Things I actually like about Donkey Kong 64
16th August 2021
I think it's pretty universally accepted now that Donkey Kong 64 wasn't exactly Rare's greatest moment.
With critics citing backtracking, bloat and an extreme overabundance of collectables as factors that ruined the fun - along with an impressive selection of bugs and glitches - the game has gone down in history as a noted misstep in the otherwise illustrious career of Rare LTD.
It's a fair assessment, but I must say that I do find it curious how the zeitgeist of DK64's cultural reception has flipped over the course of the past twenty years. I distinctly remember both the critical and popular reactions to the title being a lot more positive when it first came out - just look at some of the reviews from the time:
- "Incredibly, Rare have bettered Banjo." (UK N64 Magazine)
- "It's one of those Rare games that makes you remember why you liked video games so much in the first place." (GamePro)
- "Definitely a candidate that is well deserving of being this year's 'Game of the Year'." (GamingMaxx)
- "Rewarding gameplay, extremely deep control mechanics, beautiful graphics and sheer gameplay variety are just some of the elements that make this game a triumph." (Nintendorks)
- "Donkey Kong 64 deserves the fanfare of being the most eagerly-awaited game since Zelda." (Totalgames)
While it's now the norm to describe Donkey Kong 64 as if it were an unmitigated disaster - and it definitely has significant problems, I'm not denying that - I think it's become a little bit of a Thing to overlook some of the things it does actually get right.
Personally, I think the internet doesn't need any more pontificating about how DK64 is an exercise in bad game design or whatever. So in today's post, I want to flip the script and point out a few things I actually really dig about Rare's classic banana-'em-up!
Music and sound
Let's get the obvious out of the way up front - Grant Kirkhope's work on this release is absolutely second to none.
The Donkey Kong 64 soundtrack is honestly one of my favourites of all time. There's so much great stuff here, and every time I listen to it I'm blown away by just how much music Kirkhope produced for this title.
I have a folder of DK64 music on my hard drive that apparently contains over 120 tracks, and I know it's missing at least one or two things (as I discovered the other day when I realised the Troff N' Scoff theme was nowhere to be found). Rare really went to town on this one, with dedicated music tracks for everything.
Did they really have to make two full tracks for the different contexts of Hideout Helm? Did the little rotating puzzle room in Crystal Caves really need its own unique theme (it isn't even a remix of the main level tune)? How come Jungle Japes has an awesome 2-minute long jam in the small intro area that is never used again?
Rare could have easily reused music tracks for all sorts of things and nobody would have called them out on it. A lesser studio might have had a generic 'Boss Theme' for all the end-of-level encounters and left it at that - but there isn't the merest whiff of corner-cutting here. Even rematches against the same boss are given unique tracks.
It's absolutely daft how much care and attention was lavished on this game's soundtrack, and in my opinion it paid off in spades. It's certainly one of the best OSTs to ever grace the console.
I have to give a shout out to the sound design as well, which is fantastic throughout. Audio effects are meaty and satisfying where appropriate, and gleefully cartoonish at all the right moments. And of course, Lanky Kong's whoops and yelps are the stuff of legend. ("Cobblers!")
This section should probably also say something to acknowledge the DK Rap, but you see, I can't be bothered.
I really like the boss encounters in Donkey Kong 64. They're inventive, exciting, and challenging to just the right degree (I usually feel like I have to give them my full attention, but they never strike me as frustratingly unfair).
What better boss for a level set in a sinister toy factory than a demonic, leaping jack-in-the-box with a wicked laugh? And I don't know what I was expecting for the boss of Creepy Castle, but it wasn't.... a cardboard cutout version of K. Rool?
Even the two instances of rematched bosses from previous levels aren't just copypastas, but have been given substantial tweaks to keep things fresh.
Probably the weakest one is the Gloomy Galleon pufferfish fight, as I find it tends to drag on a bit and all you're really doing is driving your boat round and round in circles. But it's certainly not terrible by any means, and is definitely the exception that proves the rule.
I haven't even touched on the minibosses who show up from time to time, such as the cyclops spider in Fungi Forest (which always strikes me as being quite an elaborate set-piece for something the player might even skip over without realising - it's not the easiest thing to find).
I don't care what anyone says, DK Isles is a rad overworld.
It's so much more than just a hub for all of the level entrances, and it has its own secrets and things to find dotted all around. There are even puzzles and challenges concealed in many of the level lobbies, which really adds to the feel of a vibrant world bursting with things to do before you even enter the areas themselves.
I also like the hints of progression it gives to first-time players. With conspicuous boulders you can't yet move, golden bananas locked away tantalisingly behind bars and numerous other visible-but-unreachable areas, the message is clear that you have much to do, unlock, and see - and that if you keep playing you might just be able to make some headway with a few of these things.
Some of the level entrances are placed in inventive locations, too, and this design strategy works to keep you guessing. After doing a few of the main levels, it's only natural to wonder where Rare could have hidden some of the later lobbies and how you might be able to get there - and this sense of intrigue is an effective motivator to make you want to discover more of the island's features.
Character and atmosphere
Say what you will about Donkey Kong 64, but you can't deny that it's bursting with character.
Each of the playable Kongs have very clearly defined personalities that come across loud and clear in their animations and voice samples - and the same can be said for much of the extended cast including Cranky Kong, Funky Kong, and everybody else.
It also boasts some of the most atmospheric levels seen in an N64 platformer. From the happy tropical paradise that is Jungle Japes to the creepily dark and labyrinthine corridors of Frantic Factory, and later to the foreboding and unfriendly Gloomy Galleon level, the game absolutely excels at selling the 'vibe' that it wants you to get at any given moment.
Depending where you are in the game, the tone might shift from 'whimsically sweet fantasy' (such as on the Banana Fairy island) through to 'comedy horror' (Creepy Castle) or 'high-stakes action scene' (Hideout Helm) - and yet still feel like a cohesive adventure comprised of a broad tapestry of experiences rather than a jumbled mess of disconnected elements.
Ultimately, Rare's 1999 platformer may not have got everything right, but I submit that there is still a lot to like about it.
I have noticed that a lot of people in recent times tend to dismiss it entirely, as if it were Superman 64-tier trash: it's not. It's fine, and for whatever reason it remains a guilty pleasure to which I feel drawn to re-play every few years, even though I know it's "bad".
Besides, glitch-hunting is a highly entertaining meta-game...