Classic-styled, 2D action-platform gaming is dead on the home consoles.
Dead as a doornail, dead as the dodo...D-E-D dead.
So what on earth is Nintendo doing by combining a long-gone genre with their bongo peripheral? Creating brilliance, apparently. At its heart, Donkey Kong Jungle Beat is a complete throwback to a genre not seen on home consoles since the mid-PS1 era, and in a move surprising exactly nobody not employed in marketing, it turns out the formula still works when used well.
There's no storyline in Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, simply action. The point of a level is to complete it, beat the boss, and amass as many points, or "beats", as possible. Getting a good score earns crests, from bronze to platinum, and more crests unlock more levels. The only reason to play is to have a blast doing it, and a good round will leave the player sweating and grinning with the sheer kinetic energy of the gameplay.
This is because Jungle Beat is the most physical game since Dance Dance Revolution hit the scene. Mere thumb-twiddling on a gamepad won't be enough, ultimately requiring quick hand movement skills to make DK do everything he can. Let's elaborate a bit. The apparent, simple process of beating on a pair of bongos allows him to do everything from the basics of running and jumping to back flips, wall jumps, swimming, and much more. The sound sensor also detects clapping, which both sends out a long-range shockwave and lets Kong grab anything within the reach of a long-armed gorilla. Whether it's just ambling along, tapping a bongo to keep up the pace, or working a left-right drumroll as fast as humanly possible while Donkey Kong pounds seven kinds of living hell out of a boss, the physical sensation of derived from 'playing' the game is quite an amazing feeling.
Of course, there's more to it than just pounding bongos and clapping. The graphics are both sharp and, in the case of Kong himself...furry, while the overall presentation is top-notch. The levels are well designed, complete with secret areas packed full of bonus bananas hidden just often enough to keep the player searching, but not so frequently that the fun of finding them becomes diluted. Add in a deceptively deep combo system to maximize the points awarded from said banana pickups, and an area that looks like a total cakewalk becomes a challenging exercise in gaming finesse.
The combo system is fueled by aerial maneuvers, with bonuses added for each different action performed before touching the ground. Rappelling off a wall (X2) then grabbing a helper monkey (X3) who tosses Kong far enough that he can ground-pound (X5) onto an enemy (X6) and into whatever else the level provides can yield several hundred points in one go. Of course, the downside is that the beat counter doesn't add to the total score until Kong finally lands, and if a hit is taken mid-combo then not only is the bonus counter reset to x1 but all the beats are lost. Also landing early, whether on purpose or by screwing up, will turn one insanely long, high-scoring run into two small handfuls of points. It's a classic gaming balancing act, pitting risk against greed and skill. Thankfully, there isn't a hit in the game that can't be avoided thanks to the excellent control provided by pounding on a pair of bongos.
The bongos, at first glance, seem like little more than a gimmick to grab attention, but 2D platformers have been gone from the console scene for years. Now it takes something that seems like a gimmick to bring one about, but even without the bongos Jungle Beat would be an excellent 2D platformer with a great sense of style and humor. With them, it's an amazingly energetic chunk of gaming joy that physically engages the player in the action more than a brisk round of button-pressing could ever hope to.