Another Butt-Scratching Casualty
Remember when your favorite band broke up and all that combined talent was lost forever? The charismatic lead singer soared into pop superstardom, and you watched in disgust as the other band members proceeded to eke out pitifully lackluster solo music careers.
If you’re old enough to remember the old stand-up arcade version of Donkey Kong, then you’ve also seen what happens when a video game partnership similarly falls apart. Mario went his own way, garnering endless accolades and popularity. Donkey Kong has led a very different post-arcade life. Like the proverbial “stoner brother”, he has all the potential in the world but refuses to apply himself. He’s smelly, hairy, and speaks in grunts. His slacker outlook has serendipitously led him to some respectable appearances in titles past, but most of his solo gaming gigs have been less than stellar.
With each new title, I keep hoping he’ll finally sober up and get his act together. Alas, Donkey Kong: Barrel Blast, does nothing to change this spotty trend. Don’t be fooled by the game’s peppy, tropical atmosphere. To be fair, the game has a fun visual flavor to it, and the disco-jungle beats can be a tad infectious. Originally developed for the Gamecube, Donkey Kong Barrel Blast attempts to do for the kart-racing genre what Donkey Kong Country did for the platforming genre. This time around, though, the standard controller has been ditched in favor of the Wii’s motion controls. The concept behind the game is simple, if a bit odd. Rather than a typical go-kart, you race using jetpacks made of bongos. Courses range across a limited variety of jungle-themed raceways, through three difficulty levels, a handful of racing circuits, as well as a few other dull, clichéd game modes (time trial, free run, single race, etc.).
Ostensibly, Barrel Blast is a racing game. Trouble is, there’s no steering involved. Your character will automatically follow the course, leaving you to adjust your position to the left and right by swinging either the Wii remote (to move right) or the nunchuk (to move left). While racing, you are expected to navigate a series of obstacles and pick up goodies along the way. If steering were more natural (by allowing you to actually steer), you would have no problem swooping deftly between the many obstacles standing between you and victory. No such luck.
Expect to hit many obstacles - not because you’ve never steered a bongo-jetpack before or because you have much to learn about jungle navigation, but because of the imprecise Wii-motion controls and bad course design. Because you can’t steer, you also can’t tell where you are on the course or predict where you will be. If you see a barrel ahead of you, the auto-steer may steer you around it or it may steer you into it. There’s no way to tell. My advice? Wince and prepare yourself.
However, this doesn’t mean you won’t beat your computer opponents. Even though you feel like you’re hitting everything in your path, you’ll still win. You won’t feel very good about it, though. You’ll simply feel relieved. Multiplayer (no online) doesn’t help matters. All multiplayer adds is the doubled (or trebled, or quadrupled) frustration of you and your friends continually running into things. If you win a race against your friends, you can’t brag. The course defeated them, not you. To the game’s credit, however small, when you do run into something, you have to swing the Wii remote and nunchuk wildly to get back up to top speed, letting you take out at least some of your frustration.
As with other kart-racing titles, you also collect and use items that give you a number of different abilities and short-term advantages, but most of your time—when not crashing into things—will be spent collecting bananas. Lots and lots of bananas. When enough of them, you can gain a boost charge or “wild move”, which is the only interesting thing about this game. If you hit an enemy or a barrel during a boost charge, you get another boost. You can chain a series of boosts through large sections of the courses, if you maneuver well enough. Fat chance! At best, you’ll be reminded Burnout series, but really, you’ll just feel burnt out.
No boost chain is long enough to get you through these courses fast enough to defeat boredom. These courses are long. Laughably long. Falling-asleep-at-the-bongo-jetpack long. Expect to spend close to two minutes completing a single lap; at three laps per race, that’s enough time to complete all five laps of Rainbow Road on Super Mario Kart four times.
Even at his best during his SNES revival, Donkey Kong’s solo games always felt like a half-baked diversion compared to the triumphs of his former nemesis. While Mario was taking on the (Super Mario) world, Donkey Kong was off gallivanting in the (Donkey Kong) country. As the slacker par excellence, Donkey Kong would seem to be more suited to the casual gaming era than any other character in the Mario pantheon. Instead, as with any aging slacker, he’s simply a frustrating bore.