I often think about games from my childhood and ask myself if they actually hold up. In my experience almost all of the most memorable games do, but every once in a while you play one and think to yourself, “Why did I ever think this was fun?” Initially, I had placed Donkey Kong 64 in the halls of honor of my mind, alongside classics that I continuously return to like Link to the Past, Super Mario 64, and other gaming gems that truly stand the test of time. I was wrong … so very, very, wrong.
One of my most vivid childhood memories was playing the hell out of DK 64 but never actually beating it. This was mostly due to the ever elusive Nintendo coin, but we can get into that later. The thing is, when I went back to this game I remembered a whole lot of it. And when I say a lot I mean specific locations of bananas and levels that I collected and played well over 10 years ago. That says something for the actual design of this game. Let’s dig into it though and see what I’ve turned up after playing through the story and beating a game that I could never conquer as a lad.
Donkey Kong 64 takes us to DK’s private island, which is just a large hollowed out version of his head. All of the other Kongs (Diddy, Lanky, Chunky, and Tiny) have been kidnapped and Donkey Kong’s banana hoard has been plundered. It is up to DK himself to take the fight to King K. Rool and his legions of Kremlings in order to both save his friends and his beloved golden bananas. Along the way DK will find his Kong cousins and use their powers to help him in his quest.
The story beats here are pretty bare bones, with new areas unlocking after a world is completed and a text driven cut-scene to go along with it. True to the character adventure platformer genre of the 90’s, the game is packed with all sorts of different friends and foes who you will meet along the way. Being made by RARE, these characters are very similar to those that would have been found in games like their early hit Banjo Kazooie or its follow up, though they don’t feel quite as endearing here. The only NPCs who really have lasting character are the Kongs themselves and some of the Kremlings. Basically the entire plot is that Krool brought his giant Krool shaped ship to DK’s Donkey Kong shaped Island and now DK wants him to go away because he’s a jerk and DK likes bananas.
The game introduces you early on to K. Lumsy, an enormous Kremling who has been locked up by King K. Rool because he doesn’t want to harm the “nice monkeys”. He asks the player to collect keys to release him because he’s a cool guy and not a giant crocodile that can probably step on DK and immediately kill him. The keys are earned by defeating the boss of each of the eight worlds that DK and company will encounter. Aside from these, there are a myriad of other collectables that DK can pick up throughout each level. The most important of these are regular and golden bananas.Gaining access to each world requires enough golden bananas to appease an angry looking sign post. Bosses within these worlds are accessed by feeding a tiny bipedal hippopotamus on one side of a boss door as many bananas as you need to make him fat enough to raise up a platform, on the other side of the door, that a large bipedal pig is standing on. Once the hippo is fat enough the pig is raised up high enough on his platform to be able to turn a key in a keyhole on the door which unlocks the boss fight. Whoever came up with the patented Hippo/Pig door unlocking mechanic, I want to see their notes so I know what they could have possibly been thinking at the time.
Once a boss fight is unlocked it requires a specific Kong, displayed on the door itself, to enter and fight the boss. Each boss of the game has different mechanics but it they all shoot some sort of laser or fire ball at the player. All in all, the boss fights are one of the more interesting parts of the game, each containing varying mechanics per boss. One of Lanky’s boss doors leads to him fighting the boss by just rowing around what appears to be a large half of a chestnut while passing through gates in the water.
Each Kong that you unlock gains different abilities by spending Banana coins at different vendors in the game. Banana coins are yet another currency in the game that can be collected throughout each level.
With all these bananas being tossed around you might wonder, “What about other fruits?” Well fear not friends! Each Kong is equipped with a weapon, purchased with banana coins from the inexplicably militaristic Funky Kong, that shoots some sort of fruit (Except Tiny Kong, who for some reason shoots feathers). All of the Kongs use oranges as grenades which are unlocked early on. Certain enemies, doors, and puzzles throughout the game can be killed/opened/completed only by attacks from a specific Kong. For instance, if a door has a button with a pineapple on it then you will need to find a barrel to switch to Chunky Kong, as he is the only one who shoots pineapples from his weapon.
On top of all this, each of the 5 Kongs has unique abilities and instruments (What? You never knew the DK and company had a family band?) that they will obtain that are required to complete challenges and obtain golden bananas throughout the game. Sounds like a lot, right? It is.
The gameplay itself ends up lacking in areas where other 3D adventure style games on this platform shine, with the player fighting against the camera more often than not. This makes some of the jumps and narrow pathways you need pass over incredibly frustrating to deal with, especially when the camera uses a fixed view angle that doesn’t let you manipulate it with the C-Buttons.
To add to the frustration of this game, many of the challenges throughout the game are timed and they are certainly not generous with the amount of time they give you. Some of these challenges are downright brutal, like the infamous beaver bother mini game. If you haven’t seen it, check YouTube because I hate it so much I don’t even want to talk about it.
On top of the normal challenges, two special coins are required to beat the game. The Nintendo coin, which caused me to never defeat the game when I was a kid, requires to play through 25m,50m, 75m, and 100m of the original Donkey Kong, TWICE. The second time around its much harder as well. All told I think I ended up having to play just this for about two and a half hours before I was able to conquer it. The other coin, the Rareware coin, isn’t as hard to get but it requires you to collect 15 banana medals and take them to Kranky Kong. Once this is done he lets you play his old Atari game, Jetpack, and he challenges you to get a high score on it in order to get the coin which will appear as a collectible in the game. Having these two games in DK 64 is a nice touch, but requiring the player to actually beat both of them in order to progress through the game is kind of a dick move, especially with how brutally hard 75m is in the original Donkey Kong.
This game has style, this game has grace, this game has a Kong with a funny face! Okay, I’m not quite sure about the grace part but the game definitely does have some style. This might be one of the only redeeming factors for this game now that I’ve played it over again, and probably what make it so endearing when I played it when I was a kid.
The soundtrack overall is still great and I STILL find myself singing along with that ridiculous rap when I start it up. On top of this we have some really memorable monkeys with DK at the lead. Aside from DK we have Diddy, Dixie, Lanky, and Chunky, each of which has a really solid look to them and a personality that matches. I am partial to Lanky myself; mostly because of his goofy demeanor and that his bananas are my favorite color blue.
He’s absolutely perfect, down to his belly shirt and overalls combo.
Each of the shops also has a unique vendor with Candy Kong giving out instruments, Funky Kong giving out guns, and Cranky Kong giving out upgrades and abilities. The look of most of the game isn’t too bad for it being on an older console, though it definitely shows its age.
Most of the level design here is really great as well, with relatively small areas seeming incredibly expansive due to the fact that you are constantly switching Kongs to get different colored bananas from different areas. Some notable levels are Fungi Forest, which has a night and day mechanic, and Gloomy Galleon, which is a water level where you need to raise and lower the water in order to complete certain challenges.
Buy or Don’t buy?
Unless you are nostalgic for this game I would probably pass on it. This is one of those games that makes me question my kid self for liking it. The mechanics are dated and the camera is a pain. You would be much better suited to Super Mario 64 if you are set on playing a platformer/adventure game on the N64. For the current asking price on Ebay of around $15-30, I would much rather get a nice meal somewhere than play this game. I think keeping my memories of it untainted would have been a better call in this case, though I still love Lanky and that damn awful rap. If you really do want to see how this game turns out I would recommend watching a speed runner or someone playing it on YouTube so that you don’t have to deal with the endless frustration it provides, and save some coin to boot.
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