Retro Scope: Donkey Kong 64

Is Donkey Kong 64 still king of Kongs, or is it crushed under the weight of its meaty adventure?

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 08/14/2014 09:00 3 Comments     ShareThis

Everything plus the kitchen sink.

That phrase always comes to my mind when I think of Donkey Kong 64. After a trilogy of 2D platformers in the form of the Donkey Kong Country trilogy for SNES, when it came time for DK to bow on Nintendo 64, Rare went back to the drawing board. 3D was decidedly “in,” so DK was going to have to adapt to the times. Though Rare had already taken a shot at the 3D platformer with Banjo-Kazooie, the developer still had plenty of ideas left to mine and make Donkey Kong 64 its own game. Plugging the game back in for the first time in years, it was interesting to go back and rediscover its secrets.

The Nintendo 64 Expansion Pak was a 4MB memory expansion device that inserted into the top of the console under a small cover. It was intended to improve the capabilities of the system, and actually came bundled with Donkey Kong 64 (the game wouldn’t even run without it). Playing DK64 again, it was clear why the game needed it; the cartridge is stuffed with content. The central hub of DK Isles is large and surrounded by a vast expanse of water, with King K. Rool’s own mechanical island floating right next to it. As a kid when I first played the game, I don’t remember being as overwhelmed as I felt playing the game now. I spent a good chunk of time exploring everywhere that I could, and though I was curious to see what was around the corner, I also felt a little listless.

Rare knew how to keep players on point, though, and I quickly started launching back into the core gameplay. There are five Kongs to play as (Donkey, Tiny, Diddy, Lanky, and Chunky), each with their own distinct move sets and collectibles. Outside of Donkey and Diddy, though, I never liked any of the new Kongs that were introduced. It also never made sense to me to get rid of Dixie– she was as classic as Diddy, as far as I was concerned! Still, there are plenty of other Kongs who made their way back, like Cranky and Funky, who are always welcome sights. Rare was always known for its irreverent humor, and DK64 is funny as ever. The DK Rap is also worth a shout out; I almost forgot that this was the game where it originated!

The graphics are as vivid and pretty as I remember, though not quite up to the level of Banjo-Kazooie or Tooie (to be fair, it’s probably because the bulk of the game’s memory is dedicated to the gigantic amount of places to go and things to do!). The lighting, though, is a notch above either of those two games. For an old N64 game, it’s still an impressive sight. Level and enemy design is also very classic Rare. For all the quality on display, as I made my way from level to level what I came to realize is that there’s just too much stuff to gather. Bananas, Golden Bananas, Crystal Coconuts, Banana Coins, Banana Medals, the Boss Key, Watermelons, Orange Grenades, Headphones, Banana Camera Film, and Blueprints are all part of the collect-a-thon, and taking things a step further, there are color-coded versions for each Kong! It’s almost maddening, trying to find and gather everything.

Rare had little sense of restraint when developing DK64, and that included designing the characters themselves. There’s a ton of different button combinations for the Kongs, which allows them to jump, high jump, use an instrument-based weapon, lob grenades, and more. I appreciate the diversity (scurrilous developers would probably try to sell half of these moves as DLC if they’d made the game and released it today), but combined with everything else to do and see, my head started to swim before too long. At the same time, though, it began to grow on me the more I played. DK64 is the equivalent of War and Peace in the video game world. It’s meaty, deep, and unrelenting, expecting a certain amount of commitment from the player for the whole thing to coalesce and be appreciated. It scratches a certain itch that many of today’s releases don’t.

I’d love to see DK64 re-released, or better yet, see a new 3D platformer featuring Donkey Kong. DK64 provided a heck of a lot of bang for its buck. I think Rare could have easily pruned about a third of the content in this title (except for the original Donkey Kong, which is a playable Easter Egg!) and still had an enjoyable experience, but if a person is willing to hunker down and commit himself to the experience, it’s very rewarding. They really don’t make games like this anymore, for better or worse. Rare was utterly fearless about throwing players into rich, grand adventures, and DK64 came at the zenith of the 3D platforming era. Do yourself a favor and track down a copy if you can. It deserves to be played again.

3 Responses to “Retro Scope: Donkey Kong 64

  • 285 points
    Kyle England says...

    DK64 is an interesting game for sure. Personally, I have a few mixed feelings about it. It’s neat running around as the Kongs and using their abilities, but having to keep track of all the collectibles is ridiculous. Still, they don’t make games like this anymore.

    There are some cool stories behind the creation of DK64, too! One of the programmers claimed that the Expansion Pak wasn’t needed to play the game; there was a game-breaking glitch that Rare could not identify the source of, and apparently adding the extra RAM made it work, so they made it a requirement. On Game Grumps, Grant Kirkhope was talking about how important DK64 was for Nintendo’s holiday season in 1999, and gave out the biggest paychecks for the project (though apparently Rare wasn’t as proud of the game as Banjo-Kazooie).

  • 1294 points
    Robert Marrujo says...

    The Expansion Pak thing is funny to think about nowadays; totally would just be a patch on a modern console. Interesting they weren’t as proud of DK64 compared to BK, but honestly, I know I prefer them in that order, myself.

  • 745 points
    OG75 says...

    OG75 in 1999 upon purchasing DK64:
    “Oh man this game is huge, there are so many places to explore and things to collect! This is going to be awesome as I only buy 3 or 4 games a year. I definitely got my money’s worth with this one. I can’t wait to dive into this world for the next few months!”

    OG75 if a game like this released present day:
    “What the? How am I gonna? With my backlog, family, and work duties….”

    I LOVED this game back in the day (not as much as BK, but better than BK:Tooie) I only wish I had the time to invest in such meaty adventures these days.

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