Donkey Kong 64 is a 3D platforming collect-a-thon adventure by Rareware on the Nintendo 64. King K. Rool, the croc with the crown, floats his fortress up to DK Isles to finally finish off that meddlesome monkey once and for all. However, his seafaring lair runs into some technical problems, along with his secret weapon that is set to destroy the island. In an effort stall for time and keep Donkey Kong from stopping his plans, he steals DK’s precious hoard of golden bananas and kidnaps the other Kongs. It’s up to DK to save his friends and work together to get back those golden bananas and stop King K. Rool before it’s too late.
The game is primarily a 3D platformer, with most characters being able to run, jump, swim, attack, and various other contextual actions. Depending on who you’re using, you may have some slightly different abilities like Diddy Kong’s double jump. Early on you’ll be introduced to some tutorials to get down the basics before you’re set out into DK Isles. Here you’ll find a large, caged Kremling called K. Lumsy. Apparently he was too… well… clumsy, and K. Rool had him locked up to keep him from causing more problems. So he promises to help Donkey if he can help him out. The cage has many locks and the keys are guarded by the bosses to the game’s levels. Upon helping him he will celebrate with a dance that often unlocks more levels to go to from the hub world of DK Isles. Inside the levels you’ll find where the collect-a-thon part comes in. You’ll see regular bananas scattered throughout the levels. These are needed to feed the hippo at the boss gate in each level so that he can raise the pig high enough to turn the key and open the door. It sounds goofy, but you’ll understand once you see it. Of course, only the appropriate Kong can do the fight, as indicated by their face on the unlocked door. You’ll need to collect the banana coins to purchase items, abilities, and upgrades from the few shops in the game’s levels. You’ll also need to collect the golden bananas on the levels in order to gain access to later levels. Getting these golden bananas usually requires doing a special task that can range from anything as simple as hitting a switch and grabbing the nanner to uncovering and completing a mini game. Each of the 5 Kongs has a total of 100 bananas, 5 golden bananas, and one blueprint to collect on each level. These blueprints are used for something special at the end of the game, but each one nets you a golden banana when you turn it in so you may as well collect them while you’re at it. Each level also has two banana fairies flying around somewhere that you can try and snap pictures of for bonuses once you get the camera. Collecting 75 bananas will get that Kong’s banana medal for the stage, but you’ll need to keep your eyes peeled for singular bananas, bunches of 5, and banana balloons you can shoot worth 10. Aside from these collectibles are the more consumable ones, such as crystal coconuts, oranges, film, watermelon slices, and ammo for your guns. So there’s a lot to obtain in this game.
Every time you save a new Kong, their items will appear on all the levels. Each one has their own, personally colored items. Bananas, banana coins, blueprints, and banana balloons will all be color coded and intangible to other Kongs. Their golden bananas also can only be collected in this way as well. However, every Kong can collect the oranges, ammo, crystal coconuts, film, and watermelon slices for health. The guns and their upgrades are purchased from Funky Kong. You’ll need them to take out certain enemies and to shoot specific switches that correspond with each Kong’s projectile, even though ammo count is shared between all. You can purchase musical instruments, their upgrades, and health upgrades from Candy Kong. You’ll need to use each Kong’s specific instrument on the appropriate pads in order to cause some special contextual effects, but they can also be played in other places in order to clear out most enemies on screen. Lastly, you purchase new abilities from Cranky Kong. You’ll need these for a variety of things. Certain pads, barrels, and switches will show the face of the Kong that can use them, and some other obstacles will require these techniques as well. All three of these shops will use up your banana coins, so don’t go spending it all in one place.
The game also has a lot of mini games to play in order to get golden bananas. Many of them are used multiple times with harder variants as the levels progress. On top of that, there are two arcade games you can unlock and will need to play to beat the game. One is the original Donkey Kong and the other is the game Jetpac. I’ll review these individually later, but just know these are a couple of games you get in here as well. You can even play these mini games and arcade games from the mystery menu once you unlock them. Not only that, but there’s even a couple multiplayer modes for 2-4 players. I didn’t get a chance to try these out since I’m a lonely jerk no one wants to play with, but there were a few variants to two main modes. One mode has you running around big levels as the Kongs, using your guns and powerups to complete the chosen objective for the match. The other pits the players in the arena used for Kong battles in the main game for those who want some straight up, hand to hand combat. So between the main mechanics, the array of mini games, the two entire arcade titles, and the multiplayer mode… there’s a whole hoard of content.
It’s probably an easy assumption that I like this game. It’s a Rareware platformer on the N64. It’s sort of a no-brainer by now. The music is quite catchy and quirky to fit the mood of the game while also sporting a common motif. The visuals are really nice too. I like how they managed to make the Kongs look more 3D than most games on the system, which usually feature harsher polygons. Beyond that, the game looks very detailed and colorful in general. I like that the levels are open-ended and have items scattered throughout in order to both encourage and reward exploration. The variety of mini games keeps you on your toes as you stretch your skills to the limit. Many scenarios also have multiple ways of going about them. You might try conserving your consumables by beating up the baddies with your bare hands, but you risk taking damage that way. Maybe you’re pressed for time so you need a quick way to take them out. Why not shoot some projectiles? Throw a bomb maybe. Heck, you could even play your instrument and clear the area in an instant. It’s fun to try and find the best way to go about things. It’s also surprising how many new and interesting things the game can throw at you while still building off of familiar mechanics. Each Kong has similar controls but each one also also has their own quirks. They’re all different sizes. They all have different hitboxes and animations. They each have their own abilities and personalities even. So it’s fun to see how each Kong can conquer parts of levels that others just can’t seem to do. It makes for a nice ensemble feeling. There’s also a really nice sense of progression. You keep getting new Kongs, abilities, and collectibles that let you continue, but you’re also rewarded with cool mystery unlocks and fun little cutscenes with King K. Rool as you enter new levels. Don’t worry if you’re not a completionist though. You don’t need to get everything in the game in order to beat it.The dedication to all the little details of characters, their personalities, their idle animation, and so many little secrets spread throughout the game shows just how much heart goes into a Rareware title. It’s hard not to appreciate all the things this game does wonderfully well. It’s a very good game.
I hesitate to call it a great game, though. I think we can at least agree it’s a bit shy of a masterpiece. There are just some issues that keep me from going as far as calling it great. The general gameplay is where most of my hesitation comes from. It works and all, but it isn’t super tight. Sometimes it’s hard to judge where you’re going to land with your jumps or if you’re going to hit or be hit by an enemy due to strange collision detection. Everything works well enough, but it often feels like it doesn’t work quite how it should, resulting in unintentional mistakes you can’t really feel responsible for. The camera is a real bother also. N64 games aren’t exactly known for having great cameras, but the annoyance with this one is that it likes to stay claustrophobically close to your character. You can zoom out, but after a bit of the camera’s auto adjusting or going into a new area it will just bump right up against your back again, which can make it hard to see what you’re doing. I have a big gripe that’s unfair, but it should somewhat explain why I have so much trouble with this game. The Kongs all have their own color coded collectibles, but the colors chosen can be hard to tell apart for the colorblind, such as myself. I often go to an area with Tiny or Lanky thinking it’s their items there when it’s actually for the other. The blue and purple give me the most trouble, but even sometimes the bright lime green of Chunky’s things can look like DK’s when transparent. Not to mention the color issues of underwater items putting blue into the mix for them all. I guess it’s not a universal issue, but it can increase backtracking considerably. That’s another annoying thing about the design. I like collecting things, and I don’t mind when you need to use the correct Kong to get things as long as they are the only ones that can do it. The problem is that you’ll often come across bananas, banana coins, etc. for a different Kong. There’s no real sound reason why you can’t also pick up the item when you’re there and can reach it. In Banjo-Tooie (which came out a year later), for example, even if you split up the duo each one could still collect the items for one another. There weren’t character-specific items based solely on who you were. It was based on if you could get the things. Yet another way the game makes itself more tedious and is most likely the reason people look negatively on collect-a-thons like it. Running back to the tag barrel every few minutes can get tiresome so you should develop a way of tackling the levels to reduce the issue. And the one positive to this I can come up with is that their bananas out in the open are to lead the correct Kong down a path to a place where their activities are located. I’m not a huge fan of the mini games. The games themselves are fun, and I do appreciate how they are reused in more difficult variants to avoid feeling like simple one-offs, but they take me out of the game a lot of the time. Some are fine because they still use mechanics from the main game you’ve been playing, like running around the mazes for one. Others ones, though, feel like they’re totally separate. What does playing a slot machine have to do with platforming and collection? It just takes me out of it a bit and doesn’t build off of the game’s main mechanics. The fact that you need the expansion pak to play it is a bit of a bummer nowadays. And, of course, we need to address the DK Rap. I’d like to just say “It was a different time” and be done with it, but that’s no excuse. It’s certainly not terrible, and actually will get stuck in your head if you listen to it, but it’s still one of weirdest ways to open your game. The worst part about it is that THIS is probably the most remembered part of the entire game. Trust me, the game is good. Don’t let the rap make you think the game is crap.
So while I can’t exactly call it a masterpiece and can at least UNDERSTAND the argument for it being great, I’ve got to give Donkey Kong 64 a rating of very good. It’s so close to being great with all of the 3D platforming, adventure, collecting, and heart. It just doesn’t have that last bit of polish to make it shine. Still, it definitely IS a classic that I think all N64 owners should own as well as Donkey Kong fans. We never had a DK game quite like it before and haven’t had one like it since. The game is easily worth 30-35 bucks if you can find it. You might not want to take the hit on the required expansion pak, but when you consider Majora’s Mask and Perfect Dark need it as well then it’s not too bad of an investment. Besides, with the original arcade Donkey Kong and Jetpac on the cartridge, you’re basically getting three games in one! Regardless, it’s hard not to love this game. And hey, if I can beat it… ANYONE can beat it. I believe it’s also on the Nintendo eshop for those Wii and Wii U owners out there so no excuses. You’ll be addicted to this game before you can say OHHH BANANA. See? I made a reference to the thing… because being clever is easier than being smart. Just play the damn game already.