Retro Gaming Challenge Week Two: Donkey Konga

DonkeyKonga_4
Donkey Konga is a game about music, playing together, but above all, pain.
Week two rolls around. It feels like just last week I was playing obscure Japanese wrestling games. Oh yeah, I was.
See also:
Retro Gaming Challenge Week One: Shin Nippon Pro Wrestling: Toukon Road 2: The Next Generation (N64)
Now, on with the show, but before I do, a quick thought on the whole voting-for-the-next-game-to-play process. I stuffed up last week, because putting the voting in the first week didn’t really give much time for anyone to respond before I’d want to start actually playing games.
So here’s what I’m going to do. Next week, I will play The Firemen as my game of the week, but this week, I’ll announce the candidates for the week following. That way, there’s a clear week for people to vote via whatever channel they like (here, Facebook, Twitter, envelope of unmarked non-sequential bills) before it’s announced. List at the bottom as usual.
Anyway, by a wide margin the Internet decided that I’d play Donkey Konga this week. Which, all things considered was a bit of a pity, because of the three options I put up, it was pretty much my last minute consideration, largely because I’m not terribly good at rhythm music games. Still, at least I figured I could get some actual use out of the ridiculous Donkey Konga Bongo controllers.
It also reminded me why I owned Donkey Konga, and for that matter Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat. Not because of an abiding love of music games per se, although I am fond of the big fuzzy ape dude himself. No, I own them because I bought them cheap well after the Gamecube had well and truly flopped, and I could pick each title up for (as memory serves) around $10 each. At that price point for the full game with bongos, I figured I couldn’t go too far wrong.

This is, it should be noted, a game that features birds who are also bananas, dancing next to an ape that lives to eat bananas. I sometimes wonder how strict Nintendo's drug testing policies are.
This is, it should be noted, a game that features birds who are also bananas, dancing next to an ape that lives to eat bananas.
I sometimes wonder how strict Nintendo’s drug testing policies are.

Still, it had been a good long while since I’d played Donkey Konga, but I figured this was at least easy enough.. right?
Disaster struck early on when I realised that while I could find the game and, naturally enough, the Gamecube, the bongos were nowhere to be found. Like, nowhere at all that I would normally have placed a gaming controller, and I’m usually very fussy about such things.
This puzzled me — how did I manage to lose not one but two sets of what aren’t exactly small gaming peripherals? I could place some of the blame on the fact that I had to rather rapidly move in and out of my house last year (a disaster saga I’ve written about elsewhere), which means that much of what I own is still in some form of disarray.

True confession time: It wasn’t until this week that I realised that Donkey Konga has a plot. It’s not much of a plot, but it has one.
Still, if I’m going to get through this challenge, I have to make do, which meant for the early part of the week playing Donkey Konga with (shudder) standard Gamecube controllers.
It should come as a shock to nobody that music games where you lack the controller aren’t all that compelling.
Donkey Konga is such a critter, swapping out the bongos for the d-pad, buttons and shoulders to sub in for bongos and claps. It works, but in the same way that clinging to a board in the middle of the freezing ocean can be called “sailing” in the same kind of way as being aboard a luxury yacht quaffing champagne. You’re floating on the water in both cases, but one is far more enjoyable than the other.
It wasn’t terribly engaging for me… but then something curious happened.
My kids were watching me try to play Donkey Konga, and they started to clap along to the clap section. With controllers, Donkey Konga doesn’t work that way, but they didn’t care, because it was fun.
Soon they were in the full party game swing even though they weren’t playing the game to speak of. That says at least a little something about the core appeal of this kind of game. They’re generally lousy by yourself, but much more compelling with a crowd. Even with controllers only.
Thankfully later in the week, after a certain amount of tipping up the house (this being a thing that doesn’t just happen on Star Trek*) the bongos emerged from underneath a stack of other boxes, and I could get to playing Donkey Konga “properly”.
It didn’t take all that long to remind myself why I don’t often play Donkey Konga. Not so much because the cover versions are painful…
Although they are. A diversion for a second, because hey, this is my challenge and I’ll write about whatever I please. Donkey Konga’s track listing varies depending on whether you’re playing the Japanese, US or European version. Australia’s long been a PAL Nintendo territory, so we got the Euro track listing, which is as follows:

Donkey Konga Track List
Alright
Canned Heat
Don’t Stop Me Now
The Loco-Motion
Dancing In The Street
Para Los Rumberos
Sing, Sing, Sing (With A Swing)
Tubthumping
You Can’t Hurry Love
All The Small Things
Oye Como Va
Louie Louie
99 Red Balloons
The Impression That I Get
Busy Child
I Want You Back
Cosmic Girl
Richard III
Lady Marmalade
Wild Thing
September
Back For Good
Hungarian Dance
Turkish March
Super Mario Bros. Theme
Donkey Kong Country Theme
The Legend of Zelda Theme
Rainbow Cruise
Super Smash Bros. Melee Opening
Donkey Konga Theme
DK Rap

Which means, amongst other things, that the US version got “Rock Lobster” while I get… “Tubthumping”. I can’t help but feel a little ripped off about that.

I mean, I get the whole "thumping" and "bongos" bit, but if that's all you've got...
I mean, I get the whole “thumping” and “bongos” bit, but if that’s all you’ve got…

Anyway, aside from the Nintendo in-house selections, which are memorable but not always particularly good “drum” tracks to speak of, they’re all cover versions, because, naturally enough, music rights were and are expensive, and we’d have to wait until the era of Guitar Hero and Rock Band to get the proper tunes. Some of the covers are acceptable, and some sound like the bottom of the K-Tel cassette bargain bin.
Damn. Some readers probably won’t get that reference. Maybe this will help:
https://youtu.be/_3Ph0wgIzis
Maybe it won’t.
Also, there’s no excuse for recording a cover version of Nena’s best known hit in the English translation. Give me 99 Luftballoons in the proper German or give me death.

I had to suffer, so you may as well too.
No matter the song I chose, however, I was reminded of one factor in Donkey Konga’s gameplay that I had somehow forgotten. This is a game that, if you play it energetically enough — and you should, because otherwise what’s the point — is distinctly painful to play.
Only a couple of songs, even on the easiest “Monkey” difficulty is enough to render my palms red with friction from slapping bongos and clapping hands loud enough for the bongos to pick them up. Maybe it’s a devious mechanism to ensure that the bongos get passed around frequently during gaming sessions. I did think for a while that maybe I was just a big fluffy marshmallow type man who needed to toughen up, so I did pass the bongos around, only to be met with the exact same conclusion from everyone else who decided to have a go. For such a simple game, Donkey Konga is surprisingly tough on its players.
Playing Donkey Konga for any stretch of time is an endurance test on your palms unless you happen to be a professional bongo player — and they presumably have salves and tricks to keep their palms supple, or thickened with callouses or whatever. There is a Wii remake version, which I’m guessing uses the Wiimote and Nunchucks as the virtual “drums”; that’s probably kinder on your hands but I suspect will suffer from much of the same disconnect as just using controllers does. If you give me a game about slapping bongos, I’m going to be much better served actually slapping bongos, you know?
Suffering for the art.
Suffering for the art.

I briefly dipped into the mini-games that you can unlock with enough coins, but they’re pretty unremarkable stuff that, given the simple slap and clap interface, feel more like early smartphone games than anything else. Maybe Nintendo will revisit them as part of its wider smartphone games push?
Donkey Konga does fulfill that central remit of simple music games, because it’s totally possible to put someone who’s never played a game before in front of it and watch them have fun, even if they do totally stuff up. Often that’s the point. It’s a fun curio in my games collection, but not really something I’m likely to revisit by myself any time soon.
Next week: As noted, next week’s game will be The Firemen for SNES, but following that I’ll be doing one of the following three games:

  • Space Invaders (Atari 2600)
  • Ghostbusters (Sega Master System)
  • Godzilla (Dreamcast)

You can vote below in the comments, or hit me up on Twitter to cast your vote. In the case of a tie or general indifference, I’ll make my own choices but note down any particularly popular choices for later inclusion. You’ve got until the 22nd of April to make your opinion (about a silly, self-imposed retro gaming challenge) known — so what are you waiting for?
*Everyone but my wife who gets that joke gets bonus points. She gets a hug.

Author: Alex

Alex Kidman is a multi-award winning Australian technology writer, former editor at Gizmodo, CNET, GameSpot, ZDNet, PC Mag, APC, Finder and as a contributor to the ABC, SMH, AFR, Courier Mail, GadgetGuy, PC & Tech Authority, Atomic and many more. He's been writing professionally since 1998, and his passions include technology, social issues, education, retro gaming and professional wrestling.

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