The platformer that heralded a motion-control Revolution
Marching in time to Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, Nintendo’s motion-controlled platformer
Clap three times. Each time your hands meet, a spotlight blinks into life against a curtain of leaves. When the third arrives, a buzzer sounds and the foliage parts to reveal our hero, who roars and beats his chest, sending a cloud of birds fluttering off the screen. The way Donkey Kong Jungle Beat begins says a lot about how EAD Tokyo sees its simian protagonist. In recent outings, he’s been cast as the irresistible force among many decidedly movable objects. He’s still a powerhouse here, of course, but he’s something else, too: a showman.
Not that he performed to much of an audience. GameCube was an evolutionary cul-de-sac in many respects, and was comfortably outsold by its competitors. Yet this unassuming purple box played host to a series of games that arguably represent one of Nintendo’s most creatively fertile periods. Luigi’s Mansion, Super Mario
Sunshine, Pac Man Vs, Odama: all were experimental to some degree, and while none was wildly successful, collectively they suggest a desire to shake things up.
By the time Jungle Beat arrived in 2005, we already knew a Revolution was on the way, soon to become known as Wii. ‘New ways to play games’ was Nintendo’s mantra, and what better way to celebrate that ethos than by releasing a platformer controlled by a pair of novelty plastic bongos? The peripheral had been made to play Donkey Konga, a home console version of Namco’s
Taiko No Tatsujin in all but name, and yet Jungle Beat’s design works in such perfect harmony with the controller that it feels as if the two were developed in tandem. You could never argue it did for the bongos what
Super Mario 64 did for the analogue stick, but both games seem to benefit from a similarly holistic approach to design. Four years later, Jungle Beat was re-released on Wii under the New Play Control banner, ironically adopting a more traditional control scheme than before. It remains a fine platformer, but the absence of the peripheral is felt keenly.
Of course, Nintendo’s goal for Wii and DS wasn’t just accessibility, but equity. These new ways to play were designed to level the playing field between newcomers and veteran players, and Jungle Beat was one of the first Nintendo games to embrace that ideal. As such, its early stages may prove a ruder awakening for platform game enthusiasts than beginners. It’s immediate enough to require no instructions – indeed, you’re instantly thrust into the limelight after DK’s chest-thumping introduction. Tapping a bongo skin moves him left or right; slapping both together causes him to jump; clapping next to the built-in microphone triggers a shockwave that’s used to stun enemies, and also performs context-sensitive actions. You’re invited to discover the nuances of this seemingly rudimentary setup for yourself.
Even before you consider mastering its unusual controls, however, Jungle Beat offers the rare sensation of feeling like you’re inhabiting a videogame avatar rather than simply controlling one. In its revival of the Donkey Kong Country series, Retro has endeavoured to capture the physicality of gaming’s most famous ape, but no amount of noisy sound effects and collapsing scenery can quite replicate the sense of direct connection here. You’ll slap the right skin repeatedly to increase DK’s speed as his huge hands press against the ground to build momentum. You’ll clap, and those hairy simian palms will meet onscreen. And then there’s the way you deal with
Jungle Beat’s menagerie of enemies. Mario’s treatment of the Mushroom Kingdom’s bestiary isn’t exactly gentle, but no other Nintendo game feels as aggressively violent as this. You’re commanded to pummel away at stunned opponents, leaping atop fuzzy boar-like creatures before mercilessly thumping them until they explode in a shower of bananas, or spin-juggling hapless armadillos with repeated uppercuts. Elsewhere, you’ll pluck explosive pineapples from the ground to launch them into the snout of an elephantine boss, or return melons thrown with vicious force by a marauding boar. Grasping the tongue of a blowfish and dragging it backwards before letting it snap home like an elastic band might make you wince if you weren’t enjoying it so much. The expressive
animation is highlighted in brutal close-up, but it’s the sensation that you’re the one delivering the beating that makes it so wonderfully, troublingly gratifying.
Jungle Beat serves DK’s primal instincts well, then, and it never forgets that apes are nature’s acrobats. Before long, you’ll find out that there’s more to his repertoire than simply running and jumping. Halt a run by hitting the opposite skin before quickly beating both drums and you’ll pull off a backflip. Hit both skins simultaneously in midair and you’ll perform a ground pound. Hit the top of a low wall while jumping and you’ll complete an edge hop. Stringing these together without hitting the ground builds a multiplier that increases the number of bananas you’ll collect thereafter – either by jumping into them or clapping to pull off a midair grab. The presence of enemies
MONKEY FEST, WHERE YOU CAN STAY IN THE AIR FOR THE ENTIRE STAGE, FEELS LIKE PALM-STINGING PERFORMANCE ART
transforms this combo system into a highwire balancing act reminiscent of the Tony
Hawk games – it’s all about knowing when to land. There, a single misjudged trick or grind could cost you a huge score; here, you’ll lose all the bananas you gained if you’re hit before you touch down.
It’s not the only thing the two series have in common. Both have a similar reliance on momentum and flow, asking you to chain simple commands into increasingly elaborate combinations to produce a single display of gymnastic excellence. At times, the route is straightforward, although following it successfully is another matter. Take the superb Monkey Fest, where you can stay in the air for the entire stage, and which feels like a piece of palm-stinging performance art. During this level, you’ll clap to grasp the hands of grey monkeys in bushes that throw you to your destination, you’ll clap to free airborne bananas from their bubble prisons, and you’ll clap to stun the fuzzy insects that threaten to stop your fruit total from climbing into the hundreds. It sounds simple, but timing is everything.
The bananas are a marvellously efficient piece of design, one that Nintendo arguably hasn’t bettered since. These ‘beats’, as the game’s parlance would have it, function as both your score and your energy meter, the object being to amass as many as possible to give you a buffer against the guardian at the end of each two-stage kingdom. The crests you earn from defeating the boss in turn act as currency for unlocking further worlds.
Such a streamlined setup gives the game a strong sense of focus, which extends to its noticeable absence of narrative frippery. In truth, Jungle Beat is perhaps a little too generous: later levels don’t require too many crests to open up, so even novices will be capable of muddling their way through to the finish. Only players with the desire and self-motivation to earn the Platinum crests – which demand near-immaculate performances across two successive stages, and that you escape damage entirely during the boss encounters – will come close to exhausting the game’s potential.
Then again, perhaps that’s why Jungle
Beat’s appeal endures. For many, its brevity is a boon, partly because it’s a demanding physical challenge. An afternoon’s worth of solid play will leave your palms sore, even if a sharp tap against the bongos’ plastic exterior proves an adequate substitute for clapping. There are no extras, no boss rush modes, no time attack variants. Jungle Beat’s singular focus is even more unfashionable in the current climate, where the word ‘unlockables’ encompasses a great deal more than simply ‘new stages’. Rather, this is a game whose levels are designed to be replayed, whose structure subtly encourages mastery. Besides, it’s only fitting Nintendo should return to its arcade heritage with the character that first transformed its fortunes in the videogame market.
Naturally, it would all fall apart if the levels couldn’t withstand repeat visits. But it’s easy to see why EAD Tokyo was subsequently entrusted with Super Super Mario Mario
Galaxy. Galaxy. Bosses aside, ideas are rarely used more than twice, and often less frequently than that. As in Galaxy, Galaxy, there’s no single unifying theme, which frees the developer to stir in as many exotic ingredients as it can find. In one level, you’ll swim through pools of brightly coloured jelly floating impossibly in the sky; in another, you’ll nudge a giant snowball uphill while riding a wildebeest with a giant lizard on your tail. There are races and long jumps, and one of the shortest and best on-rails sections in any game. The latter’s set on the back of a killer whale, our protagonist dismounting at the apex of a jump to bite the giant fruit that marks the level’s end. It’s a delightful moment of setpiece showboating by a developer with the chutzpah to pull it off.
Jungle Jungle Beat Beat was was never likely to be anything more than a footnote to a period of history that its maker would sooner forget. And yet a case could be made for it being the quintessential Nintendo game. On the one hand, it highlights the internal conflict at the heart of the company – its desire to cater to younger players and an expanded market without alienating the faithful. On the other, it demonstrates an uncanny knack of tailoring software to fit unconventional hardware. That it works at all is a surprise; that it’s quite this good is close to miraculous. It’s only fitting, then, that the repeated claps you’ll produce during DK’s journey sound a lot like applause.
The frantic pace drops when DK is encased in a bubble. The soundtrack reflects this, segueing into a delicate, soothing melody while you float upwards. The level’s standard theme resumes as soon as the bubble pops
More often than not, the path of least resistance is also the path of fewest bananas. Most levels hide secret areas, while others have multiple routes. Resist the temptation to leap from the orca and you’ll be taken to a part of the level you haven’t previously explored
The sheer animal ferocity of DK can be surprising. Stun furry hogs with a sonic boom from your clap and you’re left to pummel them with your fists until they deflate