By the time Donkey Kong 64 was getting released the once-successful breed of 3D platformers was slowly dying. With Rare leaving Nintendo in the next generation, the advent of the Nintendo 64’s successor wasn’t nice to the genre. Donkey Kong, along with Banjo-Tooie by the same incredible Rare we all loved and worshiped was the last breath of platforming in 3D.
At least we can’t say the ride hadn’t been fun, some of the best games in history are probably from around that era. Donkey Kong 64 had the colossal task of living up to expectations of not only being an established Nintendo franchise handled by the hottest game developer at the time, but also the ghost of one of the most successful trilogies of all time, Donkey Kong Country.
I still remember being completely immersed in how grand this game felt right from the beginning. It had taken its lessons with Super Mario 64 and most notably Banjo-Kazooie to create such an expanding world that was almost unimaginable at the time. Not only that, Donkey Kong 64 had to come bundled with the Nintendo 64 memory expansor, as worth noted that some past games had some features that required the use of it, but not completely — like Perfect Dark that allowed only certain multiplayer setting and no single player campaign in case you didn’t have the add-on.
The same publisher that brought us the Super Nintendo trilogy and the highly-acclaimed Banjo-Kazooie was the best suited for the task. In fact, Fungi Forest, one of the worlds within Donkey Kong 64 was originally intended for Banjo-Kazooie but since the game was already full of levels they decided to keep it for their next project. The classic Rare is found all over this game as one might expect.
Something that was noticeable back in the day but it’s even more now is that this game holds some of the darkest, gloomiest atmospheres in any video-game. Dare I say that even exclusively horror-themed iterations like Resident Evil and Silent Hill wouldn’t be able to propose such a demented set of weirdness. Everything is dark, sinister in nature. Some levels are especially morbid, like Frantic Factory with that circus melody haunting the player from start to finish, or Gloomy Galleon turning into night, featuring explosions all over the place and a full abyss-like bay, deep and macabre.
The main Villain is King K. Rool, back from the early days of Donkey Kong Country. The sections in which the main antagonist appears from his secret hideout just plotting against the kong just reiterates how dark this game is. Once again the stack of bananas from the kongs is stolen, but not only Donkey and Diddy go for the rescue this time, we actually have five playable characters joining the good fight.
Donkey, Diddy, Tiny (which controls pretty much like dixie with her hair), Lanky and Crunky Kong. Each kong has its own abilities and collectibles that can only be performed or obtained by playing with that kong. To figure out which one is which they used different colors, so any yellow coins is a Donkey Kong coin, while a red one is Diddy’s. To change kong you need to go into one of the kong select barrels scattered around the levels.
Other stuff like pads with each kong face stamped onto them or musical instrument pads played by each kong are also part of the experience. By learning how to play an instrument, a kong will have a different instrument usable in determined pads; Donkey plays a pair of bongos while Lanky plays a trombone. So certain areas can only be triggered by one specific kong while others require two or more of them in different moments.
Its focus is exploration, so the number of enemies found won’t be too large, generally a few in specific locations that can easily be overcome. The collectibles play a huge role in this, there’s so many of them that this game is still listed in the Guinness World Records book as the game that has the largest number of collectibles in any game. You can easily see why since getting all the many different items and abilities for just one kong would be quite a task already, but since there’s five of them you simply multiply both the work and the fun by five.
As weird as it may sound it also features a multiplayer mode which brought great fun when I was younger, though very limited. In the main game the kongs get different types of weapons that shoot stuff like seeds, fruits or some kind of food; for example, coconuts, peanuts or pineapples. Again, each kong has a different ammunition type, Lanky Kong, for instance, has a zarabatana that shoots some kind of purple blob. In multiplayer mode you play in third-person perspective shooting wooden-made weapons with stuff like feathers as ammunition. Not the best thing ever but could keep a few people amused for a time.
The soundtrack reminds the good days of Banjo-Kazooie for a reason, the composer is also Grant Kirkhope who at the time was the man to go for Rare’s soundtrack after the success of both Banjo and Goldeneye 007’s soundtrack. Unique in its own greatness, the soundtrack just offers the additional atmosphere around the whole thing.
Donkey Kong 64 might be the game that showcased Rare’s final scope in games, a game that is larger than life, completely worth the grandeur that Donkey Kong games demanded. Just having the original Country trilogy as a ghost would be something to keep the team awake at night. Still, they ended up making a terrific job with this title, one of the last legendary 3D platformers of its day certainly earned its way in the history of video-games.