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April 5, 2005

Donkey Kong: Everything's better with bongos!

I know, I know. Donkey Konga was the best college dorm game of last year. Everyone—male or female, hardcore gamer or technophobe, sober or inebriated—loves clapping and drumming with the bongo controllers. It's unquestionably the most demanded game at my apartment.

But now that you've played through all the songs that game has to offer with your two sets of bongos, what's next? Well, aside from Donkey Konga 2, Nintendo has released an incredibly fun new music-action platformer for the Gamecube that uses the bongos in an innovative new way. Gimmick? Far from it.

Using the four-button combinations available on the bongos for precision control initially sounds ridiculous. Nintendo's new Tokyo studio developed a perfect system for Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat, relying on the beat of your drumming and context-sensitive actions to get you through the levels. Tapping the left and right bongos with different beats move you in that direction at the appropriate speeds. Hitting both at the same time will make you jump, and some combination of drumming will make D.K. perform back flips, ground pounds, and swing off the flora scattered throughout the level. Clapping (or tapping the side of the controller, which is much more consistent) creates two concentric circles around D.K.: The smaller one is your grab zone, and the larger is your shockwave stun-zone.

Because of the controls' simplicity, you'll be flying through the two-level and one-boss kingdoms in no time. The catharsis that comes from the first time you wail on an angry boar or perform a ski jump on the back of a buffalo is simply unmatched. Here's where the bongos expand the game experience: Instead of holding forward to escape an avalanche or tapping the A button to strike, you get physically involved. Just think of how superior arcade games with light guns, steering wheels, and boxing gloves are. You'll get the same feeling with the bongos.

As well as it works, why the bongos? It takes a little time and skill to figure out exactly why they make sense for this type of game, but the simple answer is that DK:JB has a clear rhythm to the levels. Combo multipliers accumulate for every acrobatic move you perform before touching the ground, and after your third or fourth time through a level, you'll see that finding the rhythm of a level—and sometimes skipping a measure here and there—will net you the greatest amount of bananas.

That combo system—too complex to detail here—gives DK:JB the depth that makes this otherwise brief game excel. The game isn't so much about completing the levels but rather about racking up high scores. Once you see how five bananas can turn into 50 by doing a back flip, wall jump, vine swing, then clapping to pick up all five simultaneously in the matter of 10 seconds, you'll see the game's hidden beauty. The system can make things pretty tense too; if you get hit before you land, you lose all your points à la Tony Hawk. Nintendo has released an old-school, pick-up-and-play game in this sense, as this experience is perfect as a "just one more time" play. Racking up platinum medals to unlock the last levels will take some skill.

The game's graphics, though 2-D and simple looking in screenshots, move with fluidity and a ton of effects (like fur shading on D.K.). Of course, the music and presentation are great too. For a first-time studio, the technical aspects are top notch.

The first Donkey Konga game had an eclectic—if a bit unfocused—song list, because the designers didn't know exactly who would be buying the game. Once they found out that it was mostly finding its way into the hands of high-schoolers and college students, Nintendo decided to go with a much hipper list, including everything from Mary J. Blige's "No More Drama" to Staind's "It's Been Awhile"; Smash Mouth's "All-Star" to TLC's "Unpretty"; Bananarama's "Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)" to Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba."

Ultimately, there's no reason not to pick this up. While long games with involved stories are great, no game library is complete without a quick 10 minute play that's pure fun. Because of this, the combo system, and the well-designed musical feel, there's no question in my mind that this game couldn't have been replicated without the bongos. It just raises the question of what other games could benefit from the new interface? Pinball? Punch Out!!? (The first boss shows how it could be done.)

Besides, you'll need another pair of bongos to get some four-player action for Donkey Konga 2. Otherwise your friends may just give you a king-of-the-jungle beat down.