When it comes to gaming, few developer-publisher partnerships produced more great games than Rareware (now just Rare) and Nintendo. The duo was prolific through the 1990’s, releasing highly acclaimed titles like “Donkey Kong Country” for Super Nintendo and “Golden Eye 007,” “Banjo-Kazooie,” and “Perfect Dark” for Nintendo 64. Many of their games are still revered today over a decade after their release.
One title that does not get mentioned that frequently among Nintendo and Rare’s games is “Donkey Kong 64,” (DK 64) an expansion on the previous Donkey Kong Country series and Donkey Kong’s first and only 3D platformer.
The game opens in the beautiful DK Isles, a sunny and peaceful paradise, until the game’s reptilian villain King K. Rool rolls in on his massive floating fortress. His goal is to destroy the DK Isles with a powerful, albeit generically named weapon—the Blast-O-Matic. Fortunately for Donkey Kong, K. Rool hits a large rock and both his ship and the Blast-O-Matic break down. To buy himself time to fix the weapon, K. Rool steals all 200 of DK’s golden bananas and kidnaps four of his relatives, the Kongs. To beat the game, the player must progress through eight levels, rescue the four trapped Kongs, and collect the stolen golden bananas before facing K. Rool in a climactic boss fight. This is no small feat.
Perhaps the greatest asset of DK 64 is that it is a long and challenging game. Within each level, each Kong has five golden bananas to collect, alongside the additional task of finding 100 color coded regular bananas and a blueprint which will buy the player time in the final level, Hideout Helm. The levels are expansive, with many Kong-specific areas and varied methods for collecting the golden bananas. Often these take the form of mini game barrels placed in areas that must be reached using a specific skill, but other times involve mine cart races, puzzles, or timed doors. The variety in the tasks needed to find the golden bananas keeps the game fresh throughout its length.
The levels also keep the game fresh, as each level has a specific theme and is vastly different from the next. From the lush Jungle Japes to the mechanical Frantic Factory, every level presents its own challenges.
As one might expect, the difficulty of the levels increases through the game, but not in a linear fashion. The general progression from least to most challenging is interrupted by the third level, Frantic Factory, whose mess of floors and dark corridors puts it only a step behind the penultimate level, Creepy Castle, in terms of difficulty. In general, the level design of DK 64 is one of the game’s best aspects, as there is great satisfaction in exploring every last corner for every collectible item.
As far as the platforming aspect goes, there are plenty of gaps and timed jumps to test the player’s skill. The massive kinetic sculpture that is the Production Room of Frantic Factory is most definitely the hardest, while the inside of the lighthouse from the Gloomy Galleon level bears and almost uncanny resemblance to the top of Whomp’s Fortress from “Super Mario 64.” Each Kong has great jumping ability and even the large Kongs are very floaty to aid with precision in areas where jumps are key.
A final area in which the game excels is music. Most of the tracks from DK 64 run about two minutes in length and are filled with interludes and turnarounds that create a seamless transition when the music loops. Caves and indoor areas use variations on the main level themes. Even though all of the music in the game is produced via synthesizer, the music design is done in such a way as to provide very realistic trombone, saxophone, and pizzicato violin sounds for example. The tracks are catchy and it is not uncommon to hum or sing a song from a level after having spent several hours playing it.
Despite all of the positive aspects of DK 64, there are a few issues with the game. While they are not game breaking, they do detract from the overall experience.
The first of these issues is the camera. Often times the camera will get confused and bump, slide, or pass through walls. It also has the habit of turning at the most inopportune times such as when the player must cross narrow walkways, causing Kongs to fall off and get injured or plunge into bottomless holes. Odd camera behavior is not unexpected with games from the Nintendo 64 era, as essentially every 3D game for the console has the same problem. With careful planning, the player can easily avoid falling from ledges.
Another issue with the game are the mini game barrels discussed earlier. Most provide an adequate level of challenge appropriate for the golden banana reward for beating them. Others, especially towards the late stages of the game, are insane. There is no reason it should take 20 tries to complete a simple task like collecting 10 coins in a barrel full of water or stopping four slot reels on the same shape. These tasks, however, pale in comparison to something called Beaver Bother, but there is neither time nor space to explain why that mini game should never have been created. Suffice it to say, the title of the mini game is accurate.
A final, minor complaint is that at times the game slows down. With such massive levels and a remarkably high draw distance, the Nintendo 64 cannot always handle the number of objects it must render in a given scene.
The game is actually only one of three Nintendo 64 games to require the Memory Expansion Pak (the other two being “The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and “Perfect Dark”) which doubles the console’s memory and allows for the scale of the game. This requirement may be a concern for gamers looking to play the original cartridge version, as OEM Memory Expansion Paks sell for $20 on eBay. To check, open the door labelled “memory expansion” on the top of the Nintendo 64. If the module inside has a red top, it is good.
Overall, “Donkey Kong 64” gives a great impression. The game is long, varied, and challenging, which adds to its replay value. Every level is unique and the levels have many areas to explore. The collection aspect means there is always something to find, whether it be golden bananas, regular bananas, or blueprints. Well-produced music enhances the game’s levels and its impressive-for-the-time graphics.
Despite a few minor camera problems, a nearly impossible mini game, and some framerate issues, this is a solid game. Anyone who enjoyed “Banjo-Kazooie” or “Super Mario 64” will also enjoy “Donkey Kong 64.” Play the console or an emulated version and discover why one of Nintendo and Rare’s less talked-about titles deserves just as much acclaim as “Banjo-Kazooie.”
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