of the accessory) serves as a context sensitive command that can stun enemies, grab nearby bananas, or interact with close objects, according to the situation in which it is employed. With the standard joystick, on the other hand, the analog stick is used for movement, the A-button is responsible for the jumping motion, and the context sensitive action is activated through tapping the camera stick.

Overall, the controls work very well for the most part. Nevertheless, there are two situations in which they may frustrate players, particularly when the bongos are used. Firstly, underwater levels are annoying to navigate because due to the configuration of that control scheme the character does not swim down on a straight line, only diagonally, which makes some obstacles harder to overcome. Secondly, mid-air control is also a little bit lacking; making Donkey Kong move a little further to the right or left during a jump (which is done by pressing the bongo of the intended direction after clapping one’s hands) can be a bit of a chore, as the natural interval between both actions sometimes makes the character unable to jump as far as players wish he would. Despite those tiny flaws, though, the gameplay remains mostly unharmed during most of the time, as those two issues do not appear very often.

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Jungle Beat is divided into sixteen different kingdoms, each featuring two levels and ending with an engaging boss fight. The kingdoms themselves, though obviously very numerous, are able to cover an astounding amount of scenarios that rarely, if ever, come off as repetitive. Those sixteen boss battles, meanwhile, are not equally unique; the game actually packs just four different kinds of bosses, which are all creative on their own, and in order to present distinct challenges at the end of all kingdoms the big bad guys are each reused four times, with all re-matches being progressively harder and offering distinguishable changes in looks and attack patterns, which end up being satisfying enough.

In spite of the pleasant number of levels, Jungle Beat is not a very long game. Going through a kingdom should not take longer than ten minutes, not only because most levels are short but also because dying and having to restart is not common. Instead of being negative, though, as they would be in most games, these two characteristics are intrinsically linked to the uniqueness of Jungle Beat. The shortness of the levels is intimately related to how they are meant to be replayed over and over again; and the rarity of journey-ending deaths has a lot to do with how the game focuses on scoring rather than just getting to the end of the stage.

Jungle Beat is, as its main method of control indicates, a music game disguised as an amusing platformer. Players’ major goal on each stage is, therefore, to collect as many beats as possible. Those are acquired by doing pretty much anything: collecting bananas, beating down enemies, pulling off nice moves, and more. There is a twist, though, and one that accentuates Jungle Beat’s rhythmical nature and its inherent thrill. The game features an amazing combo system that multiplies the beats one has acquired if one manages to do a lot of beat-earning actions without touching the ground. And it is that little detail that makes this Donkey Kong adventure utterly unique and fascinating within his glorious canon of banana-gathering quests.

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Levels are, consequently, the fruitful grounds in which players can turn Donkey Kong into a parkour artist. By using wall jumps, backflips, ground pounds, various scenario elements, either alive or dead enemies, and even animal buddies (which are present in forms that are unique to Jungle Beat and nicely used during the game) players will, while frantically beating on the bongos and employing a good deal of muscle memory and quick reflexes, delight in extending these combos and keeping Donkey Kong airborne for as long as possible. In fact, the stages are cleverly built in a way that one could probably go through all of them without ever hitting the floor, which leaves a lot of room for improvement when seeking high scores and gives perfectionists many reasons to keep playing the stages repeatedly while having an utter blast.

Furthermore, the beats are used as Donkey Kong’s health, which not only explains how dying is a rare occurrence but also reveals how important it is not to make many mistakes during runs through the levels. Beats are additionally important because, according to a player’s accumulated performance in a kingdom, the game will award them with crests. A bronze crest is automatically given to one who reaches the end of the kingdom, but silver, golden and platinum crests are only gifted to gamers who achieve a certain score, with the latter requiring nearly perfect stage runs to be acquired.

These crests are not there just for the sake of self-gratification. In fact, they play a key role in the unlocking of each of the game’s kingdoms, which all have a specified number of crests as a requirement to one’s entry. Although the first four kingdoms have relatively low thresholds for entrance, requiring only that players beat the previous kingdoms thereby grabbing their bronze crests, as the game advances the entry toll grows fairly yet significantly. Due to that, much of the challenge from the late parts of Jungle Beat stems from fine-tuning one’s performance on previous levels so that more beats are acquired and a greater number of crests is gathered, hence taking its difficulty level to a height that will satisfy experienced gamers while not discouraging those who are clumsy either with a set of bongos or a traditional joystick.

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Visually, Jungle Beat does not stand among the GameCube’s best looking games; although in technical terms it does not disappoint, with its character models being particularly great especially when the action is zoomed in, the title falters when it comes to its artistic direction, which – especially regarding its scenarios – is generally too bland for its own good. Meanwhile, the soundtrack pales in comparison to those of the classic Donkey Kong platformers, and while there are no standout tracks, the overall score is very pleasant and relaxing. However, for a title that is – in its heart – a music game with a unique presentation, it is undeniable the music could have played a more prominent role.

Jungle Beat is, in the end, a forgotten gem of Nintendo’s rich lore. The fact it was created for a system that was not a widespread success and the general difficulty of playing it in its best state, which requires the acquisition of a pair of bongos that does not have any use outside a couple of other forgettable games, makes it easy to understand why it is rarely mentioned. Anyone who finds a way to play it, though, will be in for one of those unique and unexpected experiences that only a company like Nintendo can provide. Jungle Beat makes use of a control scheme that is, in theory, absolutely ludicrous for a platformer. However, when it is all said and done, it is able to use the nature of that accessory as a way to embed features and quirks of musical games into the fabric of a platformer; creating, as such, a sidescroller that is more about pulling off perfect combos by beating on a couple of drums with extreme precision than it is about beating the bad guy sitting at the end of the game.

Final Score: 7 – Very Good

7 thoughts on “Donkey Kong Jungle Beat

  1. A very fun game that I really need to revisit.

    A lot of DK lately, are you planning on doing a review of the Switch version of Tropical Freeze (or revising your DKC2 review and up it to that 10 that it deserves 😛 )?

    1. Yeah, two in a row! That was not lost on me.

      I don’t plan on doing either, sorry! hahahaha

      It’s funny you still remember that petty score I gave DKC2, but I wouldn’t know what else to write if I were to revisit that review.

      And, in a way, the same goes for Tropical Freeze. I am not planning on getting it, because games here are too expensive for me to consider buying it again, and I also wouldn’t know what else to write about it.

      I was, however, planning on writing something about the original Donkey Kong to keep the theme going. I was playing it a couple of weeks on my NES Classic Edition.

      Anyway, this is certainly worth a revisit! Thanks for the comment!

  2. This game was a work out back in the day. I haven’t seen those bongo’s in years, but seriously you could play this game for hours. It was so much fun

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