Retro Review: Donkey Konga

One, two, three, four. Play more?

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With the lukewarm reception and disappoint sales of Guitar Hero Live it is difficult to remember the time when every household had, approximately, a dozen plastic instrument controllers. Before the epoch of the plastic guitar Nintendo released their own rhythm game: Donkey Konga hit UK shores in October 2004 – Guitar Hero would not arrive until April 2006. It received two sequels: one worldwide and a second one only in Japan. With the potential for plastic drum controllers to make a comeback as Bandai Namco’s Taiko Drum Master seems staged to make a foray into the West on the Nintendo Switch this week’s retro review looks at the highs and lows of Donkey Kong’s bongo-bashing spin-off.

It barely needs stating that, particularly with hindsight, Donkey Konga was a strange game. It might be the most obvious example of a ‘gimmick’ controller that comes to people’s minds. The game was sold with small plastic bongo drums that acted as the main control input. Players had to hit either the left, right or both drums along with the music. Sounds too easy? The game also required clapping at certain points – though this could be satisfied by a gentle tap on the side of the bongos or, if you prefer, any amount of yelling. There was a single player mode where you earned in-game currency to buy unlockables, but the game thrived when played with friends. The obvious downside being that, for the full experience, each friend needed his own set of plastic bongos.

The biggest weakness Donkey Konga has is its limited, eclectic mix of songs. If you’re a fan of videogame music there’s the Super Smash Bros Melee opening, the Mario Bros Theme, the Legend of Zelda theme and the peerless classic that is the DK Rap. In a game with such broad appeal, especially if you drag it out at a party, these are definitely isolating choices compared to the tracks you might find on any Guitar Hero title. They’re not all bad, though, with some iconic pop songs and even a track by Queen. These difficulties are also reflected in the aesthetics. Not wanting to compare the game too heavily with Guitar Hero, it cannot be denied that impersonating a rock star with a guitar undoubtedly holds far more appeal to a teenager than slapping the bongos as an ape.

So is Donkey Konga worth playing today? Does it still have merit amongst a barrage of later, cooler rhythm games with officially licensed instruments and huge track lists? Yes, it surprisingly does. Nintendo may not have made the perfect rhythm game, but its simple, easy to pick up, and has little to distract you from the basic premise. You are not invited to self-insert yourself into the role of rock star, instead you just try to hit the right (or left) bongo and have a blast while doing it. It’s aged very well, and would be a prime candidate for a remix were Nintendo able to tackle the game’s biggest stumbling block: the bongos themselves. The bongos may not demand a particularly high price on the retro market but they are obstacles to playing the game (and obstacles that take up a fair amount of shelf-space, especially if you want two or more). It does not help that only other game they work on is Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat. If you happen to have plastic bongos lying around, or room to store them, then you should definitely try Donkey Konga at least once. It’s bananas.

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Matt Crofts
Matt is the SFFN's Retro Editor, focusing on all things old but interesting, including (but not limited to!) books, movies and video games. As a researcher in Gothic literature Matt also has an affinity for black cats, Hammer horror, and all things Dracula.