In the world of gaming technology, the peripheral is the child star-turned alcoholic. The industry has always been flooded with devices that let players shoot virtual ducks with a "real" gun or compete against a robot or...whatever it was the Power Glove was supposed to do. Many of these gadgets aren't bad ideas in and of themselves. It's just that—like a kid who wants to be an astronaut one week and a cowboy the next—game developers often lose interest in these add-ons and leave them to languish on the Island of Misfit Accessories. But today, the peripheral's prospects are looking up. Sony's EyeToy camera is enjoying success with games like Antigrav, and now Nintendo's brought us the DK Bongos controller. Does playing bongos change gaming for the better? In the case of Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat, I think so.
Structurally, Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat is a throwback to the 2D platform games of fifteen or twenty years ago. Players control the big ape as he runs, jumps, fights monsters and collects items. Even its plot has a straight-from-the-80's simplicity: In order to become king of the jungle, Donkey Kong must travel to different fruit-themed kingdoms and defeat their rulers.
But instead of using a regular GameCube controller, players bang bongos to get Donkey Kong where he needs to go. Resting on a writing desk or in my lap, the bongo controller responded pretty well to taps and claps. Tapping the left and right bongos quickly with two fingers made Donkey Kong run in those directions, while hitting them both at once made him jump. The bongos are even fitted with a microphone, so that when the player claps his hands, Donkey Kong stuns enemies and reaches out to grab things. (Tapping the mikes on the sides of the drums works just as well—no, better. It's quieter and doesn't sting).
The bongos affect Jungle Beat's gameplay so deeply that they make an old, familiar genre new again. They forced me to "feel" the game in a way that a thumbstick and buttons never could. When Donkey Kong attacks an enemy, the camera zooms in like a bus about to crash. Then I hit the left and right bongos as fast as I can, and the great monkey punches: left-right, left-right. It genuinely feels like I'm beating the crap out of somebody. Maybe that's why the game earned the new E10+ rating from the Entertainment Software Ratings Board.
Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat was not a game I could lose myself in for hours and hours: at least, not at first. The bongo controller takes some getting used to. Years of Control Pads and Dual-Shock Controllers have made my thumbs tireless—forces to be reckoned with, even. But now I'm using my fingers, palms, arms and shoulders, which aren't accustomed to working like this.
Even more draining than my physical tiredness was the feeling that Jungle Beat had about as much substance as a soap bubble. Kingdom after kingdom passed me by. I rode on parachutes that looked like cats, bounced into flowers and swung on vines. Winner's crests—the bronze, silver, gold and platinum medals Donkey Kong gets after beating a boss—piled up and I thought: "God, this game is short!" In fact, I breezed through Jungle Beat's kingdoms so quickly that I eventually ran out of currency to unlock new ones. I had to go back through the game to see how deep it really is.
When I first played through the Chili Pepper Kingdom's Cloudy Heights, I hated it. There's almost no solid ground to speak of, and Donkey Kong must swing from vines and jump between walls to avoid being electrocuted by storm clouds. But as I spent all that time in the air, my combo chain was climbing. Being tossed like a ball by a monkey in a bush gave me a score of +4. Floating in a bubble up a shaft got me a +8. After hopping into a flower, bananas were suddenly worth 14 times their value. "How long can I keep this going?" I wondered. I obsessively restarted the kingdom—again and again and again—until I'd found 900 bananas and a new favorite level. (Only 900? Sheesh. I need more practice).
Are Nintendo's DK Bongos an innovation, or just a gimmick? It's too early to tell. Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat is fun, but has only whetted my appetite for more bongo-compatible games. With time and resources, the bongo controllers can be used in better and cleverer ways as time goes on. The question is: Will Nintendo continue to support the new peripheral, or will they run out of ideas? I see too much potential in the DK Bongos to brand them a publicity stunt just yet. Hopefully Nintendo does, too.