Last week I learned that one of the most surprisingly enjoyable oddball innovations in recent gaming history is being left behind. I can't stay silent. I need to extol the wonders of controlling Donkey Kong with bongo drums and explain why it could mean great things for gamers this year.
At first, the DK Bongo Drums weren't the wonderfully absurd objects I now consider them to be. I saw them as just another gimmicky toy for Nintendo's GameCube console. They were big and orange with soft tan padding on top, a lapful of a game controller shaped like life-size bongo drums. They plugged into the GameCube and were used, naturally, for drumming. Nintendo released them in the U.S. in early 2004 bundled with "Donkey Konga," a Namco-developed music game. On cue, you played the game by banging on the left drum or the right. Sometimes you had to hit both or clap over the microphone. The world received two more "Donkey Konga" games, but I never got so into it that my girlfriend could hear me drumming in our second-floor apartment as she approached from a few doors down the block. No, that happened with a different bongo game.
At the Electronics Entertainment Expo in 2004 I'd been given a tip by one of Nintendo's employees. He told me not to pay too much attention to "Donkey Konga" but to get myself over to "Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat," which used the drums in a more unexpected way. The game was a side-scroller. Hitting the left drum made Donkey Kong run left. Hitting the right made him go right. Banging both made him jump and clapping made him clap his hands, usually to grab nearby floating bananas or release an energy wave of an attack. None of these directions sounded good. Joysticks, directional pads and controller buttons had been perfectly successful at moving characters and making them attack. Occasionally, though, something that sounds silly on paper can conjure magic when you experience it. I drummed through "Jungle Beat" with glee. There's something about making a game character jump by slamming my hands onto two bongo drums that just feels more energizing. There's something more deliciously frenzied about speed-drumming toward a finish line or clapping frantically to stun a flock of buzzing foes. "Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat" looked great too, sporting colorful rubbery graphics that glistened like tires after a carwash.
After that game came two more "Donkey Konga" titles. The drums were teased as an added control element for the 2006 GameCube military-theme pinball game "Odama" but were dropped. They were then paired with a racing game called "DK: Bongo Blast," which until earlier this month was the last Nintendo-published game announced for the GameCube. I never saw the game in person. I don't think Nintendo ever showed it to anyone in the press. From screen shots, though, it looked like Donkey Kong and friends would have been riding around like witches on dual-engine broomsticks. I guess the bongos would have been used to ignite the engines. On paper that sounded no better than "Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat," but who knows? A couple of weeks ago, the Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu announced that "Bongo Blast" had been transferred to the Wii. Players would control the race by shaking the Wii remote and nunchuk. And with that, I considered the bongos to be retired.
Had the experiment failed? Were the bongos a bad idea? They were released in the pre-"Guitar Hero" era when buying a controller shaped like a musical instrument wasn't a cool thing to do in America. They didn't feel stylish to play, and my favorite use of them, in "Jungle Beat," required a Mario-size leap of faith. It's one thing to ask people to control a tennis game with a controller shaped like a remote control, but to run away from a giant lizard and beat up an evil ape using bongos? It's a hard sell and wasn't a very successful one.
"I'm still pissed that not enough people bought 'Jungle Beat,' " Nintendo of America writer Nate Bihldorff told me last week. We were chatting for an article about the script for the Wii's "Super Paper Mario" (see "GameFile: 'Super Paper Mario' Vs. 'Renaissance.Nerds'; 'Halo 3' And More"). We didn't talk about the specific things he liked about that game. Maybe it was the level that has Donkey Kong swimming/drumming through stacks of Jell-O. Maybe it was the level that had to be played entirely by clapping (the first and last time I've ever cleared a board of any game without touching a controller). Those were two of my favorite moments.
I don't know the specifics of Bihldorff's taste, but I know why he thinks the makers of that game, a Nintendo team called EAD Tokyo, will get their own last laugh. They're the creative team for the next Super Mario game, late 2007's space-faring "Super Mario Galaxy" for the Wii. "That team is so talented," he said. "Those guys, they are very creative, and the fact that they get to go into outer space with absolutely no rules on what sort of stuff they can make Mario do is a good thing. They've got big old brains over there."
Bihldorff wasn't going to tell me if his impressions were based on the demo reporters were able to play back in May 2006 at E3 or something a little more recent. He also wasn't going to tell me if any drums were going to connect to the game. I'll take the easy bet that they're not. But I'll also take a bet that, when it comes to figuring out how to make Mario move through the vacuum of space with the Wii controllers, the lessons EAD Tokyo learned from making Donkey Kong move around using drums and some clapping will serve them — and any Mario fans out there — right.