Version tested: Wii
Donkey Kong occupies an odd moral position in Nintendo gaming. He's been an out-and-out villain - especially in his debut performance as a kidnapping ne'er-do-well battling the proto-Mario Jumpman - and he's also served as a playable support character, free from ethical chattels, in tens of Nintendo titles such as Mario Kart and Tennis. But in 1994, somebody at either Rare or Nintendo came up with the idea of DK as a central protagonist, giving him a story of his own in Donkey Kong Country.
In retrospect it seems obvious. DK is lithe and powerful, agile, athletic and brutishly charming. When he's given free range to use his abilities, invariably in a platform environment, he shines. What he does in Jungle Beat is exactly that - springing, thumping and wall-jumping his way through a superlative selection of traditionally themed levels, which combine just the right amount of innovation with a comfortable familiarity.
When it was originally released on GameCube back in 2005, Jungle Beat used the unusual and brilliant bongo peripheral - a set of two electrical drums that handled all of the varied controls. A tap on either drumhead handled movement, while a slap on both produced a jump and an air-clap activated the onboard microphone for an offensive slap, producing a 360-degree burst of sound to dizzy and destroy foes.
The Wii port ditches the bongos in favour of the Wiimote and nunchuk, and many of DK's abilities - and indeed the layout of the levels themselves - have been subtly altered as a result, rebalancing the difficulty to account for the increased accuracy of buttons and an analogue stick. DK's slap is now a directional attack rather than a circular one, covering perhaps 90 degrees. It also covers far less distance, requiring a bit more strategic planning. The health system has been overhauled too - whereas once a hit would knock a measly five bananas from that level's total, DK now sports a more traditional three-heart bar. Entire sections have been redesigned, adding enemies and stiffening the environmental challenge.
Some may lament the absence of bongos, which were a key element of the original's charm, but the new controls are excellent - natural and immensely enjoyable after only a few moments. There are occasional lapses in accuracy, and doubtless much of the novelty value has vanished, but for new players this feels like a game designed specifically for this control method.
The story is rock-solid Nintendo fare: DK's kingdom has been ravaged by the rulers of the various other fruity realms, and his stash of bananas appropriated. In order to restore his pride and nutritional balance, you must retrieve them from the clutches of various apes, warthogs, birds and robotic, elephantine artillery pieces. The jumping, rope-grabbing, foe-smashing gameplay is a pure platform paradigm - fire and spikes are to be avoided, shiny things collected, hidden areas and well-timed jumps abound.
In addition to this agreeably familiar focus is an interesting combo mechanic, which must be mastered in order to maximise your banana count - the true importance of which comes later. Each unique move that DK performs without hitting the floor adds a combo multiplier, affecting all bananas collected after that point. Spamming the jump button mid-air also sees DK gathering nearby bananas.
Linking together bottom-bounces, wall-springs and trampoline jumps with these air-grabs is a spot-on risk/reward scenario, because taking a hit before landing loses all the bananas you've collected in that sequence. This works superbly in tandem with some truly excellent level design, with flowing acrobatic manoeuvres resulting in satisfyingly huge banana totals, and the occasional frustration at having over-reached yourself never approaching terminal proportions. It's also here where the easy-to-pick-up-and-hard-to-master controls are at their best.
Once each world's two platforming stages are complete, players move on to face the realm's king in a one-on-one battle, with the bananas collected up to that point acting as health. These boss battles vary from straight-up punch-outs with the ape kings to more involved platform mini-stages for the others. Usually it's a matter of breaching the bosses' defences somehow before latching on and delivering a sound thrashing by 'drumming' the Wiimote and nunchuk rapidly. On the whole the bosses are satisfying, if a little easy, but it would have been nice to see a little more variety in the enemies rather than a slightly upgraded repetition.
Meanwhile, taking damage from bosses means lost bananas. Losing bananas means a lower world-total when they're totted up post-boss, and as-per-usual, points mean prizes. Getting 200, 500 and 1000 banana totals respectively will earn players a crest, the collection of which unlocks hidden levels, bringing it to a total of about 50 including boss fights.
Whilst nearly all of the game's levels are relatively easy if you're approaching them in straightforward manner, maxing out banana counts is a tricky business, and topping a thousand for each stage will challenge both skill and even physical endurance, judging by my fine sheen of sweat - although fitter readers will no doubt fare better.
One thing that will hit everyone though is how good the game looks. Even though it's four years old, it's one of the Wii's prettiest titles, with lush environments (admittedly in slightly hackneyed fire/ice veins), excellent shading, lighting and smooth animation combining with a solid frame-rate to put most Wii developers to shame. Even blown up on the office's monstrous 50-inch plasma TV it looked crisp and vibrant, with an attention to detail that adds a great deal to the experience.
The main concern with Jungle Beat is that it's undeniably short. Ploughing through the initial worlds with no real regard for banana count should take experienced gamers no more than four hours, although the task of capturing all the crests and mastering the hidden zones will extend that lifespan considerably. But while the replay value of exploring old levels for tucked-away fruit will only appeal to the mildly anal, this certainly won't be a one-shot experience for most. Obviously, this is not a game for out-and-out haters of platform titles, but even some of them might be won over by the clever touches.
If you never caught the original, then this is almost a must-have. It's stuffed with charm and clever ideas like the score-maxing hint sections displayed upon level-completion. In fact, this is classic platforming with the added bonus of individuality and innovation. If, like a hippy with particularly adhesive locks, you were dreadfully attached to your bongo set, you may take time to adjust. I can only implore you to try.
8 / 10