“If I don’t play soon, I’ll die of boredom.”

Wednesday, June 12, 2019 at 12:47 pm Comments Off on “If I don’t play soon, I’ll die of boredom.”

Updated Scans & Bits with what you’d usually expect. More obscure Mario guff, rarities like some F-Zero and Landstalker manga, dumping raws on MEGA for the likes of Rockman ZX Advent, Ninja Turtles and Kirby, plus two new pages for game manuals and guidebooks.
Oh, and the officially licensed Shrek manga. Yeah, I had a double-take when I saw it existed too.

I had a case of the unwellies a few weeks ago which left me nigh-incapacitated… and it says a lot about my priorities that my first thought was, “now’s probably a good time to play Donkey Kong 64.” A debilitating flu really takes the guilt out of playing a nine thousand hour-long game!

Donkey Kong 64 was probably among the last games my brother bought for the Nintendo 64, and despite watching him play it, neither of us have any solid memories of the game. We can regale each other with stupid anecdotes from even the most forgettable of N64 or PS1 games, but this one is just a total blank. For all its extravagances like the banana-yellow cartridge, bundled-in Expansion Pak and its DK Rap, the game otherwise made zero impression on us.

To be fair, we probably weren’t big DK-heads at the time? We somehow missed out on the Donkey Kong Country phenomenon. We grumbled through a bit of Donkey Kong Land 2, and we bemoaned how the Donkey Kong Country cartoon was only on satellite channels we didn’t have access to, but we otherwise didn’t get into the series until we picked up the SNES original in 2005. We still liked the big ape even without knowledge of his games, because it’s hard not to respect a gorilla that can dress itself.

Donkey Kong 64‘s a big ol’ collect-a-thon platformer, very much in the Banjo-Kazooie vein; you explore large worlds, acquiring new abilities or opening new areas as you reclaim the stolen bananas, rescue your chums, and duff up K.Rool’s underlings. The usual affair. You knew what you were signing up for in that era of games!
Even within two hours of playing, I got the impression that rather than expanding upon the foundations of BK, it literally took its exact formula and stretched it out a nylon analogy. All of Kazooie’s abilities are seemingly spread across five characters and pick-ups; Lanky gets the talon trot, Diddy adopts her shock spring jump, the orange grenades are a less practical equivalent of the projectile eggs, and so on. But rather than the convenience of all that power existing in one character, you’re running back to tag barrels so you can switch to Chunky and break open a doorway, just so someone else can enter it instead.

It’s got a bit of a reputation for being possibly the biggest, collect-a-thon-iest platformer of the era. The jury’s still out there in my opinion, I’m convinced there’s games with far bigger worlds and way more needless bumph, but it does take the piss a little. Rather than focusing its worlds around a central point, they’re just kind of meandering and needlessly expansive, with multiple ‘hubs’ connected by samey tunnels and doorways; Angry Aztec is nigh-indecipherable because of this, and one of the most convoluted second levels I’ve ever experienced. It’s not even that complex, but a few more landmarks would make a big difference!

The game is a wee bit infamous for its size and bloat. Even something as simple as attacking foes feels needlessly extensive – there’s eight means of attack!! You have a melee combo, a stomp, a ground-pound, grenades, a gun (with regular and homing ammo), a shockwave attack learnt from the Banana Fairy, sometimes a special attack depending on the character, and then your screen-clearing musical instrument… and some enemies are only vulnerable to certain attacks, or in certain states, so have fun with that. All this, and combat as a whole isn’t even that worthwhile.

On top of the five ordinary pickups for replenishing your health, ammunition and powers, there’s nearly ten collectibles that are essential to completing the game! I couldn’t find a reliable source that told me what are the bare essentials for reaching the final boss, so I made a list for my own peace of mind:

  • BANANAS: Used to unlock the boss stage in each world. Collecting 75 per character earns you a Banana Medallion.
  • GOLDEN BANANAS: The game’s Stars or Jiggies; used to unlock new worlds. A minimum of 100 are needed to complete the game.
  • BLUEPRINTS: Found by beating up the colour-coded Kasplat in each world. Awards a Golden Banana, and later adds an additional minute to the timer in Hideout Helm, the final stage.
  • DK COINS: Used to purchase guns, instruments, potions and upgrades. Each character needs at least 21 coins to get the basics.
  • BANANA MEDALLION: Automatically awarded for getting 75 bananas. 15 are required to unlock Jetpac; see below.
  • NINTENDO/RAREWARE COINS: 1 each, awarded for beating the Jetpac and arcade Donkey Kong challenges. Mandatory to complete the game.
  • BOSS KEY: Awarded after beating each boss. Used on K. Lumsy’s cage to unearth new worlds on the hub.
  • BATTLE CROWNS: Won after completing a survival match mini-game. At least 4 are required to access the final boss.
  • BANANA FAIRIES: Photograph them to unlock secrets, and eventually a single Golden Banana. Completely optional!

People have harped the heck on about the sheer scale of Donkey Kong 64, and I’ve tried to pare down my similarly-bloated paragraphs to the minimum. If you’re mad about the size of a game’s worlds, enthralled by having thousands of collectibles to amass for 201% completion, then this game delivers. Even after beating the final boss there was still oodles of content I’d yet to experience… but I’ll pass, thanks.

For all its bizarre design decisions, you know what my biggest complaint was with the game?
The lack of personality. The lack of heart. The seeming dearth of any set dressing to make this feel like a world to explore, an adventure to revel in, and not just a checklist of content to justify the price tag.

Whenever I got a new ability, it didn’t make me feel like I’d acquired an exciting new power-up that could let me interact with the world in invigorating ways. It made me feel like I got a key. Buying a coconut gun did not make me feel powerful. It meant I now had a key that could open coconut panel-shaped keyholes, granting access to areas that otherwise had no use for a coconut gun.
 Or a musical instrument.
Or a ground-pound.
Or a red-hued ground-pound.
Banjo-Kazooie had its share of strange and somewhat pointless power-ups, but if nothing else they were at least quirky and offbeat, like treating a pair of wellie boots like an extravagant power-up (it is over in Blighty!). It didn’t make you purchase multiple upgrades to the ground pound for the sole purpose of activating different coloured switches, which is among the most transparent and obnoxious gate-keeping I’ve seen in video game progression.

It’s hard not to make comparisons to BK, partly because it’s a game I’ve a lot more familiarity and nostalgia for, and since their designs are so similar, it makes the differences so stinkin’ noticeable. Every world introduces thematic enemies, colourful setpieces and something new to see and do, even if it is limited in use.
In Donkey Kong 64, even when you’re entering entirely new landscapes, it feels like there’s a lot less newly introduced in each one. You’ll be seeing the same old Kremlings again and again. You’ll be performing the same charade of ‘challenges’; playing mini-games to earn a banana or unlock a door, shooting switches with the appropriate gun, and getting from point A to point B in an arbitrary time limit. Very rarely does any of it feel like it’s engaging with the world itself; it might as well be a hub leading to random challenges.

As a youngster I was totally infatuated with the introduction of 3D spaces in games, treating them more like toyboxes or playpens. That’s partially down to me just being a dumb kid with too much free time, but there’s a certain zest to how BK and SM64 presented their environments. A few levels in the latter are at least named after someone – Bob-Omb Battlefield, Whomp’s Fortress, at least giving the impression it’s someone’s personal domain.
Running into friendlies like Koopa the Quick or Pink Bob-Ombs, or even just friendly signs, helps makes them feel populated – this isn’t just a zone for Mario to run around, but friendly folks must go about their day here when there’s not Goombas marching around. Even bizarre red herrings, like the claim Dorrie would eat you if you got too close, had me giving too much thought to what was otherwise a moving platform with a face.

And having recently replayed it, Banjo-Kazooie still captures my imagination in its lovely presentation. Mumbo’s Mountain features four major landmarks in an environment that’s just the perfect middle-ground between sprawling and compact. It’s big enough to get those juices of exploration flowing, with two to three avenues to explore for your first Jiggies, but also small enough that you never lose track of where everything is in relation to each other.
Treasure Trove Cove increases drastically in size and complicity, but the sectors are so varied they feel distinct, you never feel like you’re retreading ground. Pointless little details like its staircases or pools of water, they help shape the level that every avenue feels distinct, and not just “oh, more trees again”.

That, and character. The player character is a duo so that in itself is fun, allowing Banjo and Kazooie to offer banter among themselves or whoever they’re talking to. Grunty and Bottles offer omnipresent commentary when appropriate, but you’re still running into at least two unique characters in every stage, either someone to aid in your quest for Jiggies, or an enemy to defeat. Every world’s got some distinct denizens associated with it, though whether or not they’re memorable is questionable – a lot of my love for this game comes down to nostalgia, I’ll admit.

And I think that’s one of several aspects where DK64 feels front-loaded. There’s five player characters you unlock across four stages… meaning aside from their introductory dialogue (and respective portion of the DK Rap), all they’ve got to got on afterwards is their voice clips, animations and special powers.
Cranky, Funky and Candy all serve as vendors to offer upgrades, and there’s Snide, K. Lumsy, Troff and Scoff who unlock progress in exchange for items. Oh, and Squawks shows up as an impromptu help bubble. Counting the playable Kongs, that’s a dozen characters you see as a constant in every stage!

It unfortunately means there’s less characters to run into, or have meaningful interactions with. Without any dialogue from your player character, the interactions feel a lot less charming – you spend more time watching drawn-out animations from Snide or Scoff than learning what their deal is. Gimme a quip or something, anything!
And there’s only so many ways to phrase “play this mini-game and you’ll get a prize!” to make incidental characters stand apart. Of all the characters to leave an impression me, it’s a frozen hockey puck who acts buddy-buddy with Lanky Kong, then throws a fit and unfriends him when you beat its stupid game.
Not that dialogue is nonexistent; Cranky continues to make personal insults to the Kongs and general gaming snipes, and Candy returns with unpleasant musical innuendo… but it feels routine. At least in BK you had a sarcastic back-and-forth with Kazooie and whoever else to liven it up.

It’s unfair to keep making comparisons to Banjo-Kazooie, at the time a brand new franchise we had zero expectations for, versus Donkey Kong 64, starring a legacy Nintendo character and following up its knockout SNES trilogy, a series with its own unique and established identity.
I probably take it for granted since I never actually played the classic games until way later, but their atmosphere is something really unprecedented for a mascot platformer. With great moody backdrops, ambient music, and tremendous atmosphere, it’s totally unlike anything you’d find in the likes of Super Mario World.

A pity they feel a bit lifeless here? Despite the levels taking place on DK’s own island, they feel isolated and stagnant, feeling like flat backdrops than even Mario 64‘s magical paintings. Jungle Japes has a cave or two, a token waterfall and some vines to swing on, but never feels more than just a zone for back-and-forth switch pressing. Angry Aztec should feel like a glorious, sprawling landscape of arid sands and cryptic temples… but it just feels empty.
There’s no character here. There’s no liveliness here. It’s just a big landscape to dump collectibles and enemy placements. If you’re lucky you might get a mini-game involving a living creature, who may or may not look totally jarring next to the rest of the classic character designs, and then they’ll never be seen again.

I’d argue DK64‘s soundtrack lives up to the mood established by the Country series; nothing nearly as memorable in my opinion, but it’s a lot more understated than BK‘s jaunty SFX-heavy tunes. As lifeless as they feel as fictional worlds, their looks still evoke some of the earlier DKC games… just not to the finesse as the prerendered SNES backgrounds, mind. If they had some decent platforming, levels like Crystal Caves, Jungle Japes and Fungi Forest would feel right at home with the worlds in the original games.
It’s the gameplay that’s a hard pill to swallow. At the time the collect-a-thon angle probably meant nothing. Mario underwent this transition, so why doesn’t everyone? But DKC has a very distinct fast-paced ebb and flow to its gameplay, big on its central mechanics of rolling, jumping and bouncing. Paired with the ridiculous 101% completion required to unlock secret worlds, it came across like a more hardcore game than the Marios of the era.

… so it kind of stinks that DK64 is just rather wishy-washy. With five characters there’s no central mechanic to get a hold of; I never got as intimately familiar with movesets as I did Mario or Banjo, since everyone has different running speeds, jump heights and attacks. Old favourites like the minecarts and barrel cannons do show up in mini-games, but they lack the intensity of the original games, eschewing the raw survival instinct in favour of time challenges or collecting a mandatory number of items to succeed.
A frankly disgusting amount of the game leans on time limits, item caps and activating switches as challenge. I’m hard-pressed to even call it a platformer, either! I couldn’t tell if there was ever a genuine test of platforming skill, even anything on par with climbing the tree in BK‘s Click-Clock Wood, or just instances where the collision detection refused to play ball.

I won’t deny I spent a lot of the game focusing way too much on ways it could’ve fixed things, but I did get some degree of entertainment from it. It was nifty to finally experience the game for myself after all these years, and I can see how it could make an impression on those who love it. It took me a while to appreciate them, but seeing some of the ways it improved over Banjo-Kazooie was also an interesting insight!

More mini-games:
A lot of them aren’t great, I’ll be frank, but they feel more defined than a lot of stuff in BK, that sometimes passed me by before I realised, “oh, that was a mini-game”. The gulf in difficulty between them is a wee bit farcical: Kremling Kosh is a joke, Krazy Kong Klamor can be easily exploited by pausing the game, while Beaver Bother is a basic, workable premise made farcical by unreliable collision detection. It’s an attempt to evoke the quirky bonus games of the SNES trilogy, and it’s a pity there’s no menu to replay them anywhere, to beat your scores or add some arcadey replay value.

Compact hub: As much as I love the look and feel of Gruntilda’s Lair, it’s a bloody nuisance to navigate if you’re not intimately familiar with it, and having started a new file I forgot what an endeavour it was just to find and unlock new levels. DK Isle still feels artificially inflated, but you spawn right at the warp hub, there’s a central location for unlocking new stages, and you can typically enter a level within 20 seconds of loading your save file.

Ease of progression: Relatively speaking? It still takes a good couple of hours to properly digest each world, and you need to explore them inside and out for bananas to unlock its boss door, but there’s a surplus of Golden Bananas to turn to. If one mission is just too obnoxious, I haven’t too far to go for a different one, and only once did I have to backtrack for more Golden Bananas to unlock a level door. The unlock caps are pretty lenient!

It’s a thing! I’ve never played it and I doubt I’ll ever have the opportunity, but I remember pal Ian having good things to say about it. While its Battle Arena mode is similar to the likes of Chameleon Twist or Keriotosse! on SEGA Saturn, the Monkey Smash mode is practically Goldeneye‘s deathmatch in a mascot platformer environment, with full access to all your unique powers and items. I can’t think of anything else like it, and that’s a shame. The world deserves a 3D version of Super Mario War.

I used to hear people say, “I wish there was a new 3D Donkey Kong game,” and I’d think, wasn’t DK64 more than enough game for one lifetime? But having finished the game (not to 201% completion, god forbid) and suddenly found myself in a bit of a DK fever, I’m only more miffed the big ape hasn’t got a second bash at the genre. Donkey Kong Country Returns is fabulous and I’m still eager to play Tropical Freeze, but it’d be terrific to see that earthy sense of speed and power translated into something a little more three-dimensional.
Of course, it’s been said before that Crash Bandicoot already did DKC in 3D. The jumping, the sliding, the fast-paced animal-riding… that’s the essence of Donkey Kong Country, baby! And now it’s also a wee bit dead, hasn’t had an all-new instalment in how many years, and totally flipped the formula when it last made one. Woe!

If it ain’t Mario, I doubt we’ll see these side-characters get a do-over anytime soon. Wario got his one chance at 3D and squandered it on bizarre lopsided game design, and Yoshi’s been stuck on training wheels when he isn’t alongside carrying dudes on his back. Oh well!

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