So I’ve been playing Donkey Kong 64 lately.
This isn’t the case of revisiting an old favorite. I’m playing DK64 for the first time. I missed out on it when I was a kid, not because I didn’t have a Nintendo 64 (I did), and because I didn’t have the necessary Expansion Pak (I did). I just missed out on it.
(Do you know why Donkey Kong 64 needed the Expansion Pak? Funny story, that. Turns out there was a game-breaking bug that no one could figure out how to patch and the only way Rare could figure out how to fix it was to use the Expansion Pak. Nintendo had to bundle it with new copies of the game and profits took a huge hit. To this day, no one has fixed that glitch, which is why Donkey Kong 64 never showed up on Virtual Console. Also, the whole Rare thing.)
On urging from both my best friend and my girlfriend, however, I decided to pick it up. Thanks to eBay, I am now a proud owner of Donkey Kong 64. I’ve been playing it for the last several months. No, I haven’t beaten it, though I am near the end. Are you serious? That game is a fucking marathon. Maybe that’s just me, but I have no clue how any kid could beat it without the help of the Internet or a strategy guide. Oh my god.
I’m not saying it’s a bad game. It’s not. It’s a lot of fun, even if the graphics have aged terribly. In some cases, this makes for a lot of fun because Donkey Kong’s vacant expression never changes and it leads me to believe that he is just cruising, if you catch my drift. It’s a lot of fun, even if glitches and high learning curves make some parts of the game controller-breakingly frustrating (note: I have not broken my N64 controller over DK64 but I did shatter it over Mario Tennis).
My point here is that Donkey Kong is … underrated. Not as like, a good game. It has gotten pretty much the exact reaction that it should have gotten. It has its flaws, it has its charms, and it has a LOT of material to throw at you, and it’s a good game all around. What it’s underrated in is the category of weirdness. Let me explain.
Nintendo has a reputation for making “weird” games. The Tomodachi Life Nintendo Direct is still burned into all of our retinas. Hey You! Pikachu ended up being about ten years ahead of its time. Hell, some of us are still reeling from the first time the Wiimote got unveiled at E3 all those years ago (itself an underrated moment in the history of video gaming).
I never hear Donkey Kong 64 brought up when talking about weird games, though. If anything, it was the last “real” DK game until Donkey Kong Country Returns (Sorry, Donkey Konga. Sorry, Barrel Blast.). Hell, in a long series of games that bear his name, there is only one 3D platformer in the DK library, and that’s DK64. Not knocking his recent games; Tropical Freeze and Returns 3D were everything that was great about the original DKC games. But it’s a question worth asking: Is Donkey Kong Country his only franchise now?
If so, Donkey Kong 64 becomes all the more notable. But there are plenty of reasons already. Let’s dive in.
The DK Rap is immortalized by this point, of course. But consider that it was our introduction to three brand new characters: Tiny Kong, Lanky Kong, and Chunky Kong. Nintendo and Rare had to tell us who these new characters were, and they figured the best way to do it was through song. Chunky Kong is famously one “hell of a guy.” Lanky Kong probably has the most notable description though: “He has no style, he has no grace. This Kong has a funny face.”
So the DK Rap is our primer on these new characters, who all have their quirks. Chunky Kong is the prototypical gentle giant; his idle animation features butterflies landing on him and when you highlight him in the character select screen he gasps in fear. His charged-up attack is him belching. His musical instrument is the triangle. At the beginning of the boss fight where you have to use him, he drops to his knees and begs for his life.
Tiny Kong, on the other hand, is the token small girl with an attitude, and indeed she is the only female playable character. She may well be the polar opposite of Chunky; she can shrink while he can grow, and she is sassy while Chunky is cowardly. Her musical instrument is the saxophone. Most baffling about Tiny is her complete redesign post-DK64. She got a lot taller, put on a tank top, and is pretty much a different Kong entirely. Are they even the same monkey?
And then there’s Lanky.
Let’s look at another picture of Lanky Kong.
This is great. Do we have any more?
It is sort of necessary to emphasize the fact that Lanky Kong is a Kong even though he is an orangutan and all of the other Kongs are gorillas. According to Cranky Kong (the source of all canon, being an aged version of the original arcade star Donkey Kong) he is a “twisted twig on a distant branch of the family tree.” I would hope so—he is an orangutan.
Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong round out the playable characters. Nothing new there. But the side characters…
In Donkey Kong 64 and Donkey Kong 64 only, Funky Kong was a gun-crazed, camo-wearing, bazooka-toting shut-in. He was also in all likelihood the Donkey Kong Universe equivalent of a Libertarian. He outfits the Kongs with guns (more on this later), has a seemingly endless stockpile of ammunition, carries a bazooka on his back, and constantly pantomimes firing guns, complete with sound effects. Most disturbing is his pantomime of a bomb falling, complete with a giant explosion.
In all other games, he is a laid-back surfer. I’m not sure what Rare or Nintendo were thinking here.
For the benefit of the readers, I choose not to include a picture of Candy Kong in the—
ANYWAY. Candy Kong’s purpose in the game is to supplement your health and give you musical instruments, which for some reason defeat any enemy in earshot. I don’t think that’s a good thing. This is all well and good, but remember that the health bar in DK64 is watermelons, for some reason. Over the course of the game, Candy gives you two melons. I wonder where she got them. Pair this with the weird jazzy music that plays in her cabin as well as the fact that, when getting an upgrade, she instructs every Kong (even Tiny) to “come a little closer” so she can show you how it works.
Let us move on from Candy Kong.
Perhaps only outshone in popularity by his grandson Donkey and his great-nephew (?) Diddy, Cranky Kong’s role in the game is perhaps the most important, as he is the source of all the special moves the Kongs can and must perform to advance through the game. The effects of these potions range from invisibility to invincibility to shrinking to inflating and so on and so forth. He is also contanstly sipping from some syrup of his own, and for some reason he has an old Rare game, “Jetpac,” that you can only play once you’ve met certain conditions and which must be played in order to beat the entire game.
Cranky has since dropped the mad scientist aesthetic, thankfully.
Wrinkly Kong, in all likelihood the grandmother of Donkey Kong, is a ghost in this game. She offers help to the Kongs because she knows where every golden banana is for some reason. You can ask for her help by visiting doors with her face on them. She escapes her bizarre prison, accompanied by a ghastly howl, offers a hint as to the location of a golden banana, and returns to her prison. Cranky does not seem to be too broken up over the fact that his deceased wife occupies Kong Purgatory.
That does it for the Kongs, but we have one more side character to address: Snide the Weasel. In a world in which Donkey Kong 64 had a plot, Snide would be fascinating: first off, he is a weasel, and second off, he betrayed King K. Rool and he has a stockpile of forty golden bananas. In exchange for blueprints which can be achieved by beating certain enemies with certain Kongs, he offers these golden bananas, ostensibly taken with him when he cleaned K. Rool’s house. For some reason, though, he has constructed an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine to get these bananas to the Kongs. As far as I know, he doesn’t actually…move at all during the game. Also, you have to sit through the ridiculous sequence every time you exchange a blueprint for a banana.
This is all to say something of the even more minor characters that challenge the Kongs to duels for golden bananas, like that annoying rabbit Lanky has to race or the cheating racing Scatterbug. We also have the slapstick scenes of K. Rool’s headquarters where we see his latest frustrations with his grunts. Within context, all of these characters almost sort of make sense. But out of context…what.
THE ISLAND IS FUCKING SHAPED LIKE DONKEY KONG’S HEAD.
This raises a lot of important questions. Was the island always shaped like Donkey Kong’s head? Did Donkey Kong, upon discovering the island, craft it in the shape of his head? The former is likelier, considering Donkey Kong is lazy. That raises even more questions, especially when you remember there is virtually no land on the horizon surrounding Donkey Kong Island. I know we’re not supposed to think too seriously about this stuff, but thinking seriously about things I’m not supposed to think seriously about is my lifeblood, especially considering Donkey Kong Island has been shaped like his head since the first DKC game (and, weirdly, in DKC Returns, stopped being shaped like his head).
Donkey Kong 64 is a game about collecting things. In fact, there are things you collect by virtue of collecting things. Things you collect include: bananas, golden bananas, banana medals (which you collect by collecting bananas), banana coins, boss keys, blueprints, battle crowns, and so on, seemingly into infinity. At any given time, you have to keep track of your health, your ammunition, your homing ammunition, your orange grenades, your camera film, and your musical instrument.
That’s a lot to keep track of, and it reinforces my point that this game could not have possibly been targeted at young kids. No way. This shit is basically Dungeons and Dragons. There is literally no difference between Donkey Kong 64 and Dungeons and Dragons.
And it would be criminal of me not to mention the Nintendo Coin and the Rareware Coin, both of which are necessary in order to beat the game. The Nintendo Coin requires beating the original Donkey Kong, found on an arcade cabinet in one of the levels, twice. You don’t find out you get the Nintendo Coin until beating it once. The Rareware Coin comes from Cranky’s game earlier. Again, how do you beat this game without a strategy guide of some sort?
That concludes Part I of this column. Part II will come next Wednesday, where I will delve into the history and development of DK64 and the awkward place it holds in Nintendo history. We will also look at some more pictures of Lanky Kong.
ABORT THE COLUMN. THAT’S A WRAP. LET’S ALL GO HOME.