I don’t usually write reviews—though my strong opinions and OCD really compel me to do so more often—but I feel like Donkey Kong 64 really needs one.
Donkey Kong 64 is the main Donkey Kong game for the Nintendo 64 and follows the SNES line of Donkey Kong Country games, albeit in 3D. It’s a pretty good game, but it has it’s issues.
DK64 has some really good parts:
A lot of gameplay.
DK64 has a lot of gameplay in various ways. Unlike some games, you definitely feel like you get your money’s worth. It has the main storyline with the overarching theme (beat K.Rool by running around and reaching goals), but it also has quite a lot of other sub-goals and mini-games. There’s also a lot of stuff to collect, weapons to use, and places to explore as well as different characters along with their special abilities, and even two animals to play as. If you are a 100%-gamer, there is definitely a lot of game available. You definitely do not feel ripped off with this game. (Actually, while I thought it would take a really long time to play through, I was surprised to achieve—near—100% in just two weeks, totaling ~65 hours of in-game time. Of course by then, I was already tired of it anyway.)
Being a Donkey Kong game, it has a lot of similarity to other Donkey Kong games, so long-time fans will be able to jump right in and enjoy the things they liked about past games (though personally, I have not yet played the DKC games :-|). It is also very similar to Super Mario Bros. 64, so if you enjoyed that, then you get more like it. (It is also similar to the GameCube game Super Mario Sunshine, so if you have already played that, like I have, then you get that bonus as well.) In addition, it has a couple of levels of the original Donkey Kong arcade game as well as Jetpac, so you get a blast from the past in that way too.
The tropical island environment is just lovely. The beautiful sun, sand, plants, and water is so alluring and inviting, it really makes me want to move to a tropical island. The same applies to Super Mario Sunshine which has a similar island with intoxicating beaches.
Unfortunately DK64 also has some really annoying problems (some of which are actually pros that are poorly implemented and result in aggravation):
While the amount of gameplay is a good thing, there is just so much of it, that it gets to be feel very cluttered. There are several characters, a bunch of locations, and countless items. Between the weapons (shooters and instruments), the regular and golden bananas, the regular and special coins, several types of mini-games, orange bombs and crystal coconuts, fairies, blueprints, numerous moves and combos, and so on and so on, it really feels overwhelming. This is made worse for those of us who want/need to get 100% completion in games. To some degree, you do become accustomed to most of it, but it still feels uncomfortable cluttered, constantly wondering if you got everything or missed anything.
Similarity to other games can be a good thing, but DK64 takes it to a problematic extreme. There are (too) many places where it feels exactly like other games, especially Mario 64. There are several places like the slide races, the island, moves, etc. that are so similar to Mario 64, that it is almost as though they just copy-pasted them from the other game and merely changed the textures. The similarities are so strong, that several different walkthroughs have called them out. (In turn, Mario Sunshine may have been influenced DK64.)
Like many of the other early 3D games of the time (particularly Mario 64), the controls for both the character and the camera are frustratingly difficult to use and poorly implemented. Moving the character around is often a real chore due to the way the controls work. This is really annoying, especially when it makes it difficult if not impossible to accomplish some tasks. The camera certainly does not help either because whether it is automatic or “manual”, it is often in the wrong place, making things like flying through rings likewise difficult or impossible. The awkward camera also makes it difficult to see some things like balloons that would be easy to see in real life (just tilt your head), but require a concerted effort to see in the game (which of course requires your knowing it is there in the first place). The controls are bad enough that players may throw their controllers in frustration.
Most of the game was pretty straight-forward and there wasn’t too much confusion on what needed to be done. However, there were several places where something that needed to be done (like some of the gold-banana games) were absolutely not intuitive and would not occur to a player. Likewise, it was not obvious howto use the dirt-piles because the move required to expose them seemed like a generic attack move that had nothing to do with the dirt patches. Another example is how in one of the Splish Splash Salvage mini-games, the vines swing down in so that you can reach the coin above water only after you get the underwater ones. The second fight with Army-Dillo was frustrating because it was not clear that you should just keep pounding on him towards the end, rather it seemed more like you had to do something else like jump on him to fly out or something; this happens several times in the game where you end up over-thinking a task, expecting it to be more complicated and clever than it actually is.
Lanky Kong was just annoying. From his goofy persona to his, literally, lanky gait and awkward movements, he was annoying to use and provided no significant benefit and had no real point. At least Chunky was big and strong. 🙁
Most of the game isn’t too bad. There are a few parts that are really challenging like the DK arcade (especially the second time), the double-car Minecart Mayhem mini-game, or some of the races. However, most of these are doable with a little (or a lot) of practice. Unfortunately at least one of the tasks is nigh on impossible, the aptly named “Beaver Bother!”. This mini-game requires herding a small group of Gnawty Beavers and getting them to fall down the hole in the center. Unfortunately this is effectively impossible because no amount of snapping at a single beaver will get them to fall in the hole; getting them to fall in requires getting them in a position where one is next to the hole and cannot move away because it is blocked by another beaver. Since there are only four beavers in the arena (five in the “Creepy Castle” versions), it is difficult to get them in the right position. Worse, if you fall in the hole, the game is over and you have to start over. With enough practice, it is possible to get four or five down there, but the game requires 12, and with a 60 second time limit (45 in the “Creepy Castle” versions), it is flat out impossible to do. Having even one of this mini-game is bad enough, but Rare actually put it in the game three times! What were they thinking‽ Did they do any playtesting at all‽ 😮
The DK Rap that is performed in the opening sequence is almost, almost amusing, but it is painfully clear that it was written by non-rappers. Throughout the song, there are several places where it keeps pausing for a beat, resulting in a stuttering effect, as though they could not think of a longer word to use to have enough syllables to keep the rhythm smooth.
Overally, Donkey Kong 64 is a fun, engaging game but has a few issues that make it frustrating. You feel like you get your money’s worth, and if you play it fast enough, you should be able to get through it before the novelty wears off and the problems take over.
In just a couple of weeks, I got up to 98% (198 gold bananas, all regular bananas (and medals), both special coins, all crowns, all fairies, all keys, all blueprints, and all but 29 banana coins). The only thing left other than the final fight with K.Rool, is to get the remaining three gold bananas, but unfortunately they are the three “Beaver Bother!” bananas which means that I will likely be unable to get 100% in the foreseeable future—maybe it can be left as a quick “casual game” for later on. 🙁