Donkey Kong 64

Donkey Kong 64

With the last installment seeing its release in 1996, Rare’s Donkey Kong Country trilogy served as both the pinnacle of 2D platforming and its swansong. During that time, Super Mario 64 was released as a launch title for the Nintendo 64. As the first successful fully three-dimensional platformer, it changed the direction of AAA gaming forever. While it is speculated that Nintendo’s landmark title may have resulted in Donkey Kong Country 3 enjoying less critical favor than its two predecessors, it was a success in its own right. Even so, Super Mario 64 made it clear that 3D was in, and it only made sense to adapt Donkey Kong Country to the new rubric. Gregg Mayles, who had served as the lead designer for Donkey Kong Country and its first sequel, led the effort to turn this possibility into a reality.

Development of this game began in 1997. It was originally slated to be released on Nintendo’s proposed 64DD (DD being short for “Disk Drive” or “Dynamic Drive”). The 64DD was intended to be a peripheral for the Nintendo 64 capable of reading magnetic disks and acting as an enabling technology platform for the development of new applications. It even boasted dialup connectivity in an age when the idea of connecting home consoles to the internet was in its infancy. However, development moved to the base console when the 64DD was delayed numerous times before being cancelled outright for international markets.

In the meantime, Mr. Mayles had acted as the lead designer and co-director of Banjo-Kazooie, which would become Rare’s first 3D platformer. Following the trail Super Mario 64 blazed, that game demonstrated Rare’s aptitude in platforming after dabbling in other genres with Blast Corps, Goldeneye 007, and Diddy Kong Racing – not a mean feat given the sheer number of developers who failed to adapt to these uncharted waters. Demonstrating they were every bit Nintendo’s equals in terms of 3D platforming, fans eagerly awaited a new Donkey Kong game more than ever – and that is exactly what Mr. Mayles and his team intended to give them.

With many developers transitioning from the Banjo-Kazooie team, they were determined to bring Donkey Kong into the third dimension. In fact, the game was so ambitious that the team allegedly ran into memory problems while programming it.

Expansion Pak

According to programmer Chris Marlow, a bug which caused the game to freeze after playing it for a significant length of time arose during development. It couldn’t be resolved without using the Nintendo 64’s Expansion Pak – an upgrade that provided an extra four megabytes of RAM (random-access memory). However, his story was disputed by artist Mark Stevenson. While such a bug did exist, according to Mr. Stevenson, the Expansion Pak wasn’t the solution to that problem. Regardless, Rare, at a great expense, made the decision to bundle each copy of the game with the memory upgrade.

Despite this setback, development of the game proceeded smoothly, and the project was completed in 1999. Keeping in line with the Nintendo 64 branding, the game was named Donkey Kong 64. Like Banjo-Kazooie, the game was met with a warm critical reception, being considered the single most ambitious title on the Nintendo 64 at the time. Review outlet IGN took note of the sheer amount of content and dubbed Donkey Kong 64 Rare’s War and Peace. With these sentiments having been expressed just one year after the release of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, can Donkey Kong 64 truly be considered one of the platform’s all-time greats?

Analyzing the Experience

Having suffered three, five, or even six defeats at the hands of Donkey Kong and his family, King K. Rool returns to Donkey Kong Island with one goal on his mind: revenge. He and his Kremlings have invented a mobile version of Crocodile Isle and are en route to Donkey Kong Island. The island is outfitted with a doomsday device called the Blast-o-Matic, and King K. Rool intends to use it to reduce Donkey Kong Island to rubble. Unfortunately for him, his underlings’ profound incompetence causes the artificial isle to collide with a large rock as soon as they arrive.

With repairs needing to be done, Crocodile Isle docks itself directly in front of Donkey Kong Island. Realizing that he will need quite a lot of time before he can exact his revenge, King K. Rool orders his cronies to distract Donkey Kong. To this end, they steal his hoard of Golden Bananas and imprison other members of the Kong family. Shortly thereafter, Squawks the Parrot flies into Donkey Kong’s house and informs him of King K. Rool’s machinations. Wasting no time, DK springs into action.

Donkey Kong 64 was originally conceived as a traditional, linear platformer in the same vein as the Donkey Kong Country trilogy. This was in the wake of the Nintendo 64’s debut, and Rare had not yet created a dedicated game engine for the console. This hypothetical game was developed for roughly eighteen months only for it to be scrapped in favor of what see its release in 1999.

The final product is, instead, a fully three-dimensional platforming game that follows in the footsteps of pioneering titles such as Super Mario 64 and Rare’s own Banjo-Kazooie. Anyone familiar with either game will discover that Donkey Kong 64 has a similar control scheme. The control stick is used to move DK, and the “A” button causes him to jump. The “C” buttons are used to direct the camera, although in some areas, it will affix itself to a specific spot and cannot be moved in such cases. The “B” button is used for attacking. Which attack he uses depends on whether or not he is moving. When stationary, he punches and if he is moving, the attack becomes a lunging kick using both feet.

The “Z” button causes DK to crouch. From here, pressing the “B” button will make DK somersault forward. Crouching also allows DK to perform his version of Mario’s Backward Somersault and Long Jump maneuvers. Which technique he performs depends on whether he is still or in motion when the “A” button is pressed.

Donkey Kong 64 - Cranky's Lab

Before one can begin the game properly, DK must visit Cranky Kong. The original Donkey Kong has been performing scientific experiments dedicated to enhancing his grandson’s natural abilities. This is one of the clearest commonalities between Donkey Kong 64 and Banjo-Kazooie. In a stark contrast to Super Mario 64, DK does not have all of his moves from the outset. He must instead get them from Cranky. The first enhancement, which allows him to perform a move similar to Mario’s Ground Pound, is free, but later upgrades will cost a certain number of Banana Bunch Coins.

There is a bit of a catch to the free service, however. In order to receive it, DK must go through four tutorials. These tutorials introduce several important mechanics. It wouldn’t be a Donkey Kong game if its titular primate didn’t throw barrels at some point. When you see a barrel, you can press and hold the “B” button to pick it up and release it to throw it. Swinging on vines has been revamped in order to better suit the 3D gameplay. When DK grabs one of the many inexplicably self-propelling vines throughout the game, he is locked into one of two directions, which can be altered by pressing the “R” button. From here, he can jump from vine to vine by jumping at the right moment.

When DK enters water, he swims along the surface. Pressing the “Z” button will make him dive and the “A” and “B” buttons allows him to swim at different speeds. In a measure of geniality, you only need to hold down the buttons to swim, not press them repeatedly. Although DK has plenty of strong moves, he may run into situations that require a bit more percussion. In these situations, he can use grenades fashioned from oranges. They are thrown by crouching and then pressing the right “C” button. After they are thrown, they will explode after either bouncing a few times or when it strikes an enemy. One should exercise caution when throwing these grenades, for they can damage DK himself if they hit a wall and bounce back into him.

The good news is that, in the event you carelessly disregard this advice, you’ll notice DK is significantly hardier than he was in Donkey Kong Country. Yes, rather than having each Kong in your party act as a hit point, so to speak, DK follows Banjo’s lead by having an actual health meter. It is represented as a watermelon, which appears on the top of screen whenever he takes damage or the game is paused. The watermelon is similar to the heart meter in The Legend of Zelda in that it has four slices. An overwhelming majority of the enemies and hazards you will run into only deal one point of damage. There will be a few scenarios in which DK can take greater amounts of damage, but these are rare; even the damage bosses inflict is limited to one slice.

However, as something of a tradeoff, and owing to the impact Super Mario 64 had on 3D gaming right out of the gate, DK now takes fall damage. So, while the shortest distance between two points is indeed a straight line, you may want to rethink your strategy should you need to descend quickly. On the other hand, this too only deals one point of damage, and simply guiding DK into a body of water will completely absorb the shock of sudden deceleration.

Once you have completed all of the tutorials, DK is allowed to leave the starting area and explore Donkey Kong Island properly. Though a bit simpler in design, Donkey Kong Island and its newfound, hostile neighbor are to Donkey Kong 64 what Gruntilda’s Lair was to Banjo-Kazooie: a hub area that connects to every world in the game. Initially, there is only one place to go: a small island tethered to Crocodile Isle.

Donkey Kong 64 - K. Lumsy

The island turns out to be a cell in which a giant Kremling named K. Lumsy has been imprisoned. He was ordered by King K. Rool to smash up Donkey Kong Island, but he refused. Angered at his slight, King K. Rool locked him in this prison. The cell has eight locks; seven of the keys are guarded by King K. Rool’s minions with the eighth in the possession of the tyrant himself. Upon hearing K. Lumsy’s plight, DK agrees to find the keys to free him. This causes K. Lumsy to jump for joy – the shockwaves emitted from his action conveniently opening the lobby to the first world: Jungle Japes.

Every world in the game is guarded by a talking signpost in King K. Rool’s employ named B. Locker. Adhering to his on-the-nose moniker, his role is to enforce the overarching collection aspect of Donkey Kong 64. Whereas Super Mario 64 had Power Stars and Banjo-Kazooie Jiggies, Donkey Kong 64 features the Golden Bananas that compose DK’s hoard. A single golden banana is required to make B. Locker move from his spot, which is rather serendipitous because K. Lumsy’s joyful paroxysm also uncovers one hiding in the rock preventing access to Jungle Japes. Naturally, as the game goes on, you will need more Golden Bananas to get past him. A cursory glance at the status screen will tell you that there are two-hundred Golden Bananas to find. Of them, one-hundred are required to complete the game.

Upon getting past B. Locker, Squawks helpfully informs you that there are twenty-five Golden Bananas to be found in Jungle Japes. However, there’s a catch. DK himself can only obtain five of them. The other twenty can only be collected by other Kong family members. Because of this, the first order of business is to free them. DK has four allies to help him on his quest this time around: Diddy, Lanky, Tiny, and Chunky. Diddy happens to be imprisoned in this world while the other are in the next two.

Freeing Diddy is easier said than done, though. In fact, you will find, upon reaching his cage, that it cannot be opened by conventional means. Once DK grabs the Golden Banana in front of Diddy’s cage, several buttons will appear throughout the area. These buttons are hopelessly out of reach, but luckily, an unlikely person has a perfect solution to this conundrum.

Donkey Kong 64 - Armory

On the way to Diddy’s cage, you may notice an armory magically spring into existence. With no need to lend DK his airplane or watercraft, Funky Kong has diversified his business, entering the field of arms dealership. As it so happens, he has the perfect weapon with which to activate those switches and free Diddy.

Two years prior to the release of Donkey Kong 64, Rare made waves by releasing GoldenEye 007 – a video-game adaptation of the James Bond film GoldenEye. At the time, it was the single most successful first-person shooter to have debuted on a console. Up until that point, PCs had a monopoly on the genre, and any other first-person shooter was inevitably and unfavorably compared to Doom. After the release of GoldenEye 007, subsequent first-person shooters not made by id Software were able to shake off the stigma of being mere Doom clones, becoming a fully-fledged genre.

Proving first-person gameplay could work in a console setting, incorporating elements from that genre into Donkey Kong 64 didn’t seem too farfetched. On September 10, 1999, Donkey Kong creator Shigeru Miyamoto, along with HAL president Satoru Iwata and Nintendo of America chair Howard Lincoln, traveled to Rare’s headquarters in Manor Park, London. Director George Andreas once recalled in an interview showing various aspects of the game to the three Nintendo representatives. They began to smile as they saw the gameplay for themselves.

Donkey Kong 64 - Shotgun

And then, Mr. Andreas had DK pull out a shotgun and blasted the beaver enemies with it. The truth was that the shotgun had been a placeholder he forgot he even placed in the game. The Donkey Kong creator looked aghast at first, but smiled, took a sheet of paper, and drew a gun seemingly fashioned from a tree trunk – leaves and all. “Oh yeah, that’s cool, we’ll put that in,” said Mr. Andreas. And so, he did.

Donkey Kong 64 - Coconut Gun

This was for the best, as having DK wield a realistic firearm would have been decidedly at odds with the game’s lighthearted tone. Mr. Miyamoto’s impromptu creation shoots coconuts rather than shotgun shells, allowing the weapon to fit in much better with the slapstick nature of the game. It is taken out by crouching and pressing the left “C” button. The gun can be used from both a third and first-person perspective. Although the first-person perspective allows you to aim more precisely at higher or lower targets, you can only run and gun from a third-person view. It’s handy for taking out enemies you either don’t want to make physical contact with or cannot otherwise reach. If you’re low on ammunition, you can return to Funky, and he will top you off.

Donkey Kong 64 - Candy's Music Shop

Cranky and Funky are not the only Kongs willing to help DK and his friends on their journey. Returning for the first time since the first Donkey Kong Country, DK’s girlfriend, Candy, is here to lend a hand. As the game saves automatically upon collecting anything valuable, she isn’t here to act as a permanent checkpoint. This time, she runs a music store. One may question the usefulness of a such a business in an action game, although Nintendo demonstrated the sheer power of music to their fans a year earlier when they released The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Donkey Kong 64 takes the concept in a more percussive direction.

DK himself is given a pair of bongo drums that, when played by crouching and pressing the up “C” button, damages all enemies in the vicinity. Given that most enemies drop watermelon slices upon defeat, it is a very useful panic button when you’re low on health. Like his coconut gun, the conga drums have a limited number of uses. You can recharge the instrument by finding a pair of headphones and running through it or by revisiting Candy. If you find a pad with a picture of the bongo drums, you can have DK stand atop it. If he plays the bongos there, something special will happen that can be useful on his quest to obtain the Golden Bananas. If the instrument is played on this pad, it will not expend any energy.

As you progress through the game and unlock the remaining Kongs, your first order of business should be to collect as many coins as possible before visiting Cranky, Funky, and Candy. Every Kong has three unique moves, a personal weapon, and an instrument – all of which are important for progressing in this game.

Once you get DK’s coconut gun, you can free Diddy by shooting the three switches keeping his cage locked. Unlike in Donkey Kong Country, Diddy does not travel alongside DK when you release him from captivity. Instead, there are several floating barrels throughout the game. They are called Tag Barrels, and, true to their name, they allow the current Kong to tag out in favor of another one.

Donkey Kong 64 - Kongs

Although the overall control scheme is the same when you play as Diddy, he retains his quirks from the original Donkey Kong Country, being less strong, yet far nimbler than DK. If you visit Funky’s armory as Diddy, it turns out the former has a weapon for the latter as well in the form of popguns which shoot peanuts. Similarly, if he visits Candy, he will be given an electric guitar, which serves the same purpose as DK’s bongos.

Over the next few worlds, you get a chance to unlock the other three Kongs. Of them, Lanky is the most unconventional in comparison to what role the Kongs served in previous games. Being an orangutan, his standard attacks have the longest reach, and, from Cranky, he will receive the ability to perform a handstand, which is useful for getting up steep slopes. His weapon is a blowgun that shoots grapes whereas his instrument is a trombone.

Tiny Kong has abilities similar to that of her sister, Dixie Kong. She too can traverse large gaps by spinning her hair like a propeller. It’s important to know that, unlike Dixie, she will very quickly lose momentum and drop off if she spins for too long of a time. Her weapon is a bow that shoots feathers, and her instrument is a saxophone.

Lastly, Chunky Kong, despite his timid nature, is the muscle of the group – as one would expect from the cousin of Kiddy Kong. If you’re ever in a situation in which a barrier needs to be demolished, he is the Kong to use. His weapon is a bazooka that shoots pineapples and his gentle persona is expressed through his instrument, which is a triangle.

Shortly after arriving in Jungle Japes, you will find bananas along the paths. Bananas were to the Donkey Kong Country trilogy what coins are to the Mario series; collect one-hundred of them, and you would be granted an extra life. In Donkey Kong 64, the purpose bananas serve a similar purpose to the notes from Banjo-Kazooie. That is, they are simple items out in the open in each world must be collected to progress through the game.

The bananas’ exact utility is a little different, however. While notes in Banjo-Kazooie were used to unlock new sections of Gruntilda’s Lair, bananas in Donkey Kong 64 are used to complete the current world. This is because, unlike Banjo-Kazooie, which tended to favor encounters against multiple normal enemies, Donkey Kong 64 caps off each world with a boss fight. Bosses in Donkey Kong 64 can only be fought with a specific Kong, and they each guard a key to K. Lumsy’s cage. His bombastic celebrations upon removing a lock will, in turn, open the path to the next world.

But, getting to the boss isn’t exactly a matter of simply finding the arena during your exploration of a world and barging in. Fortunately, there are two characters who can help you reach them.

Donkey Kong 64 - Boss Door

Each world has multiple portals leading to a room inhabited by a large, pink pig and a giant, blue hippopotamus named Troff and Scoff. They can help the DK and his companions reach the boss arena, but Troff has put on a bit of weight and cannot reach the key above his head. To counteract this, you must feed Scoff a certain number of bananas so he can use his extra weight to lift Troff to the key. Only bananas found in the current world may be used, so you cannot bring any from elsewhere to circumvent the required number. Once you have fed Scoff enough bananas, Troff will open the door. Each world has five-hundred bananas to find – one-hundred for each Kong, and the threshold becomes stricter in later worlds.

Donkey Kong 64 was universally acclaimed upon its 1999 debut, and playing through its first world reveals that, in many ways, it managed to be fairly inventive for its time. The game especially stood out from contemporary platformers by eschewing the life system entirely. Running out of health merely sends DK back to the world’s entrance. As it is, the only way you will ever see the Game Over screen for a majority of your playthrough is by quitting. Only in the final world is it possible to lose with the consequence of getting kicked back to the title screen.

It was incredibly forward-looking of Donkey Kong 64 to abandon what had become an obsolete holdover from the arcade era by 1999. The life system served absolutely no purpose in the pioneering Super Mario 64, as you were typically expected to get through a mission in one try. Banjo-Kazooie retained it simply because of the numerous cues it took from Super Mario 64, but even in that game, it just padded the experience out whenever you lost them all. Considering how difficult later challenges can get, just getting booted back to the last checkpoint for another try is greatly appreciated.

I also like how streamlined exploring these worlds is compared to Banjo-Kazooie. Whenever you wanted to start a new session in that game, you would have to march all the way to the entrance of the world you working on. Gruntilda’s Lair had a notably labyrinthine design, and while it could be memorized through repetition, it was practically a world unto itself, so getting to where you last left off took some time – even with its own teleportation system.

Immediately in front of DK upon exiting the starting area are five pads each with a different number on them. These are Bananaport Pads, which, as their name implies, allows DK to teleport to another place on the island. Once two pads of the corresponding number have been activated, you can teleport between them by pressing “Z” while standing on one. Donkey Kong 64 has a further advantage in that these teleportation systems exist in in the worlds themselves. Because a lot the time you spend playing this game involves scouring the worlds for bananas, golden or otherwise, an easy way to jump between major sections of the stage is greatly appreciated.

I also find myself praising the game just for having boss fights at the end of each world. Banjo-Kazooie was, uncharacteristically for Rare, light on boss fights, instead opting for scenarios in which the title characters had to fend off multiple normal enemies at once. It did adhere to the precedent Donkey Kong Country and its sequels set by making the final battle against Gruntilda appropriately challenging, but unlike King K. Rool, she didn’t have much of a baseline comparison. It’s a little harder to observe difficulty spikes in boss battles if only one or two exist in the entire experience.

Donkey Kong 64 brings back the boss fights and makes them a more integral part of the experience. This is because the boss of each world guards one of the keys to K. Lumsy’s cage. When you bring back a key, his thunderous celebration will open up the passage to the next world.

Donkey Kong 64 - Mad Jack

It helps that the boss fights themselves are every bit as creative as those in the Donkey Kong Country. Whether you’re fighting a tanklike armadillo or an insane jack-in-the-box, you can count on the game to test your knowledge in disparate ways. One boss fight even turns the experience into a pseudo-racing game wherein you set up an electrical conduit by driving a boat through increasingly smaller rings.

Donkey Kong 64 - Arcade

If it’s one last thing I truly enjoy about Donkey Kong 64, it’s that it manages to be a celebration of Nintendo and Rare’s contributions to the medium. In the third world, Frantic Factory, you will find a Donkey Kong arcade machine, which, once you power it up, can be played for yourself. It’s made a bit more difficult because you only have one life, but if you can get through all four stages, you will be rewarded a Golden Banana. This was a real treat for arcade fans, as it one of the first true conversions of the original Donkey Kong; the NES port infamously cut the second level out of circulation.

Donkey Kong 64 - Jetpak

Along those lines, you can take a deep dive into Rare’s past as well. If you collect seventy-five of one Kong’s bananas in a given stage, you will be awarded a Banana Medal. Should you receive fifteen medals, Cranky will allow you to play Jetpac on his computer. Released in 1983 for the ZX Spectrum, Jetpac was the first title released by Ultimate Play the Game – the developer that would later become Rare. As many North American Nintendo fans had never even heard of the ZX Spectrum, which enjoyed far greater popularity in Europe, this was an excellent way to introduce them to the platform.

However, as many good things are there to say about Donkey Kong 64, it is impossible to discuss it for any length of time without mentioning the backlash it has received in retrospectives. Now, it’s important to know that much of the backlash against Rare’s Donkey Kong games was perpetuated by the first wave of independent critics – many of whom grew up in the Atari and NES era. It’s a bit of an unfair generalization, but one would get the impression, when reading what they had to say at face value, that the medium jumped the shark as soon as Super Mario 64 debuted and added a third dimension to gaming. Given that many franchises such as The Legend of Zelda and Metal Gear only became better after breaking into 3D, this assertion was manifestly false, and these sentiments were primarily driven by nostalgia.

With that piece of context, I, unfortunately, do have to say, for all of its good points, the backlash against Donkey Kong 64 received was not undeserved at all. An observant reader may have gleamed what, exactly, is this game’s defining flaw by observing just how many collectables there are. This was a conscious design choice on the part of Rare co-founder Tim Stamper, who wanted Donkey Kong 64 to stand out from Banjo-Kazooie. In Mr. Andreas’s own words, he would “always go back to [Mr. Stamper] and say ‘Here’s some’ and he’d go ‘No, more things’.” In hindsight, he felt they went overboard, and lamented that he did not put his foot down at any point.

I will play the devil’s advocate for a moment and say that the overwhelming amount of collectables isn’t a problem in of itself. Mr. Andreas and his team wanted Donkey Kong 64 to have the same bombastic debut Donkey Kong Country had, and increasing the number of collectables was an easy way to let longtime fans know this game had more to offer. Furthermore, while the prospect of finding two-hundred Golden Bananas sounds daunting, you only need one-hundred of them to complete the game. You also need the Nintendo and Rareware Coins, which are awarded by, respectively, playing a second round of Donkey Kong and amassing 5,000 points in Jetpac. By extension, this means you need the fifteen banana medals required to unlock the latter.

There are also items known as Battle Crowns, which are won by finding pads bearing K. Rool’s face. They teleport your Kong to an arena where they must survive an onslaught from K. Rool’s underlings. You are awarded the Battle Crown if the Kong survives for a long enough time, and four of them are required to beat the game.

Even if there is a wider variety of items needed to complete the game, the requirements are still notably less strict than in Banjo-Kazooie, which required the player to find 94 of the 100 Jiggies and 810 out of a possible 900 notes to reach the final boss – 882 notes if you wanted to double your health meter. If you think getting at least fifteen Banana Medals sounds bad, you can try to put off the task until the final world, Hideout Helm, which gives away five of them just for progressing. This means, in practice, you only need to find ten medals in the worlds leading up to Hideout Helm. Plus, in later worlds, you will likely get the Banana Medals simply through the process of unlocking the boss door, so it’s not a terrible requirement.

So, now the question becomes, “If roughly half the game is optional, is there a point to collecting all of these items?” The answer to that question is, “Not really”. Unlike the latter two entries of the original Donkey Kong Country trilogy, which properly incentivized players to seek out the bonus rooms with their respective Lost Worlds, you aren’t going to unlock substantially new content by finding all of the collectables in Donkey Kong 64. In fact, Donkey Kong 64 is rather odd in how it includes Donkey Kong and Jetpac, yet makes playing them mandatory to unlock the final boss. Most games that include some kind of precursor only do so as an Easter egg, lacking any kind of reward for playing them.

In Donkey Kong 64, there is only one reason to find all of the collectables: to unlock the true ending. If you only get the bare minimum required to complete the game, the ending cinematic will cut off early. Because Donkey Kong 64 is not a story-driven game, this is a very weak incentive to get players to engage with the material. Donkey Kong Country 2 and Donkey Kong Country 3 understood that, in a gameplay-heavy experience, extra levels are the perfect reward. Sure, there was an alternate ending you could get from completing them, but it ultimately amounted to a simple confirmation that you experienced everything. The alternate endings were nice, but ultimately not the reason players of those games saw them through. Donkey Kong 64 therefore regresses back to the level of Donkey Kong County by having several optional tasks the player has no practical reason to perform.

The underlying problem with the collectables in Donkey Kong 64 is that there is no inherent value in finding them. As a counterexample, Banjo-Kazooie had Extra Honeycomb pieces, which increased the title characters’ life meter if six were collected. This meant that anyone who scoured those levels extensively would be given a tangible, useful reward.

Donkey Kong 64 settles for having Candy provide the Kongs with extra melons – including a free one when you first buy an instrument from her. Because your first priority in a new world should be to visit Funky, Candy, and Cranky to see if any of them have any upgrades, you’re going get these extra melons simply progressing as normal. Granted, the extra melons aren’t technically free, as even the first one requires purchasing an instrument. However, Banana Bunch Coins are so plentiful that, by the end of the game, each Kong will likely have an excess of fifty and absolutely nothing to spend them on – and that’s assuming you aren’t going out of your way to find them all. If you’re encouraging players to run around and collect a large array of items, there should be a reason beyond making the numbers go up.

Donkey Kong 64 - Banana Fairy

There is a slight exception to the rule in the form of the Banana Fairies. When Crocodile Isle crashed into a rock, the sound scared them off. If Tiny visits the Banana Fairy Princess, she will lend her and the other Kongs a camera. If you find a Banana Fairy, you can take their picture, which will capture them on film – literally – and send them home.

This is the only collection sidequest that is not required to complete the game. You do get a hidden 201st Golden Banana for seeing it through, but because two of the fairies are in Hideout Helm, you can only get it after B. Locker’s last appearance. Instead, its primary purpose is to enhance the Kong’s carrying capacity for certain items – most notably Crystal Coconuts. These items are essentially a mana meter in how they are consumed when using certain abilities, preventing you from using them indefinitely. Finding the fairies will also unlock bonus features, which can be accessed from the main menu. These features include a theater to watch the cutscenes, minigames, the ability to replay boss fights, and a cheat code menu. This is the only time the players are properly motivated into seeing a collection sidequest through because it feeds into one’s natural curiosity through rewards more interesting than seeing a number go up.

While having such a large variety of collectables is the first thing people will criticize about this game, it’s still not quite the reason why it manages to be so infamous. No, that would be how a majority of these items can only be picked up by one Kong. Items such as bananas and Banana Bunch Coins are color-coded yellow, red, blue, purple, and green, which indicate they can be collected by DK, Diddy, Lanky, Tiny, and Chunky respectively. If you’re going through the game blind, you only have a one in five chance of having the correct Kong to collect a given banana cache you may stumble upon. This means having to remember where the cache was, jumping into a Tag Barrel, switching to the correct Kong, and walking all the way back. Even with the Bananaport system, this becomes repetitive very quickly.

This issue would be greatly alleviated if you could simply switch Kongs with a button press like you could in Donkey Kong Country. Instead, a significant portion of the experience involves backtracking to the nearest Tag Barrel. It’s so bad that, to have a chance of finding everything, you often have to bring Kongs into areas they would otherwise have no reason to access. This is typically accomplished by unlocking an area with one Kong’s unique abilities, and using a Bananaport to get the other Kong there. Needless to say, anyone playing this game for a significant length of time will grow to despise the Tag Barrel. About the only good thing one can say about it is that it restores your Kongs’ health; otherwise, it serves only to hinder one’s progress.

The Golden Bananas themselves suffer from their own problem. There are eight worlds in the game to consider when including Donkey Kong Island itself and excluding Hideout Helm, the latter of which doesn’t have any Golden Bananas at all. The issue at hand lies in the number of bananas to be found in each main world at twenty-five. In order to justify putting that many Golden Bananas in a single world and avoid making things too repetitive, the developers would have needed to both make the worlds large enough to accommodate them all and devise unique challenges for each one.

To be fair, the worlds in Donkey Kong 64 are a bit more elaborate than those of Banjo-Kazooie with each Kong getting several unique areas to themselves, but it doesn’t change how compressed the design is at times. It’s not so obvious at first, but you’ll realize, by combing the stages as each Kong, that the stages are rather spontaneous in their design. Much like the bananas, the worlds tend to place areas you need a specific Kong to enter with little rhyme or reason, causing yet more tedious trips to the Tag Barrel.

I almost think the developers should have more cleanly divided the worlds in way that each Kong had their own, unique area if for no other reason than to dimmish the unnecessary backtracking. On the other hand, the fact that the level design doesn’t coalesce the way Banjo-Kazooie does is a significant strike against it. You’re not really playing through one cohesive world, but rather five distinct worlds that haphazardly overlap with each other.

The other problem with proposing such a fix is that it would be nearly impossible to make any kind of meaningful stage centered around DK’s extremely limited moveset. Indeed, I find it irksome that, once again, Rare inadvertently gave DK the short end of the stick. He already had a bad track record in the original trilogy wherein he was only playable in the weakest installment. On top of that, in the one game where he was playable, Diddy overshadowed him. While DK was stronger and capable of taking out enemies Diddy couldn’t, the latter’s agility made finding purchase on platforms much easier. As the game focused on platforming rather than on combat, Diddy was the optimal choice in most situations. Whenever the game introduced enemies DK couldn’t harm, his one advantage was rendered irrelevant.

The intro rap to Donkey Kong 64 lets players know he is bigger, faster, and stronger, but the verse rings hollow when you actually play the game and wind up using the other Kongs far more often. Granted, with the way the game works, each Kong is responsible for finding roughly one-fifth of the total collectables. In theory, this would mean playing as each Kong for equally long portions of the experience.

However, this isn’t what happens in practice. All of the other Kongs have at least one move that significantly aids their ability to explore a given stage. Diddy can fly around using a jetpack by jumping into a barrel bearing his face. Lanky performs a handstand that allows him to run up steep slopes and can inflate like a balloon using pads bearing his face, allowing him to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. In addition to her helicopter spin, Tiny can, true to her name, shrink in size using her own barrels, which is vital to accessing small openings. Nearing the end of the game, she even gains access to a personal teleportation system. Lastly, Chunky can use his immense strength to break fragile gates and, complementing Tiny’s ability, become a giant if his standard form isn’t up to the task.

Donkey Kong 64 - Baboon Blast

DK himself has three unique abilities just like the other Kongs, but they are completely useless outside of the situations in which they’re required. His pads launch him into a barrel cannon minigame. Just like Donkey Kong Country, your goal is to shoot him from cannon to another by lining them up properly. The main difference is that you are now aiming from a first-person perspective. This makes lining up the cannons significantly harder, for doing so from a first-person perspective is quite difficult. This admittedly wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that the hit detection for these barrel cannons is far pickier than it was in Donkey Kong Country. While those games only cared if DK collided with the barrel, this one requires him to be dead center. It’s not uncommon when playing this game to have DK go right through the barrel’s edge and into the abyss.

His other two abilities have very limited applicability as well. His second ability allows him to enter his own barrels and emerge invulnerable to damage. The problem with giving your character the power to become invulnerable is that it breaks the basic premise upon which most games operate. Banjo-Kazooie made it work with Kazooie’s Wonderwing technique because it consumed resources at an alarmingly fast rate, required you to hold down a button, and couldn’t be used with other abilities. There were also enemies that could only be harmed by the Wonderwing, making those encounters the ideal time to use it. If you overused the ability, you would have to waste time collecting the rare Golden Feathers they ran on. It was a useful panic button, but you were ultimately dissuaded from abusing it – and actively punished if you did.

Donkey Kong 64, on the other hand, opts for only using this ability a scant number of times– always within inches of whatever obstacle he needs to circumvent with it. Because the obstacles can be bypassed entirely as long as DK is invulnerable, there is no higher strategy than simply jumping into the barrel and making a break for it. As this ability runs on Crystal Coconuts, the designers could have implemented a maze with the premise that the player only has a limited amount of time to get through. That there is no such maze was a missed opportunity.

His last ability allows him to pull levers. It’s very glaring because every other Kong has an ability that can be used without the need for a customized pad or barrel. DK’s corresponding ability, on the other hand, can only be used whenever a lever happens to be present. Because levers are not especially common, he effectively does not have a third ability for a majority of your playthrough.

The core problem with DK in this game is that while the other Kongs’ abilities have myriad applications, his are entirely pedestrian. The result is that he doesn’t have a niche to fill. Diddy, Lanky, and Tiny are the ones you’re going to use just to get from Point A to Point B in most situations. Sometimes, you may find that the path from Point A to Point B is jammed by an obstacle you need to punch through, but while DK would indeed have helped out in such a situation in the original Donkey Kong Country, Chunky is your go-to person whenever you need muscle in Donkey Kong 64. This means DK’s purpose is greatly diminished, outclassed by Diddy, Lanky, and Tiny in terms of mobility and Chunky in raw strength. He doesn’t even get to land the coup de grâce in the final boss fight against King K. Rool; Chunky does instead.

Donkey Kong 64 - Snide's HQ

It also becomes apparent, if you actually try to get all 201 Golden Bananas, that the developers didn’t have nearly enough ideas to go along with them. Forty of these bananas are dedicated to yet another collection sidequest. The Blast-o-Matic was designed by a weasel named Snide. However, King K. Rool fired Snide out of paranoia that he would betray him. Because of the king’s own actions, Snide’s betrayal has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. He has now set up shop in Donkey Kong Island and wants to help the Kongs out in their quest by disabling K. Rool’s doomsday device.

Donkey Kong 64 - Kasplat

To do this, he requires the Kongs to recover pieces of the Blast-o-Matic’s blueprints. These copies are being guarded by Kremlings called Kasplats. This is another aspect that exacerbates the backtracking you must do because, like everything else, these blueprints are also color coded. The hair of the Kasplats indicates which Kong can recover their blueprint. It’s especially irritating because, unlike the other Golden Bananas, which can usually only be reached with one Kong, Kasplats tend to show up in random places. It doesn’t help that the blue haired Kasplats who patrol dark areas can be mistaken for their purple haired brethren, leading to a few instances where you defeat them with the wrong Kong.

Then again, if the blueprints weren’t color coded, it would remove the single even remotely challenging aspect about getting them, for the Kasplats are only slightly stronger than normal enemies. So, while the game brags about having five Golden Bananas for each Kong to collect, there are only four challenges that make an effort to incorporate a given world’s set pieces in some fashion. The main exception is DK, who, because of his aforementioned barrel cannon minigame, usually only has three world-specific challenges to complete.

Donkey Kong 64 - Boat Race

However, even when considering the remaining 160 or so standard Golden Bananas, it’s clear the developers padded out the experience to reach that number. I will give credit where it’s due and say that the variety of challenges awaiting the player in this game is fairly impressive. If you attempt to find all the Golden Bananas, you will, among other things, find yourself going through a few airborne obstacle courses as Diddy, racing in a slot car as Tiny, and competing against a seal in a boat race as DK.

Donkey Kong 64 - Teetering Turtle Trouble

The problem is that while the variety seems impressive, it is illusionary. Oftentimes, in lieu of placing a real challenge for the Kongs, the developers opted to place Bonus Barrels across the stages. These are analogous to the bonus rooms from the original trilogy, and when you complete the minigame within one, you are awarded a Golden Banana.

However, they play slightly differently than the Donkey Kong Country bonus rooms. Instead of a small variety of challenges that incorporate the environment, there is a slightly larger array of minigames for the player to complete. While it may sound like a good idea, the ultimate problem is that many of these minigames come in exactly one form. Whenever you repeat a challenge, chances are good you’re just given a more difficult version with, for example, a stricter time limit. Needless to say, the bonus rooms from the original trilogy were far more successful simply by virtue of offering more genuine variety by incorporating the environments and stage gimmicks.

Donkey Kong 64 - Minecart Mayhem

It especially doesn’t help that the Bonus Barrel minigames vary wildly in terms of quality. Some are actually fun or otherwise challenge the player in unique ways. Minecart Mayhem is an especially standout effort, as it involves guiding the active Kong in an enclosed minecart track, dodging moving TNT barrels. Because you can’t jump out of their path, your strategy will involve having to switch tracks so as to avoid colliding with the barrels. Other highlights include Stealthy Snoop, which requires the Kongs to get to the goal while staying out of sight of the patrolling Kremlings, and Teetering Turtle Trouble, a game that involves feeding snakes to keep them from dropping the turtle they’re spinning on their tails. Considering how poorly action games usually handle stealth when they aren’t specifically centered around it, the former minigame is especially admirable.

Donkey Kong 64 - Beaver Bother

However, while most of the other games are passable, there are two that will assuredly bring your playthrough to a dead stop whenever they pop up: Beaver Bother and Batty Barrel Bandit. Beaver Bother is by far the most infamous minigame of the bunch – to the point where if you bring up Donkey Kong 64 to someone who grew up with it, it will be one of the first things they mention. Playing it for more than five seconds reveals why, exactly, that is. Playing as a Klaptrap, one of the Kremling enemies, you must scare the beavers by pressing the “B” button, guiding them into a hole in the center of the arena.

It is almost impossible to overstate how poorly implemented this game manages to be if you haven’t played it yourself. If you think you can simply scare the beavers into the hole by charging in them and hammering the “B” button, you’re only half right. In reality, scaring the beavers doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll run in the direction opposite your Klaptrap. In fact, they may very well run into your Klaptrap trying to get away from it. This is especially bad because if they touch the walls of the arena, you cannot scare them in the right direction.

Worse, even if you do scare them in the right direction, they often get caught on an invisible barrier surrounding the hole. Obviously, this was a safeguard to avoid having the beavers fall in the hole by accident, but it’s not programmed well. It seems completely random as to whether the scared beavers will circumvent the barrier and fall in the hole or get caught on it while running in random directions. Naturally, there’s nothing stopping your Klaptrap from falling in the hole, so you better not be too aggressive. Depending on how merciful the random-number generator is feeling, you may ace this challenge on your first try or find yourself stuck on it for an hour. Either way, if the crux of your challenge depends on factors the player can’t control, chances are, you don’t have a winner on your hands.

Donkey Kong 64 - Batty Barrel Bandit

On the subject of randomness, there is the other terrible minigame: Batty Barrel Bandit. It is a slot machine wherein the goal is to line up four banana pictures. In general, it’s never a good idea to give slot machines any kind of importance in a video game. Due to their random nature, they should be limited to optional sidequests. That way, if the player gets burned playing them, they will have no one to blame but themselves.

Meanwhile, Batty Barrel Bandit makes a great case as to why slot machines don’t work as the main attraction. To be fair, Batty Barrel Bandit is not as difficult as playing a real slot machine. The slots go slowly enough and have predictable patterns that can be memorized. Even so, the timing you need is incredibly precise, and if you miss the mark by even a second, you will see the slot jump ahead two pictures. Like Beaver Bother, you can get blaze through Batty Barrel Bandit without breaking a sweat or find yourself stuck on it for an hour or so. It’s not as bad by virtue of, ironically enough, being less random, but it still feels like something that a team would make after running out of ideas midway through development.

Donkey Kong 64 - Beetle Race

This lack of quality control can also be observed in minigames outside of Bonus Barrels. A reoccurring challenge involves racing another character. As Rare had previously dabbled in the genre in the form of Diddy Kong Racing, one would expect these challenges to have zero execution issues. For the most part, that’s true, but there’s a catch. When you’re made to race, you usually have to collect a certain number of coins. And said number can be as high as fifty.

This is reminiscent of the Silver Coin Challenge in Diddy Kong Racing, and it’s as much of a bad idea here as it was in that game. Racing games should be a test of the participants’ speed and nothing else. While collecting tokens during a race would be perfectly acceptable as an optional challenge mode, it doesn’t work when it’s forced upon the player, as they will often have to take suboptimal routes to maximize their earnings. Donkey Kong 64 isn’t quite as bad about it because you only ever race one opponent and you don’t have to get every coin, but it’s still a tall order. This is especially so when you race down a slide against a beetle, for running into him deducts coins. Compounded with the unpolished controls, which preclude turning corners at fast speeds, and you have yourself one frustrating task.

I also have to comment that, in a stark contrast to the Donkey Kong Country trilogy, Donkey Kong 64 is not a well-programmed game. Ever since Donkey Kong Country, Rare had a knack for pushing the hardware they were working with to their absolute limits. While that was admirable, with Donkey Kong 64, their design philosophy worked against them. It’s difficult to properly articulate this criticism within the context of the game’s release because it goes beyond merely featuring myriad bugs. After all, programming errors exist even in the best titles out there, and they were especially common in the early 3D era.

Instead, the main problem with Donkey Kong 64 is that the programmers took advantage of lags, slowdowns and the game’s volatile framerate as a means of throttling, which is to say, bringing it down to a manageable speed. To get an idea of what I mean by this, one need only play the game on a more powerful console. Suddenly, certain minigames become impossible, as it turns out they were specifically balanced around the Nintendo 64’s hardware limitations.

Donkey Kong 64 - Krazy Kong Klamour

This is most noticeable in the Bonus Barrel minigame Krazy Kong Klamor wherein you’re made to launch watermelons at a Golden Banana amidst the five Kongs. If you hit the Kongs, you lose one point. If you’re playing Donkey Kong 64 on a platform other than the Nintendo 64, this task becomes nigh impossible no matter how good your reflexes are. The lights will dim faster than the melons can hit their intended targets.

The only way to win is to either make a save state when the layout of the room is determined or pause buffer. The latter technique involves pausing when the lights come on, pressing the control stick in the direction of the banana, unpausing, and launching the melon immediately. Naturally, this kind of trickery is not something you should have to do just to stand a chance of winning normally. Speedrunners often resort to pause buffering so events will load differently, thus shaving time off their attempt – not so they can simply finish the game. Then again, it should be noted that even on the Nintendo 64, this task is only barely possible.

Worse still is that this affects several other events – including a race Lanky must run against a rabbit in the fifth world. In this race, you’re expected to use his hand sprinting ability to beat the rabbit. The problem is that in order to stand a chance, you must have Lanky jump into his personal barrel. The barrel’s transformation sequence will ensure the rabbit has a substantial lead by the time it’s finished. If you’re not playing on the Nintendo 64, it is nearly impossible to catch him. The only realistic way of winning involves taking advantage of a glitch that, if executed properly, will have Lanky begin the race sprinting.

Ultimately though, what I find to be the most disappointing thing about Donkey Kong 64 is that, like many contemporary AAA titles, the design quality significantly drops around the halfway point and never recovers. The first three worlds, Jungle Japes, Angry Aztec, and Frantic Factory, all flow very well and have a cohesiveness to them that keeps the backtracking to a minimum. What I especially like about them is how they all have a base melody that changes depending on where you are in the stage. Outdoor areas usually have the full orchestra whereas caverns take a more minimalistic approach. When underwater, reverb is added to the tracks. It’s a great way to establish the atmosphere and lends the worlds a dynamic quality.

Donkey Kong 64 - Gloomy Galleon

Things begin to go off the rails starting in the fourth world: Gloomy Galleon. As one may deduce from its name, Gloomy Galleon is this game’s designated water stage. Water stages in general tend to be fairly controversial among enthusiats. Some enjoy them for their change of pace, as it’s a way of making players think in three dimensions without explicitly giving their characters the ability to fly, which would defeat the purpose of most platforming games. Others deride them for slowing the pace of the game to a crawl, as swimming tends to be a more involved and slower process than walking or running. Personally, I feel they work best when the developers do what they can to mitigate the sheer tedium of swimming. They tend to be at their worst whenever developers make them into mazes.

However good the layout of Gloomy Galleon may have been, the manner in which Donkey Kong 64 was designed completely sabotaged any chance it had of being an enjoyable level. After all, if you think it’s bad enough going through a stage that takes place on dry land five times to get everything, imagine how much worse it is when you add water to the equation. The only saving grace is that Donkey Kong 64 does not feature an oxygen meter, meaning the Kongs can stay underwater indefinitely. It’s just as well; constantly grabbing air bubbles or rising to the surface would have exacerbated the already tedious backtracking.

Donkey Kong 64 - Fungi Forest

The next few stages suffer in their own unique ways. Fungi Forest, which was originally intended to be a Banjo-Kazooie stage, but ended up being cut due to time constraints, has a gimmick centered around changing the time from day to night and vice versa. In addition to the standard backtracking to collect all the items, you also have to contend with certain areas or events only being accessible at a certain time of day. This means going back to the one area in the world where you can make the change whenever you find your progress blocked. Four Bananaports do lead back to the switch that changes the day/night cycles, but it’s still annoying.

Crystal Caves doesn’t seem so bad at first until you realize that it has an anomalously high amount of challenge rooms which range anywhere from tolerable to insufferable. Diddy in particular has one room in which he is made to defeat all of the enemies in fifty seconds. With a camera uncooperative in close quarters and the fact that the enemies’ defeated animations need to play out entirely for it to count, and you can easily spend an hour in this room. Meanwhile, Creepy Castle is absolutely massive with several subareas. While those aspects wouldn’t have been a problem in of themselves, having to constantly go back to the Tag Barrel to switch Kongs makes navigating it a nightmare – fittingly, enough.

Donkey Kong 64 - Hideout Helm

Finally, Hideout Helm, while much more straightforward than the previous seven worlds, still manages to have its own set of annoyances. You notably have a time limit to get through it, as King K. Rool will attempt to fire the unfinished Blast-o-Matic when the Kongs have infiltrate his stronghold. Fortunately, Snide will step in and stall the countdown timer. This means the number of blueprints you collected will determine your time limit. By default, you have ten minutes to complete the stage, but each blueprint collected will afford you an extra minute’s time for a grand total of fifty.

While the Hideout Helm isn’t overly difficult, it does continue to demonstrate the developers’ bad habit of relying too heavily on the Bonus Barrels whenever they couldn’t think of actual stage design gimmicks. Granted, the bonus rooms in Hideout Helm are noticeably shorter than any of the ones in the previous worlds, but they can stall you for a surprisingly long time if you don’t succeed quickly enough. This is partially because the timer doesn’t stop counting down when you’re receiving instructions or watching cutscenes – including the one that plays if you fail an event.

Once you have made it to King K. Rool’s control room, you will discover that he has retreated, allowing you access to the final key. This, of course, assumes you have all the items you need, which includes four Battle Crowns and both the Nintnedo and Rareware coins. If you don’t have them, then the endgame is denied to you until you go back and get them. They’re admittedly not obscure collectables, but I can only imagine how frustrating that would have been to someone who played this game without a guide back in 1999.

When you get the final key, you will, in turn, be able to free K. Lumsy. True to his name, he swats down King K. Rool’s escape craft by complete accident after tripping over a rock. When you have the Kongs enter the aircraft, they find themselves in a boxing arena for the long-awaited confrontation against King K. Rool.

Donkey Kong 64 - Final Boss

Just like in the Donkey Kong Country trilogy, he is appropriately the most difficult boss in the game, although I have to say that, once again, the developers tried too hard to outdo themselves. To win, each of the Kongs must defeat him in twelve rounds. Each are three minutes, and every Kong must complete their phase for you to win – starting with DK and ending with Chunky.

The main issue I have with this finale can be traced back to underlying problem dampening the rest of the experince: it doesn’t feel like a cohesive confrontation as much as it is five mini fights you have to win in a row. Indeed, if you fail at any point, you must start over from the beginning with DK. Mercifully, the Kongs’ health is restored upon switching characters, but it’s still irritating having to repeat the earlier portions of the fight when it’s the later ones you ultimately get the least practice with. It is admittedly satisfying when you have the timid, unassuming Chunky land the finishing blow, but one has to wonder after a certain point if dealing with the bad design choices was worth it.

Donkey Kong 64 - Ending

Drawing a Conclusion

Pros:

  • Great music despite puerile opening track
  • Attempts to vary up gameplay
  • Each character has a unique skillset
  • Decent level design
  • Presented well for its time
  • Does away with life system entirely
  • Includes Donkey Kong arcade game and Rare’s own Jetpac
Cons:

  • Unpolished controls
  • Hit detection is decidedly imprecise
  • Not programmed especially well
  • Bad balance between characters
  • Need to switch characters frequently results in much backtracking
  • Unreliable camera
  • Bonus stages are annoying, numerous, and repetitive
  • Overwhelming number of collectables
  • Quality of design drops starting in fourth world
  • Lacks strong incentive for players to unlock everything

How Donkey Kong 64 has fared in hindsight is bizarre – and that’s understating things. In a lot of ways, its reputation went through many of the same motions as Donkey Kong Country itself. That is to say, it was released to much critical acclaim only for public opinion on it to sour once the medium’s earliest adopters began influencing the discourse. These critics were generally dismissive of anything beyond the SNES’s debut, and consequently approached AAA releases in the 2000s with a highly caustic attitude, believing they lacked the imagination of their own childhood favorites. Rare’s Donkey Kong games in particular became something of a lightning rod for these critics, for they argued they set a bad precedent by teaching future AAA developers to value style over substance.

This assessment ultimately fell out of favor due to people collectively realizing these arguments were not being made in good faith. Once that happened, the Donkey Kong Country trilogy was perfectly acceptable to like again with Donkey Kong Country 2 rightfully reevaluated as one of the best 2D platformers of all time. This, however, is where the story of Donkey Kong 64 and its public perception significantly deviates from those of its three SNES predecessors. While those games were able to shake off accusations of being overrated, Donkey Kong 64 remains a controversial entry in Rare’s canon to this day – even among fans of their 3D platformers. Some will argue it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Banjo-Kazooie while others blame it for killing off the collect-a-thon as a subgenre.

For the longest time, I myself thought the game received more ire than it deserved. Sure, even back in 1999, I knew it did not surpass the sky-high standards Donkey Kong Country 2 and Donkey Kong Country 3 set, but I still had a lot of fun with it. And then I replayed it years later and understood why, exactly, it has such a polarizing reputation. When I first played this game, I didn’t bother getting every collectable. If you’re only accomplishing the bare minimum required to complete the game, Donkey Kong 64 isn’t so bad. The controls may not be polished, but it’s to be expected out of a 3D game this old – Super Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time notwithstanding. It was when I managed to find every collectable in the game that the ugly truth stared me in the face: Donkey Kong 64 becomes worse the longer you play it.

This is especially glaring because while Donkey Kong Country and its two sequels strove to provide unique scenarios with every stage, Donkey Kong 64 settles for endlessly repeating what few challenges it does have to project the illusion of variety. Suddenly, its shaky controls aren’t up to snuff, the camera is borderline unworkable for what you need it to do, and the sheer number of recycled bonus stages begins reeking of laziness. And even if you can put up with every single one of those issues, you will find yourself bored by the nigh-endless amounts of backtracking you must do.

Now, in light of these problems, is Donkey Kong 64 a bad game? Some argue it’s the single worst Donkey Kong game Rare ever made, but I wouldn’t go that far. Even if the actual variety to be found is much lower than advertised, Donkey Kong 64 was still incredibly ambitious for 1999, which, if nothing else, places it ahead of the Donkey Kong Land trilogy. On the other hand, while the first wave of independent critics were completely wrong to dismiss Donkey Kong Country or its sequels, Donkey Kong 64 deserved every complaint lodged against it. While it’s not a bad game, at bare minimum, you need to be a fan of collect-a-thons and early 3D platformers to get anything worthwhile out of it. If you aren’t, there’s no point in trying; this game will lose you one way or another – or, more accurately, via the same way repeated ad nauseum.

Final Score: 5/10

5 thoughts on “Donkey Kong 64

  1. Oh, man, too bad! This is a 9/10 for me, but I do know I am in the vast minority. The backtracking never bothered me, and I love the ridiculous variety the game has (except for Beaver Bother, of course).

    Anyway, fair points all around. It was an interesting read. And here’s hoping that rumored Donkey Kong game drinks from this one’s source while fixing the issues so many complain about.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I will admit that the backtracking isn’t as bad as it would become in later AAA efforts, but it’s still pretty egregious. And while there is, to an extent, a lot of variety, it doesn’t mean much when considering the game’s tendency to repeat challenges. Forcing you to play Beaver Bother three times (twice in Creepy Castle) to get everything is inexcusable. Glad we can agree that’s the single worst minigame of the bunch, although Batty Barrel Bandit is almost as bad by virtue of being a required slot machine.

      A 3D Donkey Kong game free of the issues in Donkey Kong 64 would be great. I’ve been playing Donkey Kong Country Returns lately, and while it is better than Donkey Kong 64, I have to say that it falls short of Donkey Kong Country 2 and 3’s standards because I could tell it was made under the assumption that Donkey Kong Country was the best game in the trilogy (which it’s not). That and some rather user-unfriendly game design decisions really hold that title back. If this 3D Donkey Kong game is to be successful, it can use Donkey Kong 64 as a base, but it has to be with a more critical eye than what Retro Studios had when making Returns, and probably observe how the Mario series gets way with making collect-a-thons long after the genre’s heyday.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Honestly, I don’t remember having too much trouble with Batty Barrel Bandit. But yeah, a slot-machine mini-game is not that great of an idea.

        As for a supposed new 3D Donkey Kong game, if it is handled (even if partially) by Nintendo’s internal studios, I think it is likely they will do exactly what you mentioned.

        Liked by 1 person

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