Gamestyle Archive intro: Chris tackles an overlooked Gamecube title hinting at where the Nintendo Wii would take us next.
Published: February 2005
Why hasn’t Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat been hailed from the rooftops as one of the most audacious releases of all time? Following on from the excellent Donkey Konga, a rhythm-action game that came with a set of bongos, is the sequel of sorts: a sequel to a peripheral rather than a game (although as a 2D platformer it works as a spiritual successor to the acclaimed Donkey Kong Country series. Except, of course, the control method is not via an ordinary controller, but the bongos.) What makes this more than a wild idea at a Kyoto R&D brainstorming session? What on earth makes this more than a twinkle in a programmer’s eye? A challenge by Nintendo head honcho Satoru Iwata – that’s what – to create an action game that players could play using their recently-acquired bongos; to prevent those bongos from sitting on the shelf like some huge trophy of Nintendo fandom.
Fast-forward to Gamecube, present day. Gamestyle sits comfortably, begins. Hits the right Bongo, Donkey Kong (DK) goes right. Hits left, he goes left. Both together will make DK jump. It’s bizarre at first, as your physical actions control the fluid movement of a character on screen, instead of indicating a particular beat. So you control DK as he leaps, swings, swims and generally monkeys about. A few minutes in and Gamestyle works out something: the calibration is perfect – absolutely perfect. With the calibration laying a solid foundation, the game itself is a joy to traverse.
Platformers excel in two dimensions, and to most gamers in their double-digit years, playing Jungle Beat will be intuitive; almost second nature. Awaiting you are 17 fruit-monikered stages, consisting of two platform levels and a boss fight. Cliched settings aside (all present and correct: the jungle, the [wait for it] ice kingdom and the [what could it possibly be?] volcano-based arenas), the design is unquestionably solid, if not excellent. DK needs to collect bananas – which he gathers mainly from beating up enemies. However, his tally of bananas can ripen if they are picked up using the handclap rather than the traditional walkover method. Indeed, there are parts of Jungle Beat when you’ll do nothing but clap whilst flying through the air to collect surrounding bananas. Bananas mean everything. They are DK’s life meter, and they are the score signifier. For each stage you’ll need to accumulate at least 500 bananas to take into the boss battle. Any damage to DK will reduce the number of bananas and your overall score. The higher the score, the more crests you’ll accumulate to open later levels. Jungle Beat experts will want to aim for 1200 bananas – for each level – to gain prestigious platinum crests. Some measure of replayability is essential, as Jungle Beat is very short for a platformer. As a piece of innovative coding, if not an out-and-out experiment, this is realistically to be expected. Disappointingly, however, it isn’t that taxing until the latter levels, and what’s worse is that the element of danger – so important for a platformer – is (bosses aside) only noticeable after the halfway point. Unless you’re a perfectionist, it’s hard to see how much long-term value these levels will provide. Being able to play some of the race levels as a time attack mode would have been a positive step.
It may be shortlived, but it has a definite ‘Wow!’ factor. It definitely feels different to play, and that must have charged Nintendo’s ‘clever’ batteries – the emphasis is on collecting bananas rather than jumping to meet pixel-perfect jumps. (Gamestyle might cheekily suggest that DK has more in common with Sonic than his old adversary, Mario, in this respect.) The levels evolve gently; helping you out are a range of animals which variously fly, swim and run better than you can. Indeed, one level is purely an aerial race, where you latch onto a Helibird’s feet and have him whisk you away. Gamestyle’s favourite is Mooshin – some kind of snow-yak with a blonde Mohawk – who dashes through the artic like Rudolph caught short. The bosses evolve too. There are four kinds, with grinningly-excellent names such as Rogue Hog and Ninja Kong. Employing 3D models, the graphics during these encounters particularly stand out, and the use of TV-style cutting is a clever sign of presentation seeking to fulfil its tongue-in-cheek purpose.
Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat is a concept that works, because the better you are, the higher you score. It can be played casually – a virtual ‘trip’ controlled by the bongos – or it can be played pedantically, as you hunger for every last banana. As a platformer, it’s solid, it’s enjoyable. It’s got the ‘Wow!’ factor, yet it needs something more to bolster longevity (and bring it out of the ‘novelty game’ category). As a Gamecube release, it really is daring. Gamestyle can’t recall any similar title that has been created for a peripheral so obviously detached from the maker’s intent. If Nintendo really do want to concentrate on innovation moving forward, Jungle Beat is a most promising start.
Gamestyle Score: 8/10