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Donkey Kong: Barrel Blast


Is this the next Mario Kart, or does this racer need a tune-up?
Mario may be known as Nintendoís flagship character, but Donkey Kong has certainly not been forgotten. After his reinvention in Donkey Kong Country in 1994 on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), gamers have seen their fair share of the big ape. Weíve seen him in platformers, fighting games, and even rhythm games. Now, in 2007, we see Donkey Kong headline his own racing game for the Nintendo Wiió- although, by the title, you might think that Donkey Kong Barrel Blast was a different animal.

Barrel Blast is indeed a racing game, but, like The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess before it, the gameís original platform was not the Wii. Originally known as DK: Bongo Blast, the game was slated for release on the Gamecube, to be used with the bongo controllers that were used for Donkey Konga. When Nintendo shifted their focus to the Wii, they worked with the gameís developer, Paon, to adapt the game for their newer platform and Donkey Kong Barrel Blast is the finished product.

Gameplay

Barrel Blastís characters are equipped with rockets that propel them through each of the gameís courses. Players accelerate by making drumming motions with the Wiimote and Nunchuk until they reach top speed. Steering is handled via drumming with the Wiimote to shift right or with the Nunchuk to shift left. Players can also jump by lifting both controllers up in the air at the same time. Steering and jumping both play important roles in this game, as collecting items and avoiding obstacles are critical to winning races. Itís easy to see how the game was originally supposed to work with the Gamecube bongos, but the transition to the Wiimote and Nunchuk combination on the Wii doesnít work quite as well. Itís far too easy to inadvertently jump while trying to just accelerate, and if that jump plants your character into an obstacle, that leads to lost timeóand lost position. Lateral movement could have been more precise with the Nunchukís control stick, especially for navigating through some of the tougher fields of obstacles, but thereís not an option for this.

Barrel Blast isnít just a straight-up racing game, as there are some combat elements involved. Players can punch other racers, collect offensive items to attack rivals, or use a boost element to ram other players and gain position. The A button on the Wiimote is the Attack button, which is used to attack other players or to smash oncoming barrels. The B button deploys captured items, but the item inventory isnít all that grand. Items are obtained by running into and popping balloons, which are scattered throughout each course. Depending on which character you use, the effect of the item collected may be boosted; red balloons help Kong characters out more, while blue balloons are boosted for Kremling characters.

Boosting is not only good for getting extra speed, but it also can be used offensively to ram rivals. In order to gain boosts, which are called Wild Moves, players must collect bananas. Each time that you collect 50 bananas, a Wild Move icon lights up, and you can store up to six. Boosts last for a short time, but can be extended if racers ram wooden barrels or other racers. Some of the courses are set up so that, if you boost at the right time, it can be sustained with some accurate steering into barrels which are set in just the right spots. Unfortunately, the lateral steering controls just arenít as precise as they could have been, so lengthy extensions of boosts are trickier than they should be.

Speaking of barrels, there are plenty of these here, as the title of the game would suggest. Weíve got wooden barrels, which can be smashed for banana bonuses. Iron barrels are indestructible, even while boosting, so if you hit these, you basically stop dead. Launcher barrels act as shortcuts in many of the courses; if you can maneuver into these, they auto-fire you into new areas or some nifty items. There are also TNT barrels scattered about, and the result is pretty obvious if you hit one.

The meat of this game lies in the Jungle Grand Prix mode, which can be played either solo or with up to three friends. New courses and characters are unlocked through this mode, but it wonít take all that long to unlock everything. The gameís challenge, even at the highest difficulty, isnít all that daunting and the hardest courses will require only a handful of replays to master. There are also options to run a single race, run a time trial, and a mission-only mode called Candyís Challenges. A few of these challenges will unlock hidden racers, but the majority of them do little except to test your skill with no payoff. As for the time trials and single races, thereís very little incentive to go back and set new records since the game isnít very fast to begin with.

Graphics

Donkey Kong Barrel Blast takes place within the Donkey Kong Country universe, so fans of the series will see (and hear) a lot of familiar things. The tracks are spread over a variety of different areas, including lush jungles, snow-covered terrain, ancient temples, and even some underwater locales. While the visuals arenít bad, the game will not overwhelm you with a sense of speed, which is critical when judging the success of a racing title. The game is just... slow. Whatís worse is that there are some occasional frame rate hiccups during the times when thereís a lot happening on the screen. If you consider that the gameís visuals are perhaps a slight upgrade from what they were originally for the Gamecube, then you factor in that the Wii is more powerful than the GamecubeÖ itís inexcusable.

Sound

The sound is a mixed bag. The music is actually quite good, ranging from new interpretations of original Donkey Kong Country themes to all-new compositions. The voice acting and sound effects, however, leave a lot to be desired. The voice samples are weak and sparse, and the sound effects become grating in a hurry. If youíve got your Wiimote speaker cranked, youíre going to want to turn it way down in a hurry, as the tinny sound effects are repetitive as you continually accelerate and jump.

The Final Verdict

While itís understandable that Nintendo would want to showcase one of their signature characters in a Wii game, it quickly becomes obvious that Donkey Kong Barrel Blast should not have made the jump from the Gamecube. The game is lacking two of the most critical components that any good racing game needs to have: tight, responsive controls and a sense of speed. Even moderately-skilled players will get through all that this game has to offer in a few hours, and the multiplayer options do nothing to add any fun. Thereís no desire to go back and set new records. After a few plays, you probably wonít even care how many characters that there are left to unlock. Wait for Mario Kart Wii or purchase Mario Kart 64 on the Virtual Console instead of impulsively buying this game. Rent if you must, but there are much better uses for $50 out there.