This Kong’s One Hell Of A Game, Pt. II

(For Pt. I of this column, click here)

Donkey Kong 64 almost never happened.

It was originally rumored to be a title for the extremely ill-fated 64DD extension for the Nintendo 64. The 64DD was plagued by a long development cycle and, as a result of that, neglect from Nintendo. Only released in Japan near the end of the N64 lifecycle, just ten 64DD games were ever released. Many more games were, at some point in time, in development for the 64DD. Some games, like Paper Mario, the two N64 Zelda games, and Kirby 64 were eventually released for the N64. Others, like Cubivore, were eventually released for the GameCube. Mother 3 saw life as a GBA title released only in Japan, but it was initially “EarthBound 64.” Games like Fire Emblem 64 never saw life.

Thankfully, DK64 never officially went into development for the 64DD. As the first 3D Donkey Kong game (for the record, Super Smash Bros. was released earlier in 1999), there were a lot of things Rare could do with it. Because of this, they got … ambitious … in the early stages of development.

If he shoots ya, it's gonna hurt!

If he shoots ya, it’s gonna hurt!

Yeah, they gave Donkey Kong a real gun.

Whether or not this was just a placeholder for the cartoonish guns the Kongs would actually use or if Rare actually thought Nintendo would let them make a game where DK toted around a shotgun is unclear. We do have screenshots of Diddy wielding dual pistols, so maybe Rare did think they could make GoldenKong 007. We also still have Funky Kong who, knowing what we know about the beta, might have been a beta element they forgot to remove.

Pause for a moment and consider how absurd Funky Kong is again. He is, again, the source of ammunition and weapons for the Kongs. He is, again, obsessed with guns and explosions and weapons in general. This makes sense within the context of the beta. But remember: the cartoonish ammunition used by the Kongs are coconuts, peanuts, pineapples, grapes, and feathers. Seeing as Funky Kong refills all of your ammunition whenever you visit him, it follows that he is sitting on a sizable stockpile of…food and feathers. Funky, show me your bomb shelter. Tell me about how the moon landing was fake. Oh, you say Tupac ain’t dead?

I digress. So with the 64DD and the beta behind us, we are finally on our way to late 1999, when Donkey Kong 64 was released to a hungry public. Wait, what? Oh yeah, that game-breaking bug I mentioned earlier. Yet another hiccup in what was probably a far-too-tumultuous development cycle, the bug that has yet to be fixed could only be patched by the Expansion Pak, which Rare was forced to bundle with the game for free. (A brief tangent to emphasize just how far games have come: the Expansion Pak only added 4 MB of RAM to the Nintendo 64’s…4 MB.) So, as stated earlier, we’re probably not seeing DK64 on Virtual Console unless someone fixes that bug. Get to work.

The massive loss Rare took due to having to bundle the Expansion Pak contributed to something else in DK64’s weird history: the eventual split between Rare and Nintendo.

If you look at it the right way it looks like a barrel rolling down a slope.

If you look at it the right way it looks like a barrel rolling down a slope.

By now we all know the story but it is all worth going over again. Rare, a software development company based in England, made several NES and SNES games in the late 80s and early 90s. In 1994, Nintendo bought 49% of Rare and pretty much said, “Hey. Here is our library of characters. Pick one and make a game.” Donkey Kong Country sold 9 million copies, most of any SNES title not named Super Mario World. It spawned a series of its own and Rare, in essence, could do whatever they wanted with the Donkey Kong universe.

They had a lot of other stuff going on too. Rare developed some pretty good games for the Nintendo 64, including but not limited to GoldenEye 007, Perfect Dark, Banjo-Kazooie, and the timeless Donkey Kong 64. But things were getting weird. The Expansion Pak debacle soured the relationship between Rare and Nintendo and their relationship status on Facebook changed to “It’s Complicated.” Conker’s Bad Fur Day, one of the only M-rated titles to hit the N64 and by far the most notable, released to rave reviews but lukewarm sales—Nintendo didn’t advertise it as much as they could or should have due to its content and it coming near the end of the N64’s lifespan.

In 2002, Microsoft bought Rare for $375 million, just around the time the Rare-developed Star Fox Adventures (NOT THAT BAD OF A GAME!!!!! IT WAS ACTUALLY PRETTY GOOD!!!!!!!! THE LAST TIME I PLAYED IT WAS WHEN I WAS FOURTEEN THOUGH) dropped for GameCube—the only Rare title on the GCN. The purchase of Rare (and Nintendo’s lack of effort in keeping them) put Donkey Kong in a weird limbo.

The “modern age” of Donkey Kong titles (Donkey Kong Country to DK64) had been developed entirely by Rare and all of those games had been successful. What was the next step? A few different things. We had Donkey Konga, we had Donkey Kong Barrel Blast, we even had a Diddy Kong Racing remake for the DS developed by Rare (seeing as Microsoft had no stake in the handheld business). Eventually, Nintendo realized something.

People really fucking loved Donkey Kong Country. Listen to that crowd. They love it. It means something that Nintendo trusted Retro Studios with the DKC reboot—Retro was to Metroid what Rare was to DK. Metroid Prime was Retro’s Donkey Kong Country, revitalizing a franchise with a beautiful game. So obviously Retro was the best option to take DKC in a new direction. It worked: Donkey Kong Country Returns was flawed but very good, the 3DS port fixed the flaws and was incredible, and Tropical Freeze is one of the best games on Wii U.

Hard to imagine DK64 was the crux of all this. But it was. Why do you think the three Kongs Rare created for DK64 (Tiny, Chunky, Lanky) have appeared only sparingly since that game? Hell, Tiny got a ridiculous redesign, Lanky has only been in Barrel Blast, and Chunky has fallen off the radar completely. To be fair, though, one of his special abilities was invisibility.

Of course, Nintendo has experience with characters existing in the purgatory between companies. Square Enix still holds the rights to Geno and Mallow, characters from the beloved SNES title Super Mario RPG, which means that unfortunately we probably won’t be seeing either of them in a Super Smash Bros. title any time soon. Perhaps that’s why Tiny Kong got redesigned and why Chunky Kong stayed invisible. Lanky just does his own thing.

To infinity...and beyond!

To infinity…and beyond!

There’s some hope, however. When DKC and its sequels got pulled from Virtual Console without warning in 2012, some took it as a sign that we were pretty soon going to have to pretend that the Rare era of Donkey Kong games just never happened. But this month, Game Boy games Donkey Kong Land 1 and Donkey Kong Land 2: Diddy Kong’s Quest were released on 3DS Virtual Console in Japan. So maybe there’s still some hope. Maybe one of these days someone will fix that bug. Or maybe Retro Studios will remake Donkey Kong 64 from the ground up for the Wii U. Donkey Kong U would move consoles, if Nintendo pushed the nostalgia factor.

Who knows? Till then, I’m content to just enjoy Donkey Kong’s vacant stare into…the future.

Donkey Kong Stare

Ye Olde e-Reader

One of the main themes in the history of Nintendo is “ahead of its time.” Take the Virtual Boy, the largest hardware failure in the history of consumer gaming. It took over a decade for the stereoscopic 3-D Nintendo was so keen on to become marketable, in 3DS form. Or take the Game Boy Advance-GameCube Link Cable, which Nintendo pushed harder than just about anything else. It got released about ten years before cross-platform connectivity became a buzzword.

But what about our obscure friend, the e-Reader?

A bit ugly, sure, but everything was in 2002.

I had one. I still have one. It still works. I still have a couple of Animal Crossing cards that it’s still perfectly capable of scanning, even though it takes a few tries. But it was pretty unwieldy. It took several cards to start up an NES game, it took two connected GBAs for some features, and a GBA-GCN connection for some others.

It caught on in Japan but never in the USA or Europe and it was discontinued by 2004. Why not? Was it because keeping track of all the cards and their respective games was too difficult?

Three million starter packs have been sold.

Was it because it wasn’t practical to release things that had little to no intrinsic value (except as collectibles) when separated from their associated games and functions?

“As of February 2014 the Skylanders series has crossed the $2 billion in sales threshold.”

Maybe it was because many of the cards themselves weren’t really necessary for the games they were tied to. I guess we’ll never know. For the record, e-Reader cards themselves are now highly collectible, as any __________ card becomes after enough years.

I don’t think anyone wants my crinkly Tom Nook one, though.

This Kong’s One Hell Of A Game, Part I

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 Characters

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.

lanky1

Indeed, he has a funny face.

Let’s look at another picture of Lanky Kong.

Lanky2

Don’t think about his feet too hard.

This is great. Do we have any more?

Lanky3

Note the patch on his ass.

Perfect.

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…

Funky Kong

"DONKEY, HAVE YOU READ ATLAS SHRUGGED?"

“DONKEY, HAVE YOU READ ATLAS SHRUGGED?”

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.

Candy Kong

For the benefit of the readers, I choose not to include a picture of Candy Kong in the—

The polygons...

The polygons…

No!!!!

THE POLYGONS!!!!

THE POLYGONS!!!!

NO!!!!!!!!!!

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.

Cranky 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

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.

Snide

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 Setting

THE ISLAND IS FUCKING SHAPED LIKE DONKEY KONG’S HEAD.

Talk about manifest destiny.

Talk about manifest destiny.

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).

The Mechanics

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.

AUGH!!!!!

AUGH!!!!!

ABORT THE COLUMN. THAT’S A WRAP. LET’S ALL GO HOME.

The Top Five Kongs You Might Not Have Heard Of

To go along with this piece published earlier today, here is a list of Kongs you might not have heard of. The Kong family tree is wild.

  • Bony Kong is popular at Halloween, because he is a skeleton. Inexplicably, he is a human skeleton, but no one asks questions because it’s not evident he was ever alive to begin with. He is Donkey Kong’s great uncle and he makes a cameo in Donkey Kong 64 but only if you remove the cartridge from the system right as a character dies.
  • Money Kong is Funky Kong’s twin brother, but as far as Funky is concerned he does not exist. Whereas Funky is a gun-toting leech of the state, Money–that dirty capitalist–pulled himself up by his bananastraps (though no one really knows how) and actually owns the ocean that surrounds Donkey Kong Island. He was primed to be the star of Donkey Kongopoly, a cancelled Game Boy Color game that was bogged down by legal issues.
  • Nanny Kong is Cranky Kong’s mother, remarkably still alive. Rumor has it she signed a deal with the devil for immortality, which would explain why bees fly out of her mouth whenever she speaks. She doesn’t speak much, for the record. Her first appearance was actually in the Japan-only Kamisama Shindeiru, a collectible noted for its similarity to the later Super Smash Brothers series.
  • Dark Kong is…I’ve probably already said too much.
  • Prissy Kong is Money Kong’s selfish and entitled daughter. Her and Dixie have often gotten into fights, with Prissy going so far as to call Dixie “Bougie Kong.” She and her father are not invited to the annual Kong Family Reunions. A likely reason Donkey Kong Country 4 never happened is because the plot involved Prissy getting lost in her giant mansion, which is where most of the levels would have taken place.