The Mouth of Madness: 101% Completion of Donkey Kong 64

Trying to collect every item in Donkey Kong 64 is looking madness in the face.

201 golden bananas, 10 battle crowns, 20 banana fairies, 40 banana medals, eight boss keys, one Nintendo coin, and one Rareware coin. These are the items you must collect if you want to achieve 101% completion in Donkey Kong 64.

At this point, you may be asking “Why 101%?” That’s a fair question in and of itself, but the real question you should be asking is, “Who would ever submit themselves to the mouth of madness that is 101% completion of Donkey Kong 64?”

Before trying to answer that question, you have to appreciate what that number means. No, we’re not talking about the fact that DK 64 entered the Guinness Book of World Records in 2008 for containing more collectibles than any other game in history. We’re not even talking about the fact that a DK 64 speedrunner recently discovered a brand new item in the game which negated all supposed “full completion” speed run records.

Those facts help you to understand why that number is so significant, but if you truly want to appreciate what kind of sick mind it takes to achieve 101% completion, you need to understand the way that item collection in this game works.

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The simplest – simplest being a relative term in this instance – items to acquire in DK 64 are the boss keys. All you need to do in order to get those is beat each of the game’s bosses. Battle Crowns aren’t too bad either. They just require you to complete special areas. Banana Fairies are also relatively simple to acquire. Once you find one, you just need to snap a picture of them using your banana camera, which runs off of banana film because Rare’s development team was clearly suffering from some kind of undiagnosed complex.

That or they were just suffering from a lack of general creativity, but we’ll revisit that later.

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Now, the reason these items can’t be described as outright simple to acquire is because the process of getting yourself into a position to acquire them is anything but. To help understand why that is, let’s take a step back and look at the principal object in the game’s item economy: bananas.

Bananas make the world go round in DK 64. King K. Rool has scattered all of the Kong’s bananas across their world, and it’s up to you to collect as many as you can en route to defeating Rool once and for all-ish.

Why would you want to recover the wealth of the Kong oligarchy and help them rule for another thousand years? Because you need bananas in this game in order to make progress. They’re used to bribe guards Troff the Pig and Scoff the Hippo in order to convince them to unlock each of the game’s bosses. Defeating those bosses grants you access to the aforementioned boss keys, which are required to free your new buddy K. Lumsy from his cage and unlock new areas along the way.

In each of the game’s eight stages, there are 100 bananas. You don’t need to acquire every banana in order to beat the game. That takes about 400. Oddly enough, you really don’t even need to collect every single banana if you wish to achieve 101% (which seems to defeat the purpose of that figure but we’ll let it slide). If you’re going for 101%, you need to collect 75 bananas from each stage in order to unlock each of the game’s 40 banana medals.

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So how does one actually acquire bananas? You just pick them up. Some are put in out of the way places, and you can expedite the process through picking up rainbow coins and banana bunches, but yes, all you need to do is make contact with them.

Assuming you make contact with them with the right character, that is.

Ah, yes. Here is where things truly go off the rails. See, there are five different playable characters in Donkey Kong 64, each of which utilizes a unique set of abilities. More importantly, each character has a series of color-coded items to collect, which include – you guessed it – bananas.

Remember earlier when we said that you only need 75 bananas from each level to earn a banana medal? Technically, you need to collect 75 color coded bananas with each character across all eight levels in order to unlock the full 40 medals. That means you need to pick up 375 bananas from each level in order to work towards 101% completion, otherwise known as almost the amount required to beat the game.

Here’s a small, practical example of how convoluted this approach can get. There’s a point in DK 64 where you are walking around as Tiny Kong and you spot some blue bananas leading up through a tunnel. The trouble is that only Lanky Kong can pick-up blue bananas. Since there is no way to quickly switch between characters – one of Rare’s worst design decisions – you’ll need to utilize what’s called a tag barrel. These special barrels are located across each level and allow you to perform character swaps. Every time you need to switch between characters, you must wander back to the barrel. 

Now, you might be thinking that you can simplify this process by just running through every level as each character once and picking up the appropriate bananas as you go. That’s a fine attempt at practicality, but the problem with your logic is that you’re using logic. Often times, color coded bananas are hidden behind areas that require a character that can’t pick them up to access. That tunnel with the blue bananas, for example? It leads to a door that can only be opened by, you guessed it, Tiny Kong. If you want to progress beyond that point, it’s back to the tag barrel with you, young adventurer.

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You know, it’s a shame that popular culture suggests monkeys like bananas and not intuitive game design because DK 64 could have used a lot less of the former and much more of the latter. 

None of this repetitive banana gathering even counts towards acquiring the game’s Golden Bananas, which, as you may have noticed, makes up the bulk of the game’s collectibles. Every level in DK 64 contains 20 Golden Bananas and five sets of blueprints which can be traded in for a Golden Banana. Once again, these Golden Bananas and blueprints can only be acquired by specific characters through various means. 

The problem runs deeper than that. Not only are these bananas hidden behind some of the game’s toughest challenges, but many of those challenges cannot be completed the first time you encounter a golden banana. Instead, you’re forced to constantly backtrack as new abilities become available in the hopes that your skills will allow you to access a Golden Banana.

For those doing the math and wondering how 25 bananas a stage across eight stages equals 201 bananas, the simple answer is that it doesn’t. The extra banana comes from collecting each photo of the banana fairies, which are otherwise useless.

Actually, the Golden Bananas themselves are fairly useless. Despite being the most difficult items to acquire in DK 64 and the items tied to a significant amount of the game’s content, you don’t need a single golden banana to actually beat the game. You don’t even need them to collect the other collectibles. The Rareware Coin is garnered for getting 5000 points in an in-game version of Rare’s arcade title Jetpack, while the Nintendo Coin is granted to those who beat an in-game version of the original Donkey Kong twice. Strangely, those coins are required to beat the game, but not the Golden Bananas or blueprints.

So why would you want to collect these Golden Bananas? Why suffer through some of the game’s most frustrating moments – including a minigame titled Beaver Bother which rots in the seventh circle of gaming hell – to collect items which offer nothing more substantial than the chance to view a faux blooper reel alternate ending?

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Well, because Golden Bananas are required to reach 101%, and if you’re not trying to get 101%, there really is no point in playing Donkey Kong 64.

DK64 was supposed to be Rare’s N64 masterpiece. Some, like former Nintendo VP Peter Main, even believed that it could become the console’s crowning technical achievement. Rare and Nintendo even went so far as to include an expansion pack with the game that would supposedly help the system deal with the game’s sheer size.

The game was undeniably large, but for all the hype, fans ultimately got a game that felt like Rare’s unofficial second attempt at perfecting Banjo-Kazooie. Despite initial promises that DK64 was simply going to be a Donkey Kong game in 3D and despite a demo for the game that focused solely on the title’s boss fights and classic mine cart sequence, the final game is really just a larger version of Banjo-Kazooie

Actually, it doesn’t even really manage to achieve that status. There’s more of everything in DK 64, but some maintain that Banjo-Kazooie‘s graphics and level design are actually a hair cleaner. It’s a slightly subjective argument, but considering that DK 64 launched with an expansion pack designed to increase the N64’s technological capabilities, there really should have never been an argument at all. There are even some DK 64 levels that were recycled from Banjo-Kazooie, and DK 64‘s soundtrack – while good – features few tracks which don’t sound like they belong in Banjo-Kazooie.

Even if DK 64 had been an objectively better Banjo-Kazooie, the problem with DK64 would still be that it dares to tease you with the prospect of a much better game. Imagine a multi-character version of DK 64 where the characters’ unique abilities aren’t used as an excuse to populate the game with more items, but rather as the centerpiece for levels and boss fights that require a multi-faceted approach to complete.

DK 64 sometimes takes full advantage of that concept – the game’s final boss fight is a tremendous example of the benefits of that approach – but more often than not, the game’s characters are used to pad the length of the adventure by making you feel like you’re playing five different games in one package when you’re really just re-treading the same basic ground five different times.

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It’s the insanity of all that backtracking that stings most all these years later as well as the obvious ways that this mechanic could have been used to great effect. Actually, Rare’s determination to fill the game with so much stuff feels like it led to a more complicated design process than the comparatively more innovative multi-skill progress system would have ever required. 

Ironically enough, Rare’s insane emphasis on collectibles and backtracking means that sanest people who play Donkey Kong 64 are those who are trying to achieve 101% completion.

DK 64 requires you to collect such an absurd amount of items in order to even reach the end of the story that only those who harbor a particular fondness for the collect-a-thon genre in the first place need bother with it at all. The pride of 101% – and a few scattered gameplay highlights – is really all DK 64 has to offer.

That’s why some people, like A Hat in Time developer Jonas Kaerlev, go so far as to say that the game effectively killed the 3D Platformer genre. They believe that while titles like Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie used collectibles to enhance the solid platformer experience, DK 64 only really appeals to a hardcore subsection of genre fans who wanted to be called completionists. Games like A Hat in Time and Yooka-Laylee are now trying to evolve the genre in a way that it would have perhaps progressed if DK 64 hadn’t taken it so far off the path.

While it’s tempting to grab a pitchfork and join that crowd – as well as blame DK 64 for the collectible plagued style of Ubisoft’s open-world games for good measure – that stance affords DK 64 a bit too much historical credit. The game was a misstep by just about any measure, but what truly killed the 3D platformer was the fact that other games – like Grand Theft Auto III – chose to evolve the most noteworthy ideas that the genre had introduced rather than simply keep adding more to the existing formula.

As for Donkey Kong 64, it holds a genuinely special place in the hearts of some while nearly everyone else remembers the game all these years later due to the sheer audacity of its completion requirements. You may view DK 64 as the ultimate example of game design hubris, but for a group of gamers who draw pleasure from the acts of completion and collection, 101% will always stand as one of gaming’s greatest prizes.

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Oh, and that extra 1%? It’s superfluous. It seems to have sprung from a programming error – you don’t even need to collect everything to achieve it – but Rare just adopted the extra percentage and applied a heavy dose of personality to it in order to turn a mistake into part of their considerable legacy.

Hmmm…maybe that 1% is more relevant to Donkey Kong 64 than I give it credit for.

Matt Byrd is a staff writer.