Even though DK King of Swing made its debut during the hustle and bustle of the Nintendo DS system's debut at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in 2004, it isn't until Fall 2005 that the game's finally seeing a US release. King of Swing's actually been available in Japan and Europe for months, but it's now finally shipping in the US after nearly a year and a half after its premiere. Even though it's been relegated to what seems like "gap filling" status, this Donkey Kong spin-off isn't half bad and introduces simple game mechanics using nothing but the GBA's shoulder buttons.
This game is only Donkey Kong in its universe, as it lifts the Rare-designed characters from the world of Donkey Kong Country and thrusts it into completely original territory. In this game design, players maneuver Donkey Kong using nothing but the L and R shoulder buttons on the Game Boy Advance system. And even with only two buttons driving the action, the developers have managed to push a lot of simple but cool level ideas that justify it as a full-on game production.
It's an idea that feels lifted out of the classic arcade days where two joysticks controlled the hands of a Crazy Climber. But in this case, the L and R buttons simply control Donkey Kong's left and right hand -- holding the button down will clasp his hand closed. When Donkey Kong clasps his hand on a peg, he'll rotate his body by pivoting on that clasped hand. He'll stay in place if both hands hold onto pegs, giving you time to plot your next move without the character spinning in place. Leaping is done simply by letting go of a held button, and by hitting the shoulder buttons while DK is in the air, you'll be able to maneuver left and right.
That's the basic idea. Sounds pretty rigid as a game design, but it's how the developers use this mechanic that actually gives the game legs. Some levels have basic pegboards to follow, while others feature puzzle elements that require grabbing onto cranks that, when DK spins, will affect the environment's path. Each world introduces a new concept, like pulling on a slot machine-style arm or grabbing rocks to throw, so there's at least a surprise or two around each corner. Tons of enemies wander the playfield, and by attacking them via the L + R charge move combination, DK can wipe them out with a well-aimed lunge. The task is to collect bananas and uncover hidden medallions across the different areas -- bananas can be used to buy additional health units, and the medallions unlock additional challenges outside of the single player missions.
It's this simplicity that's unfortunately the game's major downside. DK King of Swing is really just a one-trick pony spanned across many different levels, and though the designers clearly have a lot of fun working some nifty level ideas using the rotate-and-grab mechanic, it gets a little tiring. And you'll be thankful for the save RAM in the cartridge since you'll most likely need a break from the sameness after a couple of levels. The game records the player's progress after the completion of each challenge, so it's very portable friendly -- just finish a level and pocket the system for later play. No problems.
The game pushes the GBA system's sprite rotation capabilities to provide that "spinning" mechanic, so at the very least DK King of Swing is visually impressive on a technical side. However, it's a little disappointing to see basic and toony versions of the gorgeous rendered models of Donkey Kong Country, and it feels almost out of place to see Donkey Kong and crew look this "sketchy" in the new game design. The art style eventually grows on you, but it's a tremendous step backwards from the DKC series.
But what's impressive is the focus on multiplayer -- this game features both single and multiple cartridge challenges for up to four players in the network. Game modes vary from a simple race to the top of a basic peg board to an all-out brawl on a confined playfield. And even if you don't have anyone to play, you can still take part by competing against computer AI drones.
©2005, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved