Version tested: DS
Like King of Swing before it, Jungle Climber is a Donkey Kong platform game where you use your hands instead of your feet. It's taken them 25 years to think of that, which makes you wonder what else we're missing. Like, why isn't there a FIFA where you can play as a referee, or a Sonic game where you can get run over by a lorry?
In Jungle Climber's case, it's worked out very well. You use the left and right shoulder buttons to grab pegs with Donkey's left and right mitts, and when he's got hold of one he swings around it leading with his free hand. This allows you to launch yourself around the jungle like Tarzan, who is surely overdue for some sort of parkour royalty cheque anyway.
The strength of the controls' implementation is evident from the fact it takes less than half an hour to really get the hang of playing like this after decades of concentrating on your feet instead. And it has plenty of fringe benefits. For instance, if you lose purchase and start to tumble, you can reach out and grab something to check your descent.
But the reason Jungle Climber does so well isn't just that platforming with your hands is implemented well - it's far more to do with the excellent way Paon applies the upside down approach creatively to the game's levels. Early examples include a big stone ball made of pegs, whose momentum you have to build and sustain by swinging alongside it grabbing pegs on the falling edge.
Not content with that, Paon throws loads at the DS' two screens, and far more of it sticks than not. A level where DK finds himself mirrored on top and bottom screens in a crystal palace challenges you to keep an eye out for differences between peg layouts in the otherwise identical scenes above and below the fold. If DK grabs hold of a peg that exists on one screen but not the other, the mirror cracks and he has to start again.
Elsewhere, a ghostly level sees DK swinging past spectres that will spook him off his perch if he's caught moving (basically "What's The Time, Mr Wolf?" for monkeys) and pumping switches to blow up temporary peg lattices, while an underwater one has him caught in currents and trying desperately to cling onto reeds.
Helping to vary the environments is a silly warp-jumping space banana, who seems awful to begin with (banana fanana!) but ends up transporting you into the midst of some excellent levels, like the one where you have to beat up fruit and vegetables to create networks of pegs. There are moments playing Jungle Climber that are as close to the sparks of delight routinely scattered by Yoshi's Island as we've come since.
There are also lots of collectibles. Some are fairly mandatory (you can't move onto new shores without fuelling Funky Kong's plane with oil barrels, for instance), but most are there to give the game depth, like New Super Mario Bros' Big Gold Coins, or the original Donkey Kong Country games' secret rooms and K-O-N-G letters. Most are in fact derived from DKC, and they're welcome, because playing through levels a second time, when you're surer of your footing (sorry, handling), is quite agreeable. They also give you something else to do once the game really clicks and you start to want to nuzzle it and sleep with it clamped in your big girly arms.
Sadly, some of the trickier bits will make you groan, and, having filled itself with extras, there's also the age-old platform game problem of going round in circles to make sure you've found everything. If you're presented with two paths, you want to make sure, and there are perhaps a few too many teasing bananas or meaningless rocket-barrels tucked in around the edges that tease you without getting naked at the end.
You also have to ask why the graphics have gone backwards. Once upon a time, Rare's famed DK makeover looked spectacular. But that was on the SNES. Nowadays it looks a bit grainy and forced, and you can only imagine it was forced, because DK King of Swing had a lovely look of its own.
It didn't sell, but that was probably more to do with the fact it was released on the GBA just after the DS came out. And surely Nintendo doesn't have to play it safe any more anyway? An odd decision I don't understand. If less time had been spent dusting off the SG Indies and more time asking whether we really need all the silly flapping enemies you can only kill from one side, Jungle Climber would be scaling higher marks.
As it is, it's a game that veers between excellence and anguish a little bit too often. When it falls into bad old habits, it undermines its strengths, plunging the largely capable controls into context they suffer from. This is doubly annoying because the controls are ideal for most of what the game does, and have even greater potential: the mistake here is something akin to pitching aerial enemies against a limited aiming ability in a shooter; an unforced error that repeals confidence. We certainly hope Paon and Nintendo are smart enough to see this for themselves, because when Jungle Climber peaks, it's among the DS' best, and a bigger and better instalment - perhaps on the Wii - would again be welcome.
8 / 10