Rare is one of the best developers in the industry and with each release, they further establish this reputation of theirs. However, none of their titles ever seem to get all the respect they deserve. Their games have a pattern of being haunted by previous benchmark titles of the genre. A game like Diddy Kong Racing, as good as it was, could not get out from under the shadow of Super Mario Kart 64 and their later release, Banjo-Kazooie, succumbed as well to another videogame milestone, Super Mario 64. Its a common practice for developers to steal the good points from successful titles and incorporate them into their own games, but Rare seems unable to do it well enough to make people forget the original. A case in point is Donkey Kong 64 (DK64), a game that the industry has been waiting for a number of years. But after all the wait, the hype, and the effort that went into it, it seems that even DK64 will be kept from video gaming glory and, ironically enough, due to the glaring similarities between it and Rares own creation: Banjo-Kazooie.
To anyone whos played Banjo-Kazooie, DK64 can give you a serious case of déjà vu. First off, the two games look strikingly similar. In some instances, it looks like worlds were plucked right out of Banjo-Kazooie and pasted into DK64. The textures and colors of the landscapes, although a bit more detailed and abundant, seem familiar and barely changed. The same goes as well for the control scheme and general play mechanics in DK64. Donkey Kong performs the same high jump and butt-thumps that Banjo did in his adventure and even after newer moves are learned later in the game, they do not feel entirely original. Among other similarities, Donkey Kong searches for bananas, golden and regular, to help him advance through the game much the way Banjo searched for musical notes and puzzle pieces. The projectile weapons are back and they are activated essentially the same way and do little different.
What kills me about DK64, however, is how good it is. It is so good that after only a few minutes of play-time, I was ready to proclaim it the first true sequel to Super Mario 64. With the aid of the 4MB Ram Pak (required to play DK64), the Nintendo 64 produces graphics that are richer and deeper than even Banjo-Kazooies. The worlds in the game stretch far into the distance and encompass many objects onscreen at once; all the while taking no noticeable hits in the framerates. Hopping on the latest video game fad, there is light- sourcing galore within the game and it is done here very convincingly. Ill be the first to say that its been mostly just fluff up to this point, but its fluff that doesnt interfere with the game otherwise, so Im glad its there. And if that wasnt enough, Rare managed to take things up a notch sporting true Dolby Surround Sound, providing all the excellent environmental sounds and background music in a full and vibrant playback. Controlling characters in the game will be second nature in no time thanks to tight controls and responsive animations; all the actions performed in the game are fun and the characters in the game are enjoyable to handle.
The worlds of DK64 are some of the largest Ive come across in a platform game. They look pretty from just about all angles, but whats better is that theyre filled to capacity with things to do. It seems Rare felt that players would get bored if they were left to just recovering 200 stolen Golden Bananas so they went to work making sure that there were plenty of diversions all along the way. Spread out across the landscape are loads of hidden rooms and levels that require special skills and abilities to access. This instantly makes the job too much for Donkey Kong to handle by himself, so he must also set out and rescue his four buddies from the clutches of K. Rool. Through the mini-adventure of finding Donkey Kongs friends, I learned the lay of the land and the creative level design allowed me an early peek at what kind of surprises could be opened up later. It all works successfully towards rewarding the player for using those characters while, at the same time, rewarding those who go outside the lines.
It seems to be a Rare trend that exploring all of the game requires the aid of other characters. Each ape comes with its own unique ability thats key to getting through a certain part of every stage or accessing hidden parts of the game. Donkey Kong is the all-around ape, Diddy is faster and can later fly, Tiny Kong can shrink in size, Lanky can float and reach objects on terrain that is off limits to the other simians, and Chunky Kong can lift heavy objects and grow in size. To be honest, there are many more abilities to be unlocked, but they are not all necessary. And while it may seem that the game must be completed repeatedly only with different characters, thats not necessarily the case. The genius of DK64 lies in the fact that the game can be completed with only a few of the secrets and/and bananas uncovered so going the extra mile is entirely optional. The Golden Bananas, for example, werent stashed in one place by K. Rool, but strewn about the levels and sometimes in the possession of his thugs. This does two things: first, it eases the games girth by giving the player a choice and, secondly, it instantly rewards more enterprising gamers with more bananas, more secrets, and more fun things to do. Some gamers will feel overwhelmed just as I did on a few occasions, but thats understandable. DK64 was never meant to be beaten in one sitting. Be warned that there is a lot of backtracking involved and its not for the faint of heart.
But I am an enterprising gamer (the kind who spent mondo amounts of time trying to get all 120 stars in Super Mario 64 with minimal help) so I went out in hopes of getting all the secrets of DK64. What surprised me was just how much there was to do. Collection is the name of the game if you choose to really go all-out at it. There are regular bananas on each level to collect and advance on to stage-bosses as well as banana coins to buy weapons used to fight enemies and open up stages. Each ape gets certain gadgets too to facilitate finding things, but this comes at a price; the ammo needed to use these weapons is rather limited and after each use, it quickly becomes matter of going about the tedious task of searching for more power-ups. Think of it as resource management for the action-platformer and you get the idea.
It was after going at DK64 for a few hours that I really began to appreciate the effort Rare put into it. Aside from the more superficial achievements that Rare has made, it was their talent for design that really propelled this game. Seeing the limited actions available to players in the platform genre, they reused the control scheme they first exposed players to in Banjo-Kazooie (and this I wholeheartedly support), which also encompasses the four C-buttons and Z-trigger; this way I could do a myriad of moves with only a couple of button presses. Admittedly, it was a bit cumbersome at first, but once I got the hang of it, it felt natural and logical. And given the complexity of some of the games activities, it warranted a breakthrough like this and its got it.
DK64 can sometimes be better characterized as a virtual amusement park than an adventure game since there is such an abundance of mini-games and multiplayer levels all about. The mini-games are self-explanatory and a little expected, but the multiplayer modes are whats really different. There are a few deathmatch levels as well as battle-arena matches at your disposal. Sometimes there is so much extra and on so many levels that it is possible to feel a bit detached from the original mission. To remedy that, I merely reminded myself that most of the mini-games were optional and, of course, that they were a blast to play. I speak with conviction when I say that there isnt another mascot game around with more mini-games (possibly besides Mario Party). But thats not all because Rare included a couple of side-quests too. The most interesting of which is the Banana Fairy Queens plight to return her little fairies to her realm. Recapturing the fairies is done by taking their pictures with a special camera. It was a total inside joke that drew more than a few chuckles from me. An even stranger and more appreciated addition was the appearance of two classic arcade games, Donkey Kong and Jetpac, hidden within the cart. This wasnt necessary, but it was in keeping with the rest of the game by supplying the player with plenty of cool things to do.
DK64 holds so many similarities to Banjo-Kazooie that it would have been easy for me to call it Banjo-Kazooie 1.5. Maybe Rare couldnt avoid that given their time restraints or their ambitious plans of filling the game with all kinds of gaming goodness, but nevertheless the similarities to Banjo-Kazooie are hard to ignore. In fact, DK64 would have garnered a perfect 10 from me had there not been a Banjo-Kazooie. But since I did give DK64 a good run, the games personality finally shone through and its clear that this is an excellent game that actually takes the genre forward. It has great graphics, great level design, and tons of unique and fun things to do. Its similarities to Banjo-Kazooie didnt stop it, they only tried to contain it.