Donkey Kong Jungle Beat
Best 2D bongo platform game evah.
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Those waiting for the Revolution may be surprised to learn that it's already here.
We're all keen to see just what Nintendo has in mind for its next generation console, but if the goal is as professed - to level the playing field and invent new ways for us to interact with and enjoy console games - then the Revolution's already taking place on high streets around the world.
With their tilt sensors, Yoshi's Universal Gravitation and Wario Ware: Twisted! both demonstrated ingenious control ideas on the humble GBA, while Wario Ware GameCube had us leaping behind the sofa to satisfy peculiar winning conditions, and the Nintendo DS is exciting to developers precisely because it invites them to reject existing ideas and play around with the possibilities for control and display.
All are examples of Nintendo ideas that are just as fresh to old hands as they are to newcomers. But if the Revolution needs a poster-child, then Donkey Kong Jungle Beat is surely it. It's a platform game that you control using bongo drums, and it works so well that we've set up a Word filter to slap us in the face if we try and type the word g!mmick without a significant degree of obfuscation.
Yeeowch! (A more significant degree than one exclamation mark, it seems. We should never have bought that extendable boxing glove monitor attachment.)
On the surface, Jungle Beat is suspiciously simple. Using a pair of bongo drums (supplied with the game, or kept over from last year's short-lived rhythm-action title Donkey Konga) the player moves Donkey Kong around gloriously rendered 2D side-scrolling environments, tapping left to move left, right to move right, hitting both drums together to jump, and clapping hands near enough the built-in microphone to emit sonic shockwaves that pummel enemies, smash walls and so on.
Amusingly, our experience of traditional 2D platforming probably means we had just as hard a time learning how to play it as the average Child Of PlayStation would have with a D-pad after years of analogue sticks. Gradually though the subtleties start to make themselves clear - partly through trial and error, and partly thanks to a handy array of between-level demo movies that clue you in on particular techniques - and the often tricky levels soon become easier to navigate.
You learn how to bring DK to a quick stop, how to leap between opposing walls, how to take down particular enemies by first clapping and then leaping on top to bash them, and so on. And what isn't made explicitly clear is satisfyingly intuitive. Find yourself a "helibird" for example and you quickly work out how it responds to drum input and how to move it quickly to avoid obstacles, and things like bounce pads, clap-sensitive temporary platforms, parachuting, swimming, swinging between ropes (or chains of swinging monkeys) and using nest-bound monkeys to propel yourself as if they were DK's old barrel-cannons all quickly becomes second nature.
But the range and quality of DK's activities are only the initial attractions; soon your desire to secure as many bananas as possible and string together ludicrous combos takes over and the game becomes one of those exercises in piecing it all together without putting a foot wrong.
The way it's all structured is clever. Every "kingdom" consists of two levels, which only take a few minutes each to complete and generally conclude with a drum-as-fast-as-you-can bit to collect extra bananas, followed by a showdown with one of four main boss-types. The idea is that the amount of bananas (or "beats") you have not only serves as your health meter, but also dictates the level of reward you'll receive when the boss takes a fall. Simply defeating the boss is worth a bronze crest, but silver requires that you finish with 400, gold 800 and platinum with a seemingly impossible 1200. Crucially, you not only have to collect that many bananas in the first two levels, but hang on to them against the resident boss as well. And obviously you need crests to open new levels.
We don't know how good we are at this compared to the average monkey (which in itself ought to be something worth contemplating), but at our standard we managed to make it through most of the game without having to replay too many levels. In fact, it was only after the final boss, when another set of kingdoms cheekily opened up, that we realised we'd have to start honing our skills in previous areas to keep going.
And though we'd been enjoying it up to that point, that's when we really started to care about combos. Which in turn helped us to better appreciate the intricacy of the design.
Combos in Jungle Beat are simple enough - all you really have to do is collect a lot of bananas without landing on the ground or getting hit by an enemy - but there are several things to consider as you start to take advantage of them. First - clapping-shockwaves will ensnare any bananas in DK's immediate vicinity. Thus, when you're thrown into the midst of five bunches of bananas suspended in the air, quickly clapping five times will grab them all, and this clapping method coupled with your being off the ground will also mean the accumulated bunches are worth more to your total.
Second - the levels are generally designed to be exploited like this, but it may not be all that obvious to you until you get the hang of doing things like adding a brief pause for a clap when you're leaping between walls, springing off ledges to keep combos alive instead of just landing flat-footed, using clap-then-drum bat enemies to juggle yourself through the air, and using your momentum to stick to the level's network of bounce pads, DK-throwing monkey nests, helibirds and the like.
As you become more and more proficient, however, you'll find that combos help you to edge closer to those big banana totals, and that you barely even touch the ground in some areas. Then it's just a question of beating the boss without getting hurt.
Fortunately the bosses come under the heading of "basic but interesting" rather than "boring and hard", and their repeated use means this levels-then-boss approach isn't too unfair as, for all their bigger environments and slightly different attack patterns, you do at least know what you're doing. The basic casts are Kong (one-on-one beat-'em-up where you dodge punches or kicks then drumroll to land your own), Roc (a bird holding what's either a bomb or an egg, which has to be destroyed), Tusk (an elephant-shaped tank who chucks explosive pineapples around for you to make use of) and Hog (a jump-happy warthog who chucks fruit). All are gorgeously rendered, sufficiently challenging efforts with puntastic names. A Hog with a Mohawk, for example, is obviously "Mo Hog".
Jungle Beat soon becomes so compelling that you're rarely at a loss for motivation. If you're not simply revelling in the design or your own massive combos, you're hopelessly addicted to securing the requisite number of bananas and coming through unscathed against the boss, or you're cooing at something completely unexpected (the level that involves zip-lines and swimming through jelly in the sky, for example), or you're seduced by an end-of-level ski-jump-on-a-buffalo bit, or you're staring at the quality of the visuals (remember those Donkey Kong Country magazine covers with the rendered fur and all that? This looks like that. In-game. With close-ups). The only real reason we stopped was the sweat patches under our arms. Actually - that'll be a good quote for the press clippings folder, PR people: "DK Jungle Beat. You'll only stop to shower."
It's not without fault, mind you. The "Ninja Kong" enemy at the end of one of the latter stages is what we'd term "a difficulty spike" and harder to beat than the end-of-game boss; some sections become repetitive due to the ease of failure - parachuting over lava, for example; and some of the levels, whilst often interesting enough when you first play through them, won't be remembered fondly and will be tiring to trawl back through for more beats - the underwater levels, in particular, and one lava effort toward the end which brings all the most irritating enemies together under one roof.
Plus, as much as we admire the bongo-based control system, there are times when it betrays you to your death by sending you scampering a bit too far, or having you jump up when you meant to jump left. And there are times when Kristan, sitting there playing DK: King of Swing on his Game Boy, notices that you're trying to float a bubble through a maze and decides to make a loud click sound, popping it and very nearly prompting the first recorded case of bongos as a murder weapon. (Although we probably won't hold that last bit against the game, in fairness.)
But perhaps the most disappointing thing about Jungle Beat is that it's over so quickly. While it lasts it's bright, fresh, engaging, full of clever ideas, and you only tend to feel like stopping because your arse is sweating. But the truth is you could happily drum your way through it in an evening. It feels like it ought to be the single-player component to Donkey Konga - whack those two on a disc together and it's a must-buy - and it's disappointing to find that none of the tasks that would translate so well to mini-games (the ski jump, helibird and turtle racing, etc) are available outside their respective levels, either. For an arcade-flavoured game it's surprisingly single-minded.
But, as we glance around for a cymbal to cap things off, it would be cruel to hold these things against Donkey Kong Jungle Beat. Nintendo's burgeoning Revolution means it's barely even the most innovative 2D platform game we've played this month, but compared to the last two decades' output it's gloriously refreshing, and it's only the lack of longevity that leads us to hesitate in recommending it. If you can stomach the cost though, you'll soon see that it's far more than a gimmiEEEEOWWW. A suitable drumroll for the Revolution, then.