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Donkey Konga

Developer: Namco | Publisher: Nintendo
Players: 1 to 2 Player Game | Release Date: 09/27/04 | Genre: Music

Nintendo has finally made their effort into the musical genre complete with a special controller. Donkey Konga employs special bongo controllers so that up to four players can drum to the rhythm of over 30 different songs. Check here for our review of the DK Bongos. All you really need to know though is that a set of DK Bongos functions like a pair of small drums. It senses a hit to the left drum, a hit to the right drum, it has a microphone to sense a clap (or other sharp sounds), and it has a START/PAUSE Button. Up to four sets of DK Bongos can be connected for a little DK party.

The game is simple really. Circular notes scroll from right to left towards a target on the right side of the screen. The player's goal is to hit each note as they pass through the target. The more accurately each note is hit, the better score the player will receive. The player can get a Great, OK, or Bad hit, or a Miss. There are four types of notes. A yellow, left semicircle indicates that the player should hit the left drum. A red, right semicircle is for the right drum. A pink, full circle means that the player should hit both drums simultaneously. A blue burst icon means that the player needs to clap. Notes can also be elongated, indicating that the player needs to perform a drum roll (or clap repeatedly). If the player plays the notes accurately, then the rhythm will match that of the song. It's very simple to learn. You can even try out a demo using your keyboard at DonkeyKonga.com.

Graphically, the game isn't so spectacular, but that doesn't really matter. I do like how everything in the game is meant to pertain to the Donkey Kong universe somehow. For instance, the notes scrolling by are actually wooden barrels rolling along a path. The menu selections appear on wooden signs that you might find on DK Isle. As for the actual song screens, the backgrounds look like familiar Donkey Kong Country locations and DK characters dance around to the music. What's not so spectacular is that the animations for these little sprites aren't incredibly detailed or amusing. The backgrounds are also pretty static. However, none of this really matters because your attention will almost entirely be focused on the notes scrolling by. This is a musical game after all, and nothing really matters besides the notes.

There are 33 songs with a good range in variety. There are slower songs like the Willie Nelson classic "On the Road Again" and Queen's "We Will Rock You" and faster songs like "All The Small Things". There is a good variety of styles too. There are some familiar children's songs, modern rock, 60's rock, swing, pop, dance, and a couple of Nintendo remixes. For the most part, there's something that everyone can enjoy, or at least have fun beating drums to, but you'll notice that there isn't anything too recent. In fact, I think the newest song in Donkey Konga's soundtrack is "All The Small Things". Something I found irritating at first is the fact that none of the songs are performed by the original artists. However, the performers singing the songs do a good job of imitating the original artists' voices and styles. While it would have been nice to have a larger soundtrack and more recent hits, almost all of the songs that are included were good selections that everyone will have fun with. 33 songs will be enough for multiplayer sessions, but as a single-player game, it comes up a little short.

While each song itself has a different difficulty rating (based mainly on its speed), there are also three different arrangements for each song: Monkey, Chimp, and Gorilla. In case you couldn't tell, that's novice, standard, and expert, respectively. The harder arrangements have more notes and more difficult sequences of notes (such as rapidly changing, rather than repeating notes). The Monkey arrangements are great for learning how to play, but they're not too fun because the notes are so sparse that they hardly follow the rhythm of the song. The Chimp and Gorilla arrangements of each song are a lot more fun to play not only because they are more challenging, but because they match the music better and you really feel like you're playing along with the song. Some of the Gorilla arrangements are insanely difficult and it will take quite a bit of practice to master.

One thing that was exceptionally well done is the multiplayer arrangements of each song. In the 2-4 player modes, every player does not simply play the single-player arrangements simultaneously. Each song as actually been re-arranged for multiple players so that different players are playing different notes at different times. So if all of the players do well, then their drumming and clapping actually works in concert with their opponents to play along with the song.

Speaking of multiplayer, that's where most of the value of Donkey Konga lies. Single-player is fun while it lasts, but once each song is mastered, there isn't much reason to come back to it alone. However, it seems like two or more players can always have fun. The great thing about Donkey Konga is that it's much more approachable than other musical games (like dancing or karaoke games) and it's very easy to pick up and play. Anyone can have immediate fun because the purpose of the game and the use of the DK Bongos are very obvious. Donkey Konga is a great party game.

There are five basic modes in the game. Street Performance is only for single players and it's what might be called the "main mode". When starting a new game, all 33 songs are playable in their Monkey and Chimp arrangements. Gorilla arrangements are locked. The main goal is for the player to play each arrangement of each song to earn coins. The player earns coins as he or she plays through a song. The more accurately the player hits the notes, the more coins are earned. Consecutive Great and OK hits are Combos, which further increase the score. Points are also calculated separately from coins. A certain point total must be met or exceeded for the song to be cleared. If the song is cleared, the player gets to keep the coins earned. The high scores are also recorded. Coins can be spent to unlock Gorilla arrangements for each song, purchase mini-games, and new bongo sounds. For instance, you can replace the standard bongo sounds with the sounds of a tambourine, or even stranger things like the sound of dogs or lasers.

The Ape Arcade houses three mini-games (once you purchase them). The mini-games aren't as fun as I thought they would be. They're certainly not bad additions, but they don't add a whole lot to the game. Playing the songs is more fun. Two players can compete in Banana Juggle. The bongos are used to make Donkey Kong pass and toss more and more bananas. Correct timing is needed otherwise points will be lost when bananas fall to the ground. Two players can also play the 100M Vine Climb. It has vine climbing gameplay similar to the old Donkey Kong Jr. game. The goal is to climb to the top and get more fruit than your opponent. Hit the bongos alternately to climb and just hit one side to move left or right. The last mini-game, Bash K. Rool, is like Whack-a-Mole except that there are only three holes. They correspond to left drum, right drum, and clap. Honestly, I don't think anyone will want to spend much time with the mini-games. The main, musical gameplay is a lot more fun.

Challenge mode is for one player or two cooperative players. The goal is to play through as many songs in a row as possible, eventually playing all 33 songs. The order of the songs is random. A gauge near the top of the screen starts out full. As the player or players make mistakes, the gauge starts to empty. If it becomes completely empty, then the game is over. However, if the players make it through a song, then the gauge is partially replenished and they can continue playing. This mode is pretty fun and challenging. It will take a lot of skill to clear the Gorilla difficulty level. Working together with a partner makes it that much more fun.

Battle mode is for two players only. Essentially, the players choose a song and difficulty level and whoever plays the song better wins. However, there are a couple special notes in Battle mode. Early in the song, a POW block will scroll by. Hitting it correctly will reduce the opponent's score. Later in the song, slots will appear for each player. Three notes will eventually scroll by with a "STOP!" icon above them. If a player hits the notes with the correct timing, then they can match up icons on the slots to earn a nice point bonus. Lastly, near the end of the song, a long drum roll will appear. Whichever player can perform the most drum hits during the roll will get another nice point bonus. Of course, throughout the song, points are also awarded and taken away based on the Great, OK, and Bad hits and Misses. Once the song has ended, whoever has the most points wins. This mode is a lot of fun and I think players will spend the most time here (if there is a friend to play with, of course). As I said before, note arrangements of the songs are unique for 2-player mode, so it's still a challenge to someone who's already mastered the songs in single player.

Jam Session is also a very fun mode. This is the only mode for 1-4 players. If only one or two players are playing, a difficulty (Monkey, Chimp, or Gorilla) must be selected. If three or four players are playing, then the difficulty is just determined by the song selected. Each player simply tries to play their part as well as they can. This isn't a true competitive mode. The Greats, OK's, Bads, and Misses are recorded, but an overall winner isn't always declared. The purpose of this mode is just to play for fun. Sometimes, if one or more players perform exceptionally well, then the game will indicate the top player with a little gold statue. However, this does not always happen, and it is not really clear what conditions need to be met for a winner to be declared. The Instruction Booklet specifically states that there are no rules for Jam Session and no points are tallied. The designers didn't intend for this mode to be competitive. That's kind of a shame because the only other competitive mode is only for two players, not three or four.

Overall, Donkey Konga is a good first entry for Nintendo into the rhythm game genre. It's fun because the DK Bongos are easy to use, and the game is easy pick up and play. However, it still provides a lot of challenge. It makes a great party game because you can play for just a few minutes or a couple hours and still enjoy it the whole time. The fact that it's a drumming game rather than a singing or dancing game means that no one will be afraid to try it and even someone who never plays video games will already have the skills to start playing Donkey Konga.

The soundtrack does feel a bit limited, especially when compared to some other music games. Nintendo licensed all of the songs from a single publisher, and they were probably trying not to spend too much money on the soundtrack. However, there are only two Nintendo game music remixes included, and I can think of dozens more Nintendo songs that would have been great for Donkey Konga. The Donkey Kong Country soundtrack would have been a great place to start. Still, the songs chosen are fun ones and most people will enjoy a lot of the older music on there, even if newer hits are absent. There also should have been a few more options and modes. I would have liked to see a true competitive four player mode, and perhaps some kind of tournament mode. After all, I think the lasting value in the game will be playing with others. There should have also been some type of practice mode so that you could play the bongos without any music, just for fun. It would also provide a proper place for testing the bonus sound effects that can be unlocked.

Nintendo made a smart decision by including a set of DK Bongos free with Donkey Konga. They will also be used with a platformer coming out in 2005 called Donkey Kong Jungle Beat. Extra sets of DK Bongos are $29.99 each. While that may be too much for most people to purchase three extra sets, hopefully most people will be able to purchase at least one extra set so that they can play two-player modes. Donkey Konga's a really fun music game that just needed a bigger song selection. Multiplayer is a blast, and so is single-player, but a once all of the songs are learned, a single player is not going to have much fun without some friends. The game sold well enough in Japan that Nintendo released an expansion a short while after the original release. The expansion included new songs and mini-games. Hopefully, Nintendo of America will release an expansion too. Then we would have the larger soundtrack and perhaps new game modes to extend the value of the DK Bongos.

By Andrew Thivyanathan - 10/01/04
ESRB Details: Comic Mischief
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Screenshots for Donkey Konga

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