You've got to hand it to Nintendo. Just when everyone's attention has become firmly fixed on the impending release of the DS, it seems to want to throw new and original GBA software at us that's every bit as interesting and worth having as anything that's out on its new system; yet minus any hype whatsoever. DK: King Of Swing crept out into the European market last Friday ahead of anywhere else in the world, so we won't blame you for knowing nothing about it. Its almost invisible entry onto our nation's shelves is hardly a surprise though, seeing as Nintendo itself doesn't seem to be altogether convinced whether this ape swinging romp is actually any good or not. They needn't have worried; it's another charming work of simple game design genius from a company that seems to be operating on a different plane to almost anyone else.
The instant association with any DK game will be: "Ah yes. Donkey Kong. Platformer. Haven't we had enough of those by now?" But King Of Swing does things a little differently. Well, actually, completely differently given that we can't recall a single game ever made like this one. What to even classify it as? The idea is essentially to swing DK from the bottom of the level right to the top via a series of wooden pegs while avoiding various hazards along the way, using the left and right shoulder buttons as DK's grabbing hands. Holding down L+R together makes DK jump up, then you literally grab a peg with either L or R, holding it down to maintain your grip while DK himself swings 360 degrees until you time your leap to the next peg. By timing these leaps to perfection you can quickly ascend and build up a decent momentum, and although it's an initially unfamiliar and tricky system to get your head around, once it clicks it's one that feels satisfyingly unique.
But it's not just getting the hang of swinging that taxes you, but a whole bunch of enemy sentries that patrol each area and take one of your three hearts (lives) away from you should you so much as touch them once. You can, however, charge up DK by holding down L+R for a second or so and bowl into them, but although that's an initially solid attack you'll soon have to deal with enemies that can only be killed by piling into their weaker side, and so on. There is a more powerful attack called 'Going Bananas' which you can activate at any point and makes you both more destructive and invincible for a few seconds, but it also costs you ten precious bananas - which is the equivalent of one heart, or a life if you will. Given how important these lives are, you won't be Going Bananas very often. It's a shame they felt the need to link health and power-ups together because you really do need both.
Getting to the top of each level also proves to be a progressively more taxing task once you start having to activate switches, turn timed levers, ascend moving platforms, and swing between crumbling pegs and the like. Throw in the obligatory instant death spikes and end of world boss fights and King Of Swing starts to become a progressively more challenging and compelling game like no other we've ever played. For that reason alone we'd recommend giving it a try in a market chock full of tired retreads of past glories. Top marks for bothering to try something new, we say.
Still, for all the brilliantly original ideas on show here, there comes a point when you feel like developer Paon just decided to throw up certain levels simply as a bar to your progress. You can almost hear their cackling over your shoulder. For example, levels where it's all too easy to fall from the very top right down to the bottom and into a bottomless pit (instant death), and it's far too hit and miss whether the game allows you to grab something on the way down as you flail wildly. We also didn't appreciate the number of occasions when pixel perfect leaps of faith were called upon - especially the one where you have the added bonus of negotiating a gale force gust into the bargain. Put simply, it can be a frustrating sod of a game when it feels like it. Also, it's worth mentioning just how uncomfortable it is to have your hands permanently stationed on the shoulder buttons on a GBA SP; you can almost hear the RSI kicking in as your hands shape themselves into an unnatural claw for hours on end.
Going back in time
We were also curious to know why new boys to the DK scene Paon decided to plump for such a basic visual style that's entirely inconsistent and plainly unimpressive next to the latter day DK games over the past decade or so. With a simplified cartoon edge to everything, it's not a patch on what we're used to, and given that the whole game world is full of round pegs and basic scenery it's clear that it's not exactly a visual treat that pushes the very boundaries of the GBA. And although this admittedly makes no difference to the gameplay, you'd think Nintendo would want to give the game the best chance possible and try and impress its potential audience as much as it could. One quick glance will leave every passer-by thoroughly uninspired, and that's a shame for a game that has a lot to offer.
There are a few throwaway extras that we ought to mention as well that lend the game a fairly shoehorned multiplayer mode that bears little resemblance to the main single-player adventure. As you progress through the story mode you unlock various events in the 'Jungle Jam', which can be played either linked up multiplayer or against three CPU opponents (permed from Dixie, Diddy, Funky, and Donkey).
Climbing Races are the most simple, and work along the lines of leaping to the top of a level as quickly as possible; Obstacle Races are basically the same but have crates blocking your path which you have to bust up along the way; Attack Battles are simple charge attack face-offs on a small climbing board; while Barrel Blasts task you with busting up randomly generated barrels before your opponents. Ho hum. They really are pretty throwaway events that have been tuned in favour of the CPU to a hilarious degree, so are basically of no use to anyone except in multiplayer, and disgracefully every player requires a copy of the game. Well, we can already predict the chance of four mates all having bought this are slim to nil, so can't fathom why Nintendo persists in hampering connectivity in this way.
But ignoring the entirely superfluous Jungle Jam, the single-player adventure more than makes up for it and although has arguably way too many incidences of annoying level design to get too excited about, for those with a steely mindset and a longing for something genuinely new DK: King Of Swing is a surprisingly worthwhile addition to the handheld (swinging) scene. Monkeys and bananas are still evidently doing it for us.