November 9, 2004

Donkey Konga appeals to kids and slackers alike

"Are those bongos? I want to play!" have been the most uttered words around the Maroon office this past week. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Halo 2, and Metroid Prime 2: Echoes are currently getting the most focus from gamers, but one of Nintendo GameCube's smaller releases can compete with those hits based on one factor alone: fun. Attracting attention from males and females, game players and technophobes alike, Donkey Konga has successfully capitalized on the rhythm video game genre, bringing a similar but ultimately more raucous feel to the house that Dance Dance Revolution built.

A set of bongos comes bundled with each Donkey Konga game disc for the manufacturer's suggested retail price of $50. The DK Bongo controller—designed as two Donkey Kong-themed barrels—is where the game's presentation really shines. Players strike the left, right, or both bongos at the same time, following self-explanatory, color-coded visual cues displayed on screen.

Had the play control selections ended there, the bongos would have hardly played differently than a standard controller. To make the game fresh, the developers included a microphone in the bongos to detect claps, prompted by a blue starburst-shaped icon. That small addition makes the game more exciting to play, watch, and listen to. While Donkey Konga is fundamentally the same game as Dance Dance Revolution, the latter's directional control scheme couldn't mimic "Bingo" or "We Will Rock You" as well as Nintendo's version does.

Along with those two songs are over 30 more that could be generally categorized in three groups: kids' sing-a-longs (remixed versions of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "Happy Birthday"), classic rock and pop (The Kingsmen's "Louie, Louie," Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing," Devo's "Whip It"), and Nintendo theme songs (Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda). While the song selection is somewhat limited, the choices are well done and diverse enough to interest a wide spectrum of potential players.

If you're going to be playing alone, Donkey Konga's lasting appeal may be a bit too short to recommend a purchase. The game contains four single-player modes—street performance, challenge, jam session, and ape arcade. Street performance is a simple challenge mode that gives players coins based on their performance. Rhythm lines change depending on the "monkey," "chimp," and "gorilla" difficulty categories (with the latter providing an incredibly tough challenge requiring at least some memorization). The challenge mode has players clearing songs consecutively in an endurance test, and the jam session strips out point tallies for no-frills play. Ape arcade provides three mini-games that succeed to varying extents in providing minor diversions with the bongo controllers.

Ultimately, multi-player is the best way to play Donkey Konga. With repetitious, skill-based games like this, single-player fun tends to decrease as players overcome the challenges, while the multi-player fun increases through the roof as competitors become more proficient. This game is no different, and there is little indication that the game would wear out with friends around.

Unfortunately, using a standard controller for any of the one-to-three players is completely unexciting, stripping away the musical and aesthetic aspects of the bongos. Instead, players should consider purchasing at least one extra set of bongos (or having their friends do so), which are reasonably priced at $30 or less. Don't worry that you'll be stuck with a one-trick set of bongos either; Donkey Kong Jungle Beat will use the special controllers when it's released early next year. By all reputable accounts, that innovative game—a side-scrolling platformer that has players move and attack with the different bongo combinations—was 2004's sleeper hit when showed to the press earlier this year.

"Appealing to everybody" has long been Nintendo's mantra—to the disappointment of some older players—and Donkey Konga is no different. Like Mario Kart or the original NES Super Mario Bros., players of all skills will be interested in playing simply because the bongos are way too cool. Throw in an easy-to-learn, difficult-to-master play control scheme, and an expansion set due out next year for just $20, and you've got one of the best dorm party games of the year.