Opinion: Why "Donkey Kong 64" Was Actually The Worst Nintendo Game of the '90s

Unless you really, really like collecting things.

Not Available Lead
Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

Not Available Lead

Nintendo games have always had a certain magic.

Well, with a few exceptions.

The '90s were an interesting time for platformers. There was a time when the 2D side-scroller was considered more or less dead, and despite the resurgence they've had in recent years it was all about 3D for a while. Super Mario 64 wasn't the first, but you could say that it really helped kick the 3D platformer genre off right.

And after the success of the Donkey Kong Country trilogy on Super Nintendo, and given the popularity of 3D platformers, it was only natural that Nintendo would give DK the same treatment Mario had received. Thus Donkey Kong 64 was created, for better or worse (definitely worse, for the record).

If you were a Nintendo fan in the '90s, you probably played Donkey Kong 64. If you were a kid, you probably liked it. You may even still have fond memories of it. But I'm here to tell you right now that those memories are fogged by years and nostalgia. Donkey Kong 64 was not the great game you remember it to be. It wasn't even a good game.

In fact, it may have been the worst Nintendo game of the '90s.

Why? It lacks the core, essential thing that makes other Nintendo games great: complexity hidden beneath simplicity.

All the greatest Nintendo games are accessible because they appear simple on the surface, but they have lasting appeal because there's depth underneath. Anyone with two hands could easily grasp the mechanics of the original Super Mario Bros., but to master them was far more difficult.

Ocarina of Time is not the straightforward fairy tale adventure it initially seems, but in reality a dark story about decay, naivety and responsibility (with some hard puzzles, as well). Star Fox 64 is a linear game with a disappointing final boss, until you start finding secrets scattered through its levels. Hell, Pokémon hides an incredibly complex battle system under its cartoony surface. The same applies to Pikmin, Metroid, Animal Crossing, even the original Donkey Kong—you name it.

But Donkey Kong 64 makes no attempt to achieve this magical illusion, and in that way it's barely a Nintendo game at all. It's hard to comprehend how Rare screwed it up so badly. It's like they took all the good ideas out of Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie and stretched and twisted them to unworkable extremes.

Take the backtracking, for example: in Mario 64 you'll play the same levels at least a half dozen times trying to get the different stars. But the levels are always changing, you're always discovering new things, and you rarely have to traverse the exact same layout over and over. In Donkey Kong 64, though, backtracking is literally the core mechanic, and you'll have to navigate the same boring levels over and over again with all five Kong characters.

And what was the point of all that backtracking? To collect the different-colored collectibles for each monkey. Every character had its own bananas, coins, weapons, switches, musical instruments, special abilities, power-ups, bonus levels, blueprints, and more, and although you could often see these items no matter which character you were playing as, you'd have to switch to the right character to collect them. So you actually spent the majority of your time running past enemies (since they would usually respawn a few seconds after you killed them, if you ever bothered to actually stop and fight) to get to the nearest character switch barrel so you could run back with the right character to that corner where you saw three red or purple or blue bananas or what-the-fuck-ever. Then you'd repeat that for 80 hours, and this was supposed to be a fun game.

It might not have been so bad if the platforming and/or combat had actually been any good. But Donkey Kong 64 didn't get that right either. It actually managed to have a worse camera than Mario 64, and that is definitely saying something. Sometimes you'd have to chuck five grenades at one normal enemy just to kill it (and like I said, it would respawn a few seconds later anyway). The characters all moved like they were in slow motion, making it extremely tedious to get anywhere or do anything. Controls for special modes like Diddy's jet pack were way too touchy. Many of the bonus challenges were unnecessarily difficult. And let's not even waste time talking about the horrendous underwater gameplay. 

One thing you can say about Donkey Kong 64 is that it's not a short game. Usually that would be a good thing—I'd have loved another 120 stars to collect in Mario 64, for example. But not all replay value is created equal, and the exchange rate is not favorable in Donkey Kong 64. I loaded up an old cartridge recently to find a save file with over 40 hours put into it that was less then 50% complete. Actually beating this game was a legendary achievement, though not necessarily something to be proud of. It doesn't get much less Nintendo than that.

How Nintendo ever let this game slide is a mystery, but even more baffling is why anyone remembers it fondly. If you ever get the itch to bust that old yellow cartridge out and play it again do yourself a favor and play the Donkey Kong Country series instead.

The original trilogy has aged incredibly well, and the new games on Wii and Wii U are a far better tribute to Donkey's glory days than the rotten banana known as Donkey Kong 64.

RELATED: The 25 Best NBA 2K Teams Of All Time

RELATED: NBA 2K14, Nas, and LeBron James  

RELATED: 15 Best Point Guards in NBA 2K History 

Latest in Pop Culture