A combination of ideas that doesn't deliver
One of the most common criticisms the App Store receives is about the importance it gives to the charts. Just like in the music business, iTunes for apps highlights the most sold items on a ranking. This list has traditionally been controlled by the Angry Birds, Cut the Rope and other casual titles, so seeing some new game slipping into this privileged space is almost a guarantee of a hit. Or maybe not?
This seems to be the case of Banana Kong by FDG Entertainment, an endless runner with a very familiar theme. Using a gorilla who loves bananas as your main character, you're escaping from an avalanche of banana peels coming from the left of the screen. Despite this imminent danger, you keep eating bananas to boost your speed and break obstacles dashed around the level. Maybe there's an ecology message hidden here.
What is much more obvious is the inspiration from one of Nintendo's most popular properties. The game reminds me of a cartoony Donkey Country in a big way. Perhaps other gamers really dig the original, which explains why this game is doing so well on the charts. There are enemy crocodiles and friendly toucans and boars you can ride. There's even some vine swinging to enter hidden areas. I haven't bumped into a rhinoceros yet, though.
Banana Kong introduces some mild platforming elements that will require you to jump and descend from, critically wasting time in your escape from the big pile of peels coming at you. This isn't the real threat. In practical terms, the game punishes the player at any opportunity, as if your gorilla was a weak and delicate mammal not used to the hardship of the jungle. Tripping on an obstacle, smashing into a rock or falling into water will automatically end your run. There's no opportunity to correct. One misstep and you're out.
While the absence of lives in endless runners is pretty standard, there's usually a power up system in place that protects you against one hit, at least. Jetpack Joyride and Ski Safari are clear examples of this: collecting power ups doesn't only protect you from silly errors. It drives the gameplay. In contrast, Banana Kong is hard and unforgiving, giving you one chance only, as the animal buddies appear quite late in the level. This makes the beginning of the runs too slow for seasoned players and difficult for newcomers. The level progression is also confusing, with apparently randomly generated areas looking way too familiar. For example, the hidden cave areas presented to you early in the run when you couldn't possibly have enough bananas to unlock it is rather questionable.
The developer is clearly aware of the amount of good titles of this genre on the platform — most of them available for free with IAP consumables. Borrowing elements here and there hasn't worked in my opinion. The three-mission system is irrelevant because the game is extremely punitive. The gorilla feels too slow correcting its own mistakes and looking for the best route, a key element in the speed run variety. The in-app purchases and consumables feel like a very expensive commodity, with the game not giving enough free ones to try out, let alone in-game banana coins to purchase them.
After trying Banana Kong for a while I can only raise my eyebrows looking at its position on the App Store charts. Users are giving it good iTunes reviews too. In terms of gameplay, I didn't find Banana Kong that fun. I kept restarting the level to understand why my gorilla is so fragile hitting a rock at such slow speed. I never got any thrills seeing the banana peel avalanche approaching, knowing the gorilla would trip on a piece of good on the floor sooner or later.
How can everybody be buying this game then? The art style chosen works perfectly well. Then bulky gorilla running and the facial expressions are quite enjoyable. There's also a catchy silly tune on the background. The endless mechanic doesn't get the best of Banana Kong, maybe with a platform-focused or level-based game fixing these issues.
However, the jungle theme — and the name — makes it feel like a Chinese counterfeit product, which may upset older Nintendo fans. Given the amount of great games in this category, I recommend not bothering with Banana Kong for now. The blend of different ideas doesn't work too well and ends up making Banana Kong repetitive and unforgiving. Look for Ski Safari, Jetpack Joyride, Mikey Shorts and Time Surfer, which deserve a place on your iPhone instead.