Donkey Kong 64 was released by Rare for the Nintendo 64 during the peak of their fame in 1999, and is seen by many as the beginning of their downfall. It’s a controversial game amongst platforming & ‘collectathon’ fans, but after taking my rose-tinted glasses off does it still hold up today?
Rare were rolling off of the success of Banjo Kazooie which released a year prior, and they aimed to improve on the tried & tested formula at the time for 3D platforming games. They basically took everything they had included in Banjo Kazooie and multiplied everything by 10. Donkey Kong 64 was the first ever 3D Donkey Kong game, and to this day we haven’t seen another imagination of the series in true 3D platformer style. I remember getting Donkey Kong 64 for Christmas of 1999, and was absolutely overjoyed with the vastness & scope of the game. It was ginormous to 6 year old me, and I got to see my favourite character in 3D for the first time. It was an instantly familiar game, being a fan of games like Super Mario 64, Chameleon Twist & Banjo Kazooie made this new exciting 3D platformer feel like a natural evolution in the genre. At the time, I couldn’t ask for more.
The game sees you start as Donkey Kong, and you learn after a brief cutscene that the DK Crew has been captured, along with your prized banana hoard by King K Rool, the series antagonist at the time. Your adventure will stretch over 8 vastly different worlds and a main over-world area, being very aptly named DK Island. You will need to rescue your friends & collect the golden bananas in each level to progress further towards taking down King K Rool (again).
Each Kong member has 5 golden bananas to collect from each level, and there are tag barrels placed inside each level that allow you to swap out your playable Kong with ease. Although the levels in Donkey Kong 64 are borderline gigantic (looking at you Gloomy Galleon), these barrels are placed well throughout. Having 5 reasons to go back and explore a well crafted level is great, and I’ll gladly say that I believe each level in this game offers something unique. I particularly enjoyed the short-lived Rambi & Enguarde sections, but because of their sparsity (they are only used once each) they unfortunately feel out of place.
The goal of each level is to collect as many bananas as possible with the Kongs you have available at the time, and collectively chuck them into the mouth of Scoff who is waiting outside of the boss door. There are 100 coloured bananas in each level, specifically placed for each different member of the DK Crew. Once you have collected and fed Scoff the target number of bananas for each level, he will slam down with his new found weight on a see-saw like contraption that will launch Troff into the air & allow him to unlock the boss door.
Unfortunately the boss fights themselves can come across as repetitive, mainly consisting of dodging a few attacks, then attacking at the opportune moment with conveniently placed explosive barrels. Although tedious to fight, I love each bosses design. They are overflowing with personality and this is only enhanced by their animations. The animations for the enemies & the Donkey Kong Crew themselves are no different. Donkey Kong 64 is without a doubt full of character, something at the time Rare had absolutely perfected.
Reclaiming the Hoard
Aside from colourful bananas and boss battles, the levels have much more to offer. What you are about to read may sound long winded, but it’s generally how the levels work in Donkey Kong 64. So, as previously mentioned before, there are 100 coloured bananas that can only be picked up by the Kong assigned to that colour; Yellow for Donkey Kong, Red for Diddy Kong etcetera. Collecting 75 bananas for each character in each level will award you with a Banana Medal.
Inside each level there are also 5 Golden Bananas to collect for each Kong as stated earlier, these serve the same function as the Power Stars from Mario 64 or the Jiggies from Banjo Kazooie. Their only purpose is to unlock more levels.
There are also 10 Battle Crowns in the game to collect. Battle Crowns are obtained by using a Battle Arena Pad, and to obtain these you must avoid being killed in the arena or avoid being knocked out of the arena for a certain amount of time.
Another collectible is the Banana Fairies, which you simply collect by taking a photograph of them using your banana camera that uses banana film because why the hell not.
Then there are Boss Keys, which you will obtain just from playing the game and beating each boss fight, nothing too noteworthy there, pretty straightforward. NOT. You will need the Nintendo Coin, & the Rareware Coin.
The Nintendo Coin is found in Frantic Factory inside an old arcade machine. You’ll need to play the original Donkey Kong game, beat it twice, and then you will receive that collectible. The Rareware coin can be obtained by playing Jetpac in Cranky’s Lab & by racking up a score of 5,000. But you can only play Jetpac once you have collected 15 Banana Medals.
Then there are the 40 Blueprints you need to collect for Snide; these are being held by an enemy called a Kasplat. You see, these enemies can’t be killed by any Kong member, in fact their hair colour will match a Kongs’ assigned colour (the same as the coloured bananas) and you can only retrieve the Blueprint if you eliminate the Kasplat with the correct Kong. Once collected these can be returned to Snide for a cheeky Golden Banana, and add an additional minute onto the final countdown in Hideout Helm, the games final level.
Now, I’ll admit, I am a sucker for collectibles in games, and although the number of collectibles (3,821) may not deter you from thinking about digging this game out from the depths and replaying it, the manner in which you must collect them is the problem here. The backtracking in Donkey Kong 64 is the biggest issue. You cannot enter a level, collect everything with one Kong, then change Kong and collect their items and so on. You could see a hoard of coloured bananas and a Kasplat that is coloured for Diddy Kong to collect, but it’s behind a door that’s activated by a mechanism for a different character that you need to get the upgrade for. You’ll need to activate the mechanism for the door, then find a tag barrel to change character, then make your way back to that area with the correct character to pick up the items.
The upgrades you acquire from Cranky Kong also only serve as keys to get into locked areas that you’ve already walked past a thousand times. Outside of unlocking areas, the upgrades hold no other purpose, and more often than not they actually cannot even be used during normal gameplay. This type of back tracking gameplay is utilised throughout the entire game, and increases the playtime massively if you really want to go for the 101% save file. It gets incredibly tedious incredibly fast, but it’s also something you don’t have to worry about if you’re not looking to 101% the game.
As a youngster picking up these collectibles often confused me; I wasn’t sure what collectable did what, where I had to hand in said collectables, and always wondered if some collectables were utilised for anything at all. In-game help was fairly minimal in Donkey Kong 64, and Cranky Kong was always fairly intimidating to me when I was younger. He would shoot out insults faster than a Peanut Popgun, so I often didn’t enjoy asking him for clues!
His Coconut Gun can fire in spurts
Donkey Kong 64 is still I think a fantastic platforming game full of charm and fun filled moments. If you play the game solely to beat it, without any completion goals in mind, it’s an absolute blast. The characters are entertaining, the graphics for a Nintendo 64 title are gorgeous, and the soundtrack is incredible thanks to Grant Kirkhope. Even the DK Rap holds a dear place in my heart. I do still hold out hope for a remaster or even a remake of this game. It sold way over 5 million copies over the course of its release, and I think so much could be improved with the game to truly make it something special. Although Donkey Kong 64 has many flaws, it was designed in an era where this genre was thriving, and it was an obvious improvement on previous releases in this category. Even with my rose-tinted glasses off, I still think the positives outweigh the tediousness of the gameplay mechanics. The game still feels alive, and I’m definitely going to keep my Nintendo 64 set up for a long time so I can hop back into it on a rainy day.