Is the Rhythm in You?
While music/rhythm games are nothing new, the arcade smash Dance Dance Revolution accomplished something no game had been able to since the rise of Mrs. Pac-Man. It brought female gamers into the dimly lit arcade scene. Sure, they were hanging around watching their boyfriends mash buttons on the latest fighters, but, for the most part, they weren’t actively plunking their quarters (or, in some case, dollar bills) into machines. But with the release of DDR, the ladies found themselves climbing atop the metal stage to strut their stuff.
Where the fun lies in the DDR series is not such in playing the game, but watching others (especially newbies) attempt the deceptive game. While it looks simple on the surface (what could be easier than stomping in time with a beat?), players quickly learn just how wrong they were. As the notes fly by and you drop your foot onto the corresponding pads, you come to realize how much skill (and bodily effort) goes into the game. But by then, even if you’re frustrated with your piss-poor performance (and it will be piss-poor), you’re hooked like a junkie. Your desire to master the beast is unrivaled, and will only (temporarily) be squelched when you run out of cash. So when DDR was ported to the home consoles (along with dozens of expansion packs and clones), gamers and even people who don’t consider themselves gamers purchased the latest DDR title and dance pad to hone their skills at home so they could show off next time they hit the arcade scene.
And despite the success of Samba De Amigo, which was packed with maracas, no rhythm game has yet to rival the success of DDR in the home market. But that’s where Donkey Konga (the original king of the arcades) comes in.
Utilizing barrel-like bongos as a controller, players are instructed to bang-bang-bang to their heart’s content—just so long as they’re in time with the appropriate notes. And while Donkey Konga can be played with the standard GameCube controller, the question remains: Why would anyone want to play a rhythm game with anything but the gimmicky device? Especially when the sheer pleasure of the game lies within the enjoyment one receives from pounding away at the bongos. After all, for those of you who have played DDR, would you want to play it without the dance pad? I don’t think so.
(However, here is the first of the game’s problems. This is a party game. As fun as it is to play alone, adding three friends to the mix brings a childish glee to any room. Yet the game only sports one set of bongos. To bring others in for simultaneous play, they either have to use the aforementioned controller method or purchase their own bongos. While not expensive, this seems a little silly, especially when they’re only going to be playing it at a friend’s house. And sure, it isn’t an issue if everyone involved has the game and therefore their own set of bongos, but otherwise you’re asking your guests to spend $30 each for a peripheral they might use but a handful of times. Or you can drop $90 as the host. Either way, someone is spending more money than they want. If Nintendo really wanted to counter this issue—and why would they, because it means more money in their pocket—they could have offered online play. But Nintendo’s lack of support for online titles is a whole other bag of worms we don’t need or want to get into at this time.)
Much like DDR, Donkey Konga is a game that looks simple on the surface but quickly gives way to a challenging experience. All one has to do is hit the left drum when they see a yellow half-circle, right for a red, both for a full pink circle, and clap—yes, clap—when a starburst scrolls by. Timing is everything of course. Hit the drums too early or late and you’re likely to receive a bad or miss—and be prepared to rack up the bads, especially on the faster tunes. Your aim is to hit the drums at just the moment to score an ok or, better yet, great. The better your timing, the higher your score. And while it seems simple on paper, you try hitting left-left-right-left followed by right-right-left-right followed by another string of notes that hardly allow one a sigh of relief. DDR dancers know what I’m talking about.
Despite the challenge, you find yourself playing the same songs over again to either finally fell the tune or beat your high score. Even after your hands are red and have gone numb from an hour of play, you find yourself shaking them back to life to play just one more song. Well, why is that?
Simply put, it stems from our base need for rhythm and beats. Where DDR taps into our love of dance and (some might say) childish longing to stomp out our aggression, Donkey Konga does the same by providing us with primal drums to pound and hammer away a stressful day. While not advertised as a stress reliever, Donkey Konga is just that. It also hooks into our addictive nature. Since one wrong note can spoil a song, we’re prone to try and try until we’ve perfected the beast. But even with that one song down, Nintendo has left us with 30-plus songs (and three level of difficulty each) to master, so it will take quite a while for even the most skillful to drum their way to the top of the Donkey Konga hill.
And therein lies the second problem Donkey Konga suffers. While 30-plus songs (including “Busy Child”, “We Will Rock You” and “Whip It”), it feels as if Nintendo skimped out a little. Something along the lines of 20 more songs, rounding the total out at 50, would have made for the perfect rhythm game. But one can only assume The Big N anticipates a hot holiday seller and will release another disc early on in 2005.
Worse yet (and the third problem), the 30 or so songs aren’t even performed by the original bands, nor do the Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda themes sound anything resembling their original 8-bit counterparts. (They’ve been jazzed up more than a bit.) While the covers are surprisingly good, to not have the original versions is a crying shame and very well may be what keeps Donkey Konga from knocking DDR from its throne. Music lovers, who tend to be even finickier than gamers, want what’s familiar to them, and hearing anyone but Freddie Mercury sing “We Will Rock You” is a crying shame.
While not a flaw with the game itself, what could also prevent Nintendo from toppling DDR is the lack of an arcade unit. When gamers head into the fledging arcade market and see a title they can play both away and at home (especially one that’s so loved), there’s instant loyalty. And loyalty in the gaming industry equates into cold, hard cash. While not a common practice, Nintendo (in conjunction with former rivals Sega) released a sequel to the SNES hit F-Zero for both the GameCube and arcade. Though not a huge success, it lent itself to an idea Nintendo could have once again taken advantage of for Donkey Konga. And while I hate to play armchair game designer, allowing gamers to bring their memory cards into arcades (maybe to unlock songs on the home version) would have meant even greater revenue for Nintendo and a chance to reestablish the company as one that’s willing to take great risks to ensure the pleasure of the customers.
Regardless, Donkey Konga is one of those rare games that will begin to generate a lot of buzz amongst non-gamers, and for good reason. Which Nintendo surely hopes equates into boosted sales of the GameCube and a stronger foothold in the gaming market they once unequivocally owned.