Donkey Konga review

Dancing games? Old hat. Singing games? Well, if you're as tone-deaf as we are, you're out of luck. So how about a bit of drumming?

When Donkey Kong finds a pair of barrels washed up on a desert island beach, he discovers that they're actually 'legendary' musical instruments. In other words, bongos. So he sets out to find busking fame and fortune, aided by Diddy Kong and the rest of the hairy mob.

Yes, this is a rhythm game with a plot, of sorts, involving apes, bananas, and a couple of tunes from monkey-faced rockers Supergrass. It requires special controllers costing o20 each (you get one with the game but you're going to want three more) and it's probably not the sort of thing you imagined you'd be playing when you bought your Gamecube.

But if you've ever lusted after the hugely expensive, Dreamcast-only, monkey-based maraca-shaker Samba De Amigo... If you've ever wanted a console title you can share with the special non-gaming person in your life... If you just enjoy hitting things... You are going to love this.

Nintendo have the world's most famous monkey. Namco have a highly successful series of arcade drumming games. We've no idea who came up with the idea to combine the two, but come this Christmas mums and grannies all over the country will want to plant sloppy wet kisses on his chubby little cheeks.

On a machine with some pretty inventive party games - Monkey Ball and Wario Ware spring to mind as two of the best - there's only one that could possibly appeal to people who wouldn't know which way up to hold a joypad. Donkey Konga is the game that console-oblivious pensioners and hyperactive toddlers alike will want to play. And they'll actually be able to play it. Not quite as well as you, we grant you that, but they won't be utterly disgraced in a multiplayer game and they'll have fun playing it.

When you think about it, that's an amazing achievement. Developers have struggled for years to design something that the non-gaming masses will buy into, and this is as close as anyone has come to realising that dream. It's almost completely intuitive and, apart from the odd use of words like 'combo', a jargon-free zone.

All players need is a basic sense of rhythm, the ability to distinguish right from left, and the knack of making both hands meet in mid air to create the percussive noise gamers and non-gamers alike call 'clapping'. It could hardly be simpler.

The playing area is a bar running across the screen. Coloured circles float from right to left, representing the drum notes you're going to play. When they hit the line on the left side of the screen, you hit the bongos - yellow circles for your left hand, red circles for your right and purple circles for both hands together. When a blue star floats past, you clap.

Sometimes the circles have elongated trails, which is your cue to bash the bongos as fast as possible, for a drum roll. And that's as complicated as it ever gets. As long as you know which colours are coming up next, you don't have to watch for the exact moment the circles cross the line. It's all perfectly in time with the music, so while you keep playing along with the rhythm you'll find you hit the skins like Phil Collins on a particularly funky day (in paradise).

Each note earns points for Good, OK, Bad or Miss, depending on how sharp, or otherwise, your timing is. Hitting multiple notes without getting a Bad or Miss is a combo, which earns loads of points and is where you'll doubtless clinch an easy victory over your great-grandad and his arthritic hands.

However, winning isn't the point - you might as well play on your own if you just want to go for high scores, and that's plenty of fun too. But the real joy of Donkey Konga is when you've got a gang of people gathered around the telly. In multiplayer mode the songs are arranged so each person gets a different part to play. You'll do a drum roll, the next person claps, somebody else fills in an eight-note sequence, and pretty soon you and your family or friends are sounding like a tight percussion group.

Unfortunately the songs are all arranged for one, two or four players. With the correct number of participants, the drumming action is either completely self-contained, with one person doing the whole lot, or split into parts that bounce back and forth between drummers, which sounds absolutely fantastic.

If you have three players then you actually get a four-player arrangement with the computer taking the place of the missing band member. Consequently a hearty clap-clap-thump-clap sequence that would travel all around the room in a four-player game becomes clap-clap-thump...silence. The computer plays the missing sound through your speakers but it doesn't compare to the noise you get from a real player, and can sometimes throw you off your rhythm.

The music selection on the disc is detailed elsewhere in this review, and contains a good, eclectic mix of styles. Some of the songs from the Japanese version have returned, while some of our favourites have been ruthlessly excised in favour of Supergrass numbers. Or rather, Supergrass cover versions - all the tracks are performed by soundalikes who make a convincing job of it. Mostly. We weren't fooled by the reedy Michael Jackson impersonator on I Want You Back, but it still sounds good. As with the Japanese game, it's often the unlikeliest songs that make the best drumming tracks, and you may find yourself passing over familiar tunes in favour of the old swing or orchestral numbers.

On the negative side, only one of the mini-games is really all that good, and the game's lifespan is forcibly stretched by the inclusion of a mode where you have to play the drum notes entirely from memory. Needless to say, that part isn't for everyone. It's also a shame there isn't some way of editing drum patterns so you can challenge your mates to replicate your own rapid-fire solos, or swap new rhythmic creations via memory cards. And, while we're in greedy mode, we would have appreciated a couple of alternative arrangements for each track - maybe an all-clapping one, or something like that.

Donkey Konga isn't one of the prettiest Gamecube titles but at least the simple, functional graphics are nice and clear: you'll never make a mistake because you couldn't see the notes. Even during the mini-games, where the designers could have gone to town with some of Gamecube's built-in visual effects, the graphics are barely as good as Donkey Kong Country for the SNES.

And yet looks have rarely been less important in a videogame. You'll be hooked on Donkey Konga before you've made it to the end of your first song, and once you get a few other players involved, this will be the first thing you want to load up after an evening at the pub, or the one and only thing you'll be asked to load up during a civilised family gathering.

It's an expensive game when you factor in the cost of buying extra sets of bongos, but we wouldn't be remotely surprised if it turns out to be the most collectible Gamecube title in years to come. Get it while you can.

Donkey Konga is out now on Gamecube

Better mini-games and user-defined drum patterns would have been nice, but this is still brilliant

More Info

Available Platforms: GameCube


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