Developer and Publisher: Nintendo

written by Randy Smith, October 2005

Rob suggested that the only thing I put in the review of Jungle Beat was "this game made me drive with my knees," which I would do except that it isn't all that informative nor even accurate. Rob's CRAZY. Check out this picture of what he looks like when he plays:

See the madness in his eyes

Jungle Beat definitely made me sore under the armpits, though. Maybe this game should have a warning:

You Hit The Plastic Bongo Drums

In Jungle Beat, you use the DK Bongos controller to run Donkey Kong through adventure landscapes that vary between fast-faced, ever-forward obstacle courses and more traditional Super Mario Bro.s –esque platforming. One bongo moves DK right, one moves him left, and both simultaneously make him jump. Hit the bongos faster for faster movement. The microphone on the controller detects claps, which is mapped onto a highly contextual ‘action’ command which can collect resources, trigger environmental tools, attack enemies, deflect attacks, and so on. ‘Action’ is a bit of a silver bullet, and I can’t imagine playing this game if I actually had to clap every time I needed to use it. Damien taught me the rim shot trick of slapping the side of a bongo, which the mic interprets as a clap, and I now pass the savings on to you.

Bongoing your way to the top

So you flail away on these cheap plastic drums while staring intently at the TV and swaying involuntarily. Somehow, you are still an adult when you do this. Donkey Kong likes to beat the tar out of friendly and harmless-looking native species of the cartoon worlds he inhabits, so I guess that makes it 'edgy' or a 'dark comedy'.

The fuzzy pig is sleepy, but DK is still going to punch it

The design does a sensational job drawing players through the barrier to entry posed by the unconventional controller. I mean, you're sitting on the floor with some drums while a big ape in the jungle is in on TV; it's not perfectly clear what you should do. Thus in the game's intro, you are dropped into sparse, forgiving environments where intuitive animating icons, accompanied by gesturing 3D monkeys, guide you through the basics of playing the game, both in terms of the use of the controller and the game's conventions. This is very fast and effective, and you're working your way through the first level before you realize it. The finer points of gameplay are communicated between levels via stylized video clips. I generally consider games to be utter failures if you have to reference the manual, and Jungle Beat definitely did its part to make manuals obsolete.

Somehow you are able to get the point

I'd say the most amazing accomplishment of the design is how it maximizes the limited expression provided by the controls. This is done in part via easily-recognizable and intuitive environmental tools, such as flower/catapults that you climb and activate to hurl yourself, vertical tubes that you ascend by hopping from one wall to the other, waiting monkey allies that grab and fling you, vines on which you can swing back and forth to build momentum, not to mention the usual cast of platforms, elevators, and transporters that look like robot snakes. These same controls also enable you to collect, carry, block, deflect, punch, swim, etc., etc., and despite all of the overloading, there is never a moment when DK takes an action when you had intended another. This degree of precise expressiveness coming out of a controller with essentially 3 buttons (read: fewer input channels than an Atari joystick) truly illustrates how most of us are walking fiascos who should be fired immediately for filling the Xbox controller up to the last analog interpretation while our character still can't reliably climb walls.

Garrett is not climbing this wall

Trapeze Artists and Monkey-Shaped Pinballs

Jungle Beat's world is rich and the pacing is fast, so much of the gameplay involves looking ahead and planning, especially in the pinball-style obstacle courses. At its best moments, Jungle Beat weaves the abundance of player actions into a glorious, trapeze-style tapestry in which DK bounds from vine to wall to trampoline to floating bubble to the waiting arms of his monkey friends while fruits and nuts bounce around and get pummeled into the faces of frustrated cartoon foes, all of which is expressed in the RW by your frantic bongo hits, rim shots, and involuntary swaying. Never before has Donkey Kong felt so elegant and dexterous. I have to assume this was the holy grail of their design, and they accomplished it.

A little flower-to-shroom action

It makes for a really great party game, too! Or rather I think it should. If everyone loves to play Karaoke Revolution and DDR at parties, why aren't they as enthusiastic about playing Jungle Beat? You break out the Karaoke mic, and suddenly everyone in the room gets peer pressured into singing Avril Lavigne, but people just kind of stare at you suspiciously when you offer the plastic drums, no matter how drunk they are. They will try it once warily, then stop with a satisfied but distasteful air. I used to assume that the unconventional interfaces were what leveled the playing field with respect to drawing in non-gamers. Now I suspect that the real difference is that Jungle Beat still presents as a video game, whereas the Revolution games feel more like interactive toys.

Punching some fruit at a pig in a tree

Variety certainly seems to be the new style in games these days, and Jungle Beat often incorporates theirs directly into the standard game world as opposed to, say, farming it out to standalone mini-games. There is an assortment of animal-flavored vehicles, focused mini-challenges within levels, varying terrain types, and the ubiquitous boss monsters. The boss monster challenges are well-designed, and unlike in the Zelda games they are not so transparently the mid-term exam for accumulated player skills. However, they do become highly demanding towards the end, stripping over half the points accumulated in the previous levels, which implies that they are intended to be played repeatedly.

Driving an oxen-flavored vehicle through the land of deadly frozen penises

All games satisfy certain fundamental psychological urges. For example, Tetris is for you people who love to convert chaos into order (the message is that you fools will ultimately fail, btw). Diablo is for Cleaners: those who like to take messy dungeons and tidy up all the monsters and treasures and clutter, leaving spare and sterile corridors in their wake. Often, games allow us to satisfy these urges completely as a substitute for the fact that we can't do so in real life, as the games provide artificial, controlled environments and player superpowers. Personally, I'm a bit of a Cleaner, and I sometimes found that Jungle Beat frustrated my completist urge: scoring in the game is essentially a function of how much you leave behind in your mad dash through the level, and I never played perfectly enough to feel satisfied that the level was adequately cleaned. I'd lie awake at night.

How Bongo Can You Get?

If someone told me to design an innovative video game with bongos, I'd start by thinking about the aesthetic relationship between the controller and the gameplay. With Jungle Beat, you can easily substitute a standard controller, at which point the question is: what do the bongos contribute to the game experience? They certainly make it more physically active, but it's worth noting that apart from the framing fiction little about Jungle Beat is particularly "bongo-esque", which is kind of an unfortunate miss. Call me a fucking snob with jacked up expectations, as you'd be correct and I wouldn't be too offended, but still I think that's kind of important.

Perhaps DK's actions could be more effective if you play the drums along with the beat of the background music, to encourage the player to pay attention to rhythm? Maybe levels could be designed in a way that naturally leads to rhythmic drumming? Or maybe there could be mini-games or separate sections that are more about playing drums than controlling DK per se? There is a tension here between the nature of the peripheral-based gameplay and the intended audience. Specifically, since the game is intended for kids it might be too much to ask them to be rhythmically accurate on top of the other demands of the game. No one wants to come home from a brutal day at kindergarten only to have their relaxing diversion frustrate them when it was supposed to help them unwind. Still, a rhythm/action hybrid game is an interesting concept that if designed correctly could produce some great innovation. I've heard that Rez tried to pull that off, but Brian says they neglected to put in the "fun" that the kids talk so much about.


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All materials copyright 2005, Randy Smith