Happy Donkey Kong December!
Collect-athons were my bread and butter as a 90’s kid. “Super Mario 64” was the coolest thing ever for years and years. The game itself had players scouring many hidden worlds throughout Princess Peach’s castle for power-ups, coins, and stars. Legions of developers busted out titles in an effort to capitalize, and the Rare team was no exception.
Their 1999 platformer, “Donkey Kong 64,” essentially took the same path of evolution as the aforementioned Mario series. “Mario 64” achieved a level of dimension expansion for the previously released “Super Mario World,” which is still one of the best side-scrollers ever made. “Donkey Kong 64” similarly took the “Donkey Kong Country” series,” a trio of SNES side-scrollers that were also some of the best in show, and took the leap into 3D. What started as a jump into the future turned into more of a plummet. As designers added more and more and still MORE to the game, “Donkey Kong 64” ended up more bloated than the pig you feed in-game to access boss battles. There’s nothing too terrible about anything conceived, but where “Mario 64” integrated all its elements in a streamlined way, “Donkey Kong 64” just throws everything at the dart board, leaves the dart board as it is, and then tells the player “have fun” with a big monkey slap on the back.
Some gamers found the experience disorienting, but I think the fact that it was stuffed with a lot of content isn’t the issue. There’s nothing wrong with more content on its own. After all, isn’t it nice to have more game in general? The problem with “Donkey Kong 64” is that it was thematically confused. While we were offered five entirely different Kongs to play, more in a single Kong title than ever before, what a player could do with them was more limited than any “Donkey Kong Country.” Pick up a controller and you can finish any of the ‘Country’ titles with any of the playable characters. You might have access to different areas with Dixie’s banana hair twirl or you might need Donkey’s strength to defeat certain enemies, but the point is, where there was an ape, there was a way. In “Donkey Kong 64” however, players are often faced with a series of symbolic experience locks as they attempt to proceed.
In the following article, I will seek to address these experience locks and offer my unsolicited and uneducated advice to any hardworking future developers who may get the job of peeling the proverbial banana.
The Overworld and Individual Levels
The Overworld was one of the strong points of “DK 64.” The spiraling, circular nature of the map made it very organic to reach character barrels and unlockable secrets. What it amounted to however was a series of gated entry points, boiling things down to what is essentially a glorified version of the “Donkey Kong Country” map overview. In that game, you Indiana Jonesed your character along a dotted line until you could select another level. Beating a level usually unlocked another path, and occasionally you could activate a secret passageway through a simple game mechanic. Nothing has changed here. You best a level boss and then the next one opens up. Sure there’s a gimmick with bringing the key to an imprisoned gigantic crocodile first, but that’s all bells and whistles. Quirkiness alone does not innovation make.
Now, prepare yourself. This is the first of many “lists within lists.” While I will do my best not to over-inflate this article like the game I’m referencing (obviously that didn’t pan out… hence the “part one”), I can’t promise anything.
Remove Level Gates:
Take a note from the exceedingly influential “Skyrim” and “Breath of the Wild.” Everyone’s going open world, even Sonic and Pikachu. I don’t think open world gaming is the best choice for every franchise, but for what “DK 64” aspired to be, I think building the exploration on character choice and innovation is the way to go. This is also a conceptual way to stay true to the spirit of the Donkey Kong characters themselves. In the “Country” titles, players got to sit with how they wanted to tackle that next section of screen.
Your choice of character, method of platforming, and instincts for how best to use the space around you all effected how you proceeded, but you could ALWAYS proceed, somehow. Anything like bonus barrels or bombable walls or hidden collectibles was regulated to scenarios that required a few different techniques be applied. If you didn’t know you could open that secret cave with the Rambi the rhino’s horn, then your progress wasn’t hindered, it just meant you didn’t get that banana hoard or whatever. The game rewarded completionists and casual players alike.
The Overworld of “DK 64” rewards only those players who beat the bosses of each stage. You can’t get to “Crystal Caves” before “Angry Aztec,” and that’s a big problem with so few levels to explore. This game has nine while “Mario 64” had fifteen, and yes, there were progression gates in “Mario 64,” but the game also allowed you to ignore entire worlds if you wanted. There was an inherent choice in say… deciding that the sand world stars could go f*** themselves and going for the gold on the second floor snow level instead. You can’t do much of that with “DK 64.” If you hate Fungi Forest bananas, then it’s really just too bad, because without the boss key from that stage boss, you’re not getting any farther.
***hot take- have each level accessible from the get-go.***
Players might not be able to get every secret or even beat every enemy, but feeling like you can go where you want makes the entire experience more primal. You’re playing as gorillas, chimps, and orangutans for crying out loud. Exploring different territory and dealing with the potential risks of gathering more of what you need on dangerous ground is quintessentially wild, which is like the entire vibe. Believe me, there will be the players who will try to “Dark Souls” it, even if the odds are stacked against them.
What this level of access means is that the need for level gate keys would be extinguished. The progression point would EXCLUSIVELY become about getting more golden bananas (yes, ala “Mario 64”) from anywhere, period. Players should be able to get bananas from wherever they’re exploring in the moment, without it mattering that you might have neglected one area over the other for taste.
Remove Collectable Specificity
When playing “DK 64,” if you come upon a Tiny banana while playing as Lanky, then you can’t grab it. You see that Donkey coin, but you’re playing as Chunky? Too bad! It is crucial that players be able to grab what they see. Forcing players to use certain Kongs removes choice, when it would be much more satisfying to find alternative solutions using different Kongs.
Structure Boss Battles to be Winnable with each Kong
Speaking of alternative uses for aur goofy gorillas, this one is pretty self-explanatory. However, it would need to be one of the most important aspects of development from the very beginning. The (admittedly disturbing) boss of Frantic Factory seems to think it must require Tiny’s ponytail twirl in order to reach the various platforms with those electric switches on top. It’s conceivable though that you could also reach those with a high-hopping Kong like Diddy, and that’s just the beginning of the possibilities. Maybe only Chunky has the glute strength to simian slam the boss’ box (that sounded wrong)? I don’t know, but it would be very cool discourse to see how different players approach each boss with their preferred characters, and specificity in certain scenarios is just not necessary. There is no reason it HAD to be Lanky in the boat-bound boss battle against the angry pufferfish. You’re telling me that an orangutan is more adept at driving a motor vehicle than a chimpanzee? I don’t buy it!
The Specificity of the Kongs
I admire their ambition, but the playable characters in “DK 64” all do way too much. In this section, just to simplify things, I’ll list the characters I think should be playable (some might surprise you) and give as clear a context for their use as I can.
An important note to remember is that every Kong’s special ability should be one of many ways to accomplish any task. There should be no experience lock based on not having access to certain abilities, and I actually like the idea of rescuing the various Kongs over time. It would really incentivize the player to tackle more dangerous bosses, and with the level key system gone, it offers a more substantial reward for defeating big baddies instead of being just another way to gather golden bananas.
There are three categories of playable characters: primary platformers, Overworld specific, and non-playable.
His first thing, which is also basically like the first thing any video-game character had ever, was barrels. Let’s make him a primary platformer who can use toss barrels or roll them at enemies. They could function a lot like Link’s bombs from the “Zelda” series, having different properties based on the circumstances required, and it might even be fun to incorporate strategy into how you could place these barrels across your map. Maybe Funky has developed a barrel drop system using a squadron (squawkdron?) of squawks that operates out of a command center floating high in the sky? That could explain why certain resources drop into the map as well… ANYWAY, maybe you could request a certain amount of barrels of certain types in the different areas you’re exploring? Calling them in with a banana phone would be a blast, literally, and imagine the variety of uses for the barrels!
If you noticed in the remake of “Diddy Kong Racing,” Tiny is all grown up (or at least a teenager). I think it would be cool to have her as a primary platformer with her whole thing being about, well, being tiny. She had a connection with the banana fairies in the first game, so how about we start the game knowing she’s been blessed by the Banana Fairy Queen? This blessing would allow her to shrink at any time, and this would allow her to see different parts of the map the other Kong’s wouldn’t be able to see and sneak around certain enemies (if she can avoid being squished). Maybe she is kind of the Spider-Man of the island, working as a photographer on the side and solving crimes in secret, because like Ant-Man, maybe the blessing makes her little self super strong? I think she should also have a fairy sense that tells her when it’s worth exploring an area in her mini version.
More on Tiny…
I think only she should have the banana cam. Snide from the first game could be working on a new machine that requires fairy magic to become fully functional. Maybe she could have a Pokémon Snap esc adventure, finding and snapping mystical creatures from the hidden world of the banana fairies (they’d be adorable and unique to make it interesting, so think “Minish Cap” vibes). Depending on how good the shot is, the more magic the Queen will bestowed onto Tiny’s camera. Snide could attach it to an apparatus and generate some kind of major weapon for the Kongs towards the end if you snap all the critters. This could be the equivalent of the Fierce Diety’s Mask. Ultimately, you don’t need to do it, but the incentive for the experience alone is off the charts. It would just be nice to see Tiny get a part-time job, work under a difficult boss, and develop her character. Maybe Timber from “Diddy Kong Racing,” another teen, works there too and she kind of has a crush on him? Adorable!
We need to resolve some of these issues Cranky has with his son. Could we finally discover why this primary platformer is so angry? Is he guilty about being a villain all those years ago? Moreover, Wrinkly Kong, his beloved wife, passed away like eight games ago. How does he feel about that? There’s so much that I think would be interesting to explore, and I think his quest might be to reclaim pieces of his memory.
I know this is a common open world trope, but if executed well, this would be an organic way to, especially in his advancing age, help heal his resentment towards his son. This could even help him accept his wife’s passing. Maybe Cranky travels to different parts of the island while being guided by his wife’s spirit to gather ingredients for his potions? He’d be too old to operate in the field without them after all, but it would be cool (and often humorous no doubt) to mix different concoctions that enable him to operate in different areas as an asset to the team. You could pull in some of the powers from the last game, but it would be most fun to kind of potion up your own special version of Cranky. So in a coconut shell, his thing would be mixing potions, finding ingredients for them, and using his newfound powers to platform with the best of them.
Our boy and primary platformer always gotta be racing. Specifically, this little guy’s been about speed from the first “Country” on. He would generally just be the fastest on the team, but I think he would utilize the space more like Sonic than the other Kongs. This means plenty of wide space would be an important aspect of the world design. If you prefer to zip around stages with fancy footwork, then Diddy is for you. This would be the moment those tiny bananas could be put to good use. Gather a certain amount with any Kong to make Diddy’s speed and acrobatic ability increase. Along the way, certain important baddies holding maps to the surrounding areas will be scattered about the various locations. They will run away when you approach, and Diddy will likely be the only one who can catch them (although you can set traps with Donkey, Tiny, or others… it would be far more difficult). Catching all these chosen map holders will be the only way to complete the full map and expose the hidden treasures within them.
While Dixie has always been paired with partners who can hold their own, we all know she was in charge. Dixie’s thing would be banana bird search, rescue, and escort. Frightened by whatever destructive force has visited DK island, the magical banana birds have all been captured or forced into hiding. I think Dixie would be a gimmick character who allows players to plot a more method course through the various levels. This would make her the best Kong for saving the birds. Any Kong can find them and defeat any enemies guarding them, but the birds themselves will flee from anyone who isn’t Dixie. The birds will stay by Dixie’s side as she attempts to lead them towards sanctuary on the island. It’s something about the way she does her hair… Traveling with a banana bird will attract more attention from enemies, but leading them to safety will unlock animal tokens that can be used to summon Rambi, Enguarde, Winky, Expresso, Squawks, Rattly, Squitter, Clapper, Glimmer, Quawks, Ellie, and the lightfish. Don’t know who they are? Don’t worry about it. Just trust that it will be a huge asset, as any Kong can use these animal companions to ease up exploration. Plus, if you save all the banana birds, then they can use their combined song to finally call for their mom, the Queenie Banana bird. Summoning her is nearly an instant win in any combat scenario, as she’s supremely powerful against any opposing force.
I think it’s also about time Dixie and Diddy thought about settling down. Maybe taking charge of these birds would lead to some interesting scenes of them talking about the future? It would be interesting if their game theming (his being speed and hers being about carefully planned steps) integrated into their character dynamics. Maybe Diddy tends to be the extroverted blunt force who makes rash decisions with good intentions, and maybe this is something that’s gotten harder for Dixie to adapt to as she works towards building a stable life? Would Diddy propose at some point? GASP!
Hear me out on this one… Chunky’s outfit at the beginning of the rap… it says so much. Primary platformer Chunky’s thing IS to get big, but we’re gonna take that in a different direction. Yes, he’ll be slowest and most lumbering in the platforming department, but he’ll be strongest in combat. Chunky will start the game as a veritable Hercules. Since his last adventure, he got into fitness and wellness and totally transformed into a rebranded HUNKY KONG!
We’re talking chest and arms and a positive attitude and confidence and… well, crippling anxiety and self-doubt hidden right behind that glossy veil. He’s become a celebrity on the island, and Parry the parallel bird’s camera crew follows him around whenever he plays. Hunky Kong (as I’ll now call him) is the money Kong, having found himself an agent in the morally grey Swanky Kong. Playing with Hunky allows you to accept Swanky KING’s (or so he believes) terms of play. For example, he might tell you to defeat five enemies using a simian squat, and doing so will net you a wad of coins. You can kind of play things like you’re a parody of Dante in “Devil May Cry,” using cooler and cooler moves to get banana tips from Parry. In other words, you play to the camera, they pay you to win. I think this would be a great way to frame Hunky’s story, because the over-arching theme of this story is “who am I?” Hunky would have to face his truth, as opposed to relying on his external perfection, and embrace his truly soft center underneath those rippling pectorals. He can also be pressured into a sort of rivalry with Donkey Kong by Swanky Kong, as a competition for the status of “strongest Kong” gets a lot of viewers. Swanky is the manifestation of toxicity in the influencer world, and Hunky has fallen victim to the system. However, with the help of his player, he can find a way to make the attention work for him, not the other way around.
Speaking of big… This unhinged article, a part one of craziness, is already Hunky Kong level huge. Brace yourself for more to come.
If you haven’t gone bananas yet, check back in with us as Q2Q continues to celebrate Donkey Kong December!