Rare’s Donkey Kong 64 was a divisive game to say the least, stretching the collectathon style of platforming to its absolute limits. It took a lot of risks, many of which arguably didn’t pay off, and it never garnered the same reverence as Super Mario 64. However, outside of the Super Mario series, there really haven’t been many Nintendo-made 3D platformers since Donkey Kong 64 and the departure of Rare. That’s a shame as, for all its faults, Donkey Kong 64 also had some great ideas. The Nintendo Switch audience is always hungry for new games, so with the right improvements and a unique spin on the 3D platforming genre, is it possible that a successor to Donkey Kong 64 could become a diamond in the rough for Nintendo? Here’s why we think it’s time for Donkey Kong to return to 3D.
What sets it apart from 2D?
It’s hard to argue against the quality of the Donkey Kong Country series, especially with standouts like Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. Yet, there’s still something to be said for the unique possibilities that are only available with a 3D platformer. Traps and enemies that approach from all directions can keep the player on their toes, while the expanded movement options necessary to survive in a 3D space would mean that DK and the gang would be more capable than ever.
As seen with the sublime movement mechanics of Super Mario Odyssey, a return to 3D Donkey Kong is a chance to experiment with traversal. Familiar abilities like rolls and vine-swinging could work alongside new ideas such as throwing partner Kongs to otherwise unreachable ledges and taking control of them to find new routes. By building on what makes Donkey Kong unique, a new 3D adventure could be distinct enough from Super Mario to turn into something truly special.
Many boss fights in Donkey Kong 64 made great use of its 3D platforming, such as Mad Jack. In this battle, the player is forced to maneuver over a grid of platforms with precarious drops to avoid attacks and find the pad needed to fight back. It’s a fight that only works as well as it does because of the three-dimensional space it occurs in. Beyond platforming, DK64 also stood out from both Super Mario and Donkey Kong Country for its wealth of combat options. Unique guns and instruments for each character created varied scenarios like using Diddy Kong’s Peanut Popguns to attack far-off enemies or orange grenades to fend off clusters of enemies converging on you from multiple directions.
Instead of having the secondary Kongs serve as power-ups, DK64 made each Kong into a completely separate playable character. Having multiple characters was great for variety, but it also introduced small Metroidvania elements to the series. Lanky Kong’s long jumps were ideal for jumping over large gaps, while Chunky Kong could lift heavy objects to reveal potential secrets. This idea even applied to the Donkey Kong island hub area, where different Kongs were required to unlock new paths. On top of all this, DK64 also included split-screen competitive multiplayer, and while it was no GoldenEye, it was actually a pretty fun way to play around with the various Kongs and weapons the game had to offer.
Improving on past mistakes
The criticisms Donkey Kong 64 faced may be one of many reasons that it hasn’t seen a true successor, among others such as Rare parting ways with Nintendo. Like Banjo-Kazooie before it, DK64 is a game where progression is heavily tied to the number of collectibles you can grab. In principle, it can be a fun gameplay hook, but with DK64, the need to backtrack through levels up to five separate times for each character’s unique collectibles was a tiresome affair that wasn’t for everyone. The simplest solution to this would be to unify the collectibles across all characters or allow players to switch characters at any time to prevent needless backtracking.
Donkey Kong 64 was also host to some unfortunate issues. Inconsistent difficulty spikes appeared in mini-games with unwieldy controls or platforming sections that demanded a level of precision that the shoddy camera couldn’t keep up with. Additionally, the final stages of the game were gated by the need to complete arcade classics like Jetpac — bizarre, right? With a modern twin-stick control scheme and a more streamlined pace, these issues would likely be irrelevant to a new entry.
A new take on 3D Donkey Kong could generally make better use of DK64’s mechanics. The fleshed-out combat seemed unnecessary when most foes could go down in a single hit, but with tougher foes and expanded multiplayer options, this would be no issue. Despite some fun Metroidvania elements, a lot of these moments simply boiled down to “stomp on the pad with X Kong” rather than making use of a character’s unique abilities. Exploring was also often unsatisfying, as going off the beaten path usually only resulted in finding more of the same collectibles needed to progress. By toning down the need for collectibles, and making better use of each available character, these issues could be resolved and provide a much more rewarding sense of exploration.
Filling in a gap
Super Mario is Nintendo’s bread and butter when it comes to platforming. That said, there has been quite a long time to wait in-between brand new 3D Mario entries in recent years, and fans of Nintendo platformers may be getting a little restless. (It’s been nearly three and a half years since the release of Super Mario Odyssey!) A different team could slide right in to fill in the gap with a 3D Donkey Kong platformer. Rotating between new 3D games for Mario and Donkey Kong could ensure a more consistent roadmap of content. At the same time, this would take the pressure off each team to develop fast and perhaps even give them the breathing room to experiment with more new ideas, though admittedly that has (fortunately) never been treated as a major issue at Nintendo anyway.
If a new concept works in 3D Donkey Kong, it could implement its way into the next Mario or vice versa. Conversely, any negative fan feedback to a new mechanic is a lesson to be learned, letting each series build upon the other. With the different approaches to movement, Donkey Kong’s style of platforming could provide some distinct variety from the Mario games. Also, while we wait for Mario’s follow-up to “Jump Up, Super Star!”, who wouldn’t love to see a sequel to the legendary Donkey Kong 64 rap? All told, a new 3D Donkey Kong adventure would provide ample possibilities for Nintendo to experiment with its 3D platforming genre and create something wholly unique from both Super Mario and Donkey Kong Country.
How would you like to see Donkey Kong return in 3D?