After the success of Rare’s Banjo-Kazooie, it didn’t come as much of a surprise to learn that Donkey Kong 64 would take a lot of inspiration from it and play very much in the same way. Like Banjo-Kazooie and Super Mario 64 before it, this platform adventure puts the player in a hub world that connects to eight other giant levels to complete, with key items to collect from defeating baddies and beating mini-games. The hub area is DK Isles, Donkey Kong’s home, and is once again under threat from King K. Rool and his Kremling minions. DK’s banana horde is stolen and the big ape sets off in pursuit and to crush the Kremlings once again.
The Donkey Kong Country games were so fun, partly for the tag team switching they implemented, allowing for the unique abilities of each Kong to access secret bonus areas. Donkey Kong 64 has a similar feature, but this time around four other Kongs are playable. Only one Kong can be controlled at any one time, but Tag Barrels dotted about the levels allow for switching to another monkey, each with their own moves that allow them to reach areas other Kongs cannot. As well as familiar faces DK and Diddy, three new Kongs are introduced to the family. Tiny is Dixie’s little sister, with the same ponytail flying traits and the ability to crawl through small holes. Kiddy’s big cousin Chunky makes his debut, and is easily the strongest of the crew, able to lift boulders blocking paths and switches. Finally, it is unknown how Lanky is related to the others, but his long, stretchy arms allow him to hit enemies from afar (think Dhalsim from Street Fighter!) and climb steep slopes. Every Kong has a special ability that can be activated for a limited time when stumbling upon a Kong Barrel, too, such as DK’s invincibility and Diddy’s jetpack. The Kongs’ abilities have to be learned by paying Cranky with banana coins, who resides in his lab in every level (who knew the old Kong was secretly a scientist?).
Kongs also have their own fruit-inspired firing weapons and musical instruments, which Funky and Candy upgrade in each level. The guns can hit enemies from afar and activate switches that have to be shot using a specific Kong’s weapon. Instruments can damage enemies in the surrounding area, and must be used on specific pads placed around levels to open new areas or trigger an event. Other items include orange grenades, which any Kong can throw, and are handy for blowing up enemies from a distance.
The control setup is very much like Banjo-Kazooie. Movement, attacking and jumping all feel incredibly smooth, with a free rotating camera and first-person view to give the player as much control and view as possible. Due to the sheer number of abilities at each Kong’s disposal, guns, instruments and grenades are used by holding the Z trigger and pressing a C button. The only problem may come in remembering exactly which button does what function, but it doesn’t take long to adapt, since the game eases you in smoothly as each ability is learned.
Starting off with DK only, the player travels through levels to free the captured Kongs, who then become selectable. The aim in every level is to collect Golden Bananas. There are 25 in each stage, with each Kong able to pick up just 5. These shiny fruits are needed to unlock further levels, which require a certain number to open the doors. Working through levels and beating bonus stage mini-games will net you the Golden Bananas. Bonus stages consist of various games, including sneaking through a maze of Kremling guards, competing in races, collecting coins whilst vine-swinging, clearing mine cart levels, and plenty more. Even the original arcade games of Donkey Kong and Jetpac are playable in this, with special rewards for clearing them. Mini-games do indeed get frustrating given that time limits pile the pressure on, with some needing many attempts to beat, but players will find their favourites.
Animal buddies return, but only Rambi the rhino and Enguarde the swordfish are playable. They are usable in a few certain levels and can smash open new areas and chests. Unlockable arena games for the animals can be played from the main menu, with the aim in Rambi’s stage to defeat as many enemies as possible, and for Enguarde to swim through all the hoops he can in the time limit.
Normal bananas are collectable, too, with a hundred per Kong in every level. They are colour-coded, so only DK can pick up the yellow bananas and Chunky the green ones, for example. Bananas are mainly needed to unlock access to the bosses of every level, so switching between Kongs is vital in order to collect as many as possible and complete the stage. Bosses themselves are massive, as might be expected, and all have quite distinctive battles, that only a specific Kong can take part in.
The worlds are all huge, set in places of varying themes. The opening level is Jungle Japes, with the monkeys eventually moving through an Aztec desert, toy factory, galleon and crystal caves. Fungi Forest is an interesting level in that it actually started out as a world designed for Rare’s other hit game Banjo-Kazooie. In fact, not much changed at all in its port over to Donkey Kong 64 since it was pretty much complete. Even the music soundtrack stayed the same as when it was made for Banjo-Kazooie.
Speaking of things that transferred from Banjo-Kazooie, it is very interesting to note that the famous Stop ‘N’ Swop feature that was never truly realised until the Banjo games were re-released on Xbox Live Arcade, were actually intended to include Donkey Kong 64 in the mix. Apparently, there is a spot for the ice key in the game, but what was originally planned never came to be, just as with Banjo-Tooie.
An added distraction to the main game is that of snapping photos of the Banana Fairies dotted across the adventure. With the Banana Camera, taking pictures of these secretly hidden pixies will reward the player with increases in maximum items the Kongs can carry, as well as unlock bonuses in the game’s main menu to play Rambi and Enguarde bonus games, watch cut-scenes, or activate infinite items.
Further proving the game’s sheer size, a multiplayer mode is crammed in, as well. With up to four players competing simultaneously, mates can face off in split-screen deathmatch-style battles in Monkey Smash across two different arenas, taking out their opponents with their fruit shooters and orange grenades. Specific rules for the matches can be set, such as the last player standing wins, the player with the most coins wins, the player that activates all pads whilst holding the DK coin wins, as well as others. Battle Arena is the second multiplayer mode, with monkeys fighting it out on a small floating platform, with the intention to knock the others off the edge. Items and weapons pop up from time to time to give players advantages. Whilst there isn’t a ton of depth to multiplayer in the game, it is a neat little distraction when you are in the mood for something a little bit different to other multiplayer games.
Donkey Kong 64 requires the N64 Expansion Pak to play, allowing for the game to run smoothly and look wonderful across every giant world. Rare put a lot of attention to detail in the graphics department. Sharp and colourful, dark and dirty, depending on the area, different effects were used extremely well. There is good use of bump-mapping, and special effects like sand grains constantly blowing in the wind in the Aztec Ruins and dynamic lighting help to make things that extra bit more realistic and immersive.
Grant Kirkhope took the composing reigns for the game, having done an exceptional job on GoldenEye and Banjo Kazooie previously. The tunes aren’t quite as memorable as in the latter game, but what has been done is still superb. The opening DK Rap that greets the player sets the tone for the crazy fun that is in store, followed up by a great remix of the brilliant jungle levels from DK Country. Kirkhope tried to capture the atmosphere of every level in the tracks he composed, and he absolutely succeeded in that regard. From the Addams Family-inspired Frantic Factory to the tense and nerve-wracking Hideout Helm countdown, there are a lot of standout tracks in DK64. Also of note is that Kirkhope even lent his voice to Donkey Kong, giving the ape a voice for the first time ever, speaking a few English words here and there.
Easily one of the top games on the Nintendo 64, and a must-play for platform fans, Donkey Kong 64 is a unique and fun adventure. The similarities between Banjo Kazooie are there for all to see, but this is not a bad thing at all, given that BK is one of the best 3D platformers ever. With no sign of a Virtual Console or 3DS version, anyone still with a Nintendo 64 should do their best to experience Donkey Kong 64.