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Save States: ‘Donkey Kong 64’

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The Facts

-Game: ‘Donkey Kong 64
-Original release date and platform: November 22, 1999 exclusively for the Nintendo 64
-Original developer and publisher: Rare / Nintendo
-Version played: Original cartridge on original hardware

Photo Credit: Ethan Pipher

The Bias

-Never played it before this
-Played the crap out of ‘Donkey Kong Land‘ for original Game Boy
-Liked but didn’t love Rare during the N64 era

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The Landscape

1999 – although it didn’t know it – was a year at the precipice of more than just the turn of the millennium. Sony and Nintendo were accompanied by Sega, not Microsoft, in the console scene and although the tides were turning in favour of Sony as gamers grew older, they had yet to pull out the PlayStation 2 which would turn out to be their ace in the hole. New and exciting franchises on consoles were scarce, with cash-ins, sequels, and clones making up the bulk of the major releases. Nintendo was relaxing into ‘Mario Party‘ and ‘Pokémon’ success before entering into some of their weirder and more interesting years and Sega fans were desperately trying to believe that ‘Sonic Adventure‘ was a decent game before the downfall of the Dreamcast. Although not the leader, Nintendo had set the tone for the generation with many games attempting to one-up ‘Super Mario 64’, despite the ill-fit that the genre was for many of them, ‘Donkey Kong 64‘ inclusive.

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The Hype

Rare was an unexpected saving grace for Nintendo during the N64 era. Their ‘Donkey Kong Country‘ games were a big success on the Super Nintendo, and their resulting confidence paid off during the N64 years, leading them to be responsible for the massive hit ‘GoldenEye 007‘ as well as successful and respected games like ‘Diddy Kong Racing‘, ‘Banjo-Kazooie‘, and ‘Perfect Dark‘. Because of their well-loved status and their success with the ‘Donkey Kong’ franchise on the SNES, the hype was through the roof for ‘Donkey Kong 64‘. Everybody expected it to finally be the ‘Super Mario 64’ killer that it seemed like every developer was trying to make. Everybody was trying to successfully transition their 2D games into 3D and so the choice for ‘Donkey Kong 64‘ to be a 3D adventure was not only not questioned, it was expected. It was billed – and eventually reviewed – as being a technological powerhouse: Huge worlds, lush graphics, and so dripping with technology that it needed the over-hyped Expansion Pak that only two other N64 games ever required. A real quote from an actual major review at the time stated that ‘Donkey Kong 64‘ was “Rare’s War and Peace, it’s that simple.”

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The Way it Plays Today

Playing ‘Donkey Kong 64‘ for the first time today is a fascinating experience. The most immediate thing that popped out to me was how misled the decision was to make the game in the style of ‘Super Mario 64‘ or ‘Banjo Kazooie‘. From the indulgent camera sweeping, to the (failed) dramatic storytelling, to the (failed) attempts at comic relief all the way to the gameplay that has almost nothing to do with previous entries in the series, ‘Donkey Kong 64‘ feels like the result of pure expectation.

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The funny thing is, despite the questionable direction and naive notion of what must be included in a game made on hardware technically capable of producing 3D worlds, ‘Donkey Kong 64‘ is a fun game. While it certainly hasn’t held up as a technical powerhouse, Rare’s use of cartoony graphics and experience with 3D platformers made ‘Donkey Kong 64‘ extremely familiar to play despite its age and the fact that I’ve never played it before. The controls are tight, and the game employs enough dangling carrots to make the player feel constantly engaged, even though the technique has its limits. Criticisms regarding the over-reliance on backtracking to pad out the experience are still relevant, but in terms of a fun, albeit callow experience that sums up the impact that ‘Super Mario 64‘ had on the entire fifth generation of home video game consoles, there’s not much of a need to go further than ‘Donkey Kong 64’. It contains many of both the joys and pratfalls of the Nintendo 64 era.

Next up: It’s time to go even further back in time to the beginnings of an entire genre. The hardware is the original NES, but what is the game?

INNERSPACE CLIPS