Of all the games Rareware put out in the mid- to late 90’s, DK64 might just be the most polarizing. The Donkey Kong collect-a-thon has both staunch defenders and zealous detractors, with both refusing to acknowledge certain aspects of the game. As for me, my perspective on the game has shifted over the years. I loved it as a kid since I didn’t really know any better, and I really disliked it as an “experienced” teenage gamer. Even so I’ve since revisited it several times in recent years, even playing through it again these past few weeks, and I think I’ve finally settled on what it is that makes DK64 so contentious.
Donkey Kong 64 is the very image of a game that would have been exceptionally fun if most of its ideas had been better executed. The banana minigames, colored bananas, golden bananas coins, weapons, having multiple Kongs and so on are all fun ideas in a vacuum, but suffer from how the game ultimately ends up using them. Take the most oft-cited annoyance for example: the colored bananas/coins. Many complain that these should have all been the same color so all Kongs could collect them.
I see the logic in the argument, but I think that this was just an issue of placement. Instead of spreading them around with seemingly no rhyme or reason (causing a ton of annoying backtracking), coins and bananas should have been grouped into locations/areas that each Kong would be visiting anyway. This way, collection would have felt natural rather than the extra chore it is now. The same goes for the Golden Bananas. It’s not that Rareware completely missed the mark with them, but it could have been further refined.
Instead of the individual tallies for each Kong, there could just be a general tally that the Kongs could all contribute to. This way, more bananas could have been placed in common areas and accessed with more general abilities. This also would have helped the bananas requiring specific Kong abilities to stand out more. This also could have created more opportunities for interesting environmental puzzles and reduced the overabundance of the hated banana minigames.
As for the minigames themselves, they’re not bad; they’re just seen too often. With so many bananas tied to these games, they simply become annoying. It also doesn’t help that some either don’t really work the way they should or just not fun in practice. This likely could have been addressed if the games were less numerous and made into real challenges instead of things like slot machines or trying to swat flies through horrible hit-detection. Like everything else, the games are fun as they are, but only sparingly. Then there’s the Kongs themselves, and again the problem is one of implementation rather than concept.
Every playable Kong is fun in their own way, and they all bring unique abilities to the table. If it didn’t feel so necessary to constantly switch between them, the current change-barrel system probably would be just fine. However, thanks to the questionable placement of collectibles and every golden banana assigned to individual Kongs, the system just doesn’t work very well. If I could stay as one Kong for an extended period of time and get a lot done, then the game would feel a lot better.
This is actually already possible in the game, but you have to be willing to commit to a Kong and ignore everyone else’s items in order to do so (not exactly an easy thing to do in a collect-a-thon). The same goes for things like the Kongs’ guns, the orange grenades, instruments and area attacks: there just needed to be more reasons/opportunities to use them. Shooting a crocodile in the face with a pineapple is pretty fun after all, by why do that when a running punch is both easier and faster?
All of this said, I still wouldn’t go so far as to say that DK64 is a bad game. I’ve gotten good enough at this game and gained enough experience to sort of simulate the kind of improved experience described here. I use movement exploits to get around obstacles, purposefully stick with one Kong for a while, actually use the guns and grenades, space out the mini-games, and collect things in batches. The result is a much better experience, one that I think is much closer to what Rareware actually envisioned when making Donkey Kong 64.
However, this is an experience deliberately crafted in spite of the game’s current design and not as a result of it. So, while DK64 is fun for me, I can’t call it a good game after all. It is, unfortunately, less than the sum of its parts (and the N64 coin is still a massive pain 😀 ).
What do you think of Donkey Kong 64? How do you play it? Has your style changed over the years?
Lede image is the official Donkey Kong 64 title art.