For the amount of times I cursed at the screen during my time playing Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, one would think that I couldn’t stand the thing, and only continued playing for my own messed up masochistic need. More than a few times I felt like hurling my expensive-to-replace-otherwise-I-just-may-have Wii U GamePad. However, while the game is plenty frustrating and secretes unforgiving difficulty out of its every orifice, practically every other moment while playing had me either grinning out of triumph or with goose bumps as a result of its stellar atmosphere.
I’m going to stop right here and ask you a favor. Presumptuous of me, I know, but bear with me. First off, start playing this:
Amiss Abyss by David Wise/Kenji Yamamoto
Playing? Alright, good. Let’s move on.
I feel it’s important to disclaim some things, because of my history with the franchise: the original Donkey Kong Country trilogy ranks among my favorite game series of all time, with the soundtracks to those games being some of my most listened-to albums. While the original DKC was a good proof-of-concept, DKC 2 refined and perfected what the original pioneered, and the third continued that even further. The Wii’s Donkey Kong Country Returns was a bit of a disappointment, modernizing the solid platforming mechanics and brutal difficulty well enough, but bringing with it nothing more. DKC:R was a solid platforming game, but it lacked the atmosphere and personality that made the original trilogy so special.
Once again helmed by Retro Studios, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze takes the core platformer base laid out by Donkey Kong Country Returns before it and polishes the hell out of it. The gameplay presented by Tropical Freeze is smooth and satisfying, with the same mechanics returning from the previous entries. The twists this time around are the multiple interchangeable partners and the swimming levels, in addition to whatever new quirks and ideas the individual stages present. Diddy Kong is back, along with his assistive hovering Jetpack. New to Tropical Freeze is Dixie Kong and Cranky Kong, Dixie marking her first playable platformer debut since Donkey Kong Country 3 on the SNES and Cranky being completely new to the series. Dixie gives the ability to get a little higher with the jumps, and Cranky Kong has a cane which he can bounce on like a pogo stick, letting him bounce over prickly terrain.
The three partner Kongs are all distinct, and while some areas of some levels are easier with a particular one, there was only a handful of times where carrying a particular one was required to access certain areas. Later in the game Cranky got relatively ignored, since both Diddy and Dixie’s abilities gave me a little more room for error with my platforming. The pogo bounce is fun, but when every minute is a struggle for my life, I tended to stick with those who eased the progression. Hell, most of the time I went partner-less, since the constant barrage of enemies and obstacles tore my hearts away from me constantly. Late in the game having a partner with me felt like a luxury, a precious bonus that was taken away from me after a couple of screw-ups. This lessened with each attempt at a level, but the partner barrels didn’t show up very frequently, and Donkey Kong was often left to go it solo.
Speaking of solo, extra mention needs to be made about the cooperative play. With a real-life partner available, the entirety of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze can be played with a buddy helping out. The second player controls one of the three partner Kongs, and if one of the players die, they can be quickly re-inserted back into a level at the expense of a life balloon. The act of instant revival for each partner keeps the action moving, a blessing in a game that has a single player campaign filled with frustrating pauses for restart.
Speaking of pauses, I’m gonna detour real quick to get you to play this. It’s okay if the other song wasn’t done, I can wait.
Alright, done? Try this:
Irate Eight by David Wise/Kenji Yamamoto
Anyways, my advice for Nintendo would be to take some cues from recent ultra-hard indie games like Super Meat Boy and Dustforce and make the restarting of levels instantaneous. Instead of watching the death cutscene, seeing your life amount decrease by one, and waiting for Donkey Kong to storm back into the level, why not cut that all and get us back into the action instantly? Each death is punctuated with sad music fanfare, with a complete soundtrack restart when trying again. This makes defeat extra painful, and it’s a missed opportunity. If the music kept playing uninterrupted, a player will assume death is part of the game, a continuation of the level even, which it certainly is with Tropical Freeze. Instead, it piles on frustration with every life lost.
The good news is unlike Nintendo’s other side-scrolling platformer series New Super Mario Bros., DKC:TF doesn’t impose a time limit on the player. Take the game as slow as you want, it’s fine. It has sights to see, secrets to dig up, and music to relax to. Nobody is rushing (well, until you get to the mine cart levels, but that’s another topic…). This is especially helpful in co-op, since it takes some adjustment for both players to work with one another’s pace. As the difficulty ramped up, my co-op experience got both more frustrating and more comforting, as exploring for secrets becomes hard with a finicky camera trying to follow two people, but having the ability to keep plowing through the difficulty as long as one person lives makes things a little easier to deal with. Boss fights in particular become easier with a partner, the lack of checkpoints are easier to deal with if one of you can stay alive.
Do yourself a favor and play with a friend. That’s advice I give for pretty much any game that allows it, but especially so for this one. It makes it all go down easier.
Like all Donkey Kong games, and most Nintendo franchise games in general, the plot is simple. Nordic-themed arctic creatures called the Snowmads take over Donkey Kong’s island and turn it into a mountain tundra, parking the ship they came in on top of the mountain itself. Donkey Kong and his crew must navigate the surrounding islands to make his way to the top, and punch in the Snowmad’s faces. It’s nothing more than an excuse to go on an adventure, but it is a bit more of a compelling reason than “King K. Rool stole my bananas!”.
The sights you see along the way are pretty well varied, though they do run the gauntlet of standard platforming environments. You start out in grasslands, move into wooded areas, pass through desert savannahs, take a dip in aquatic beaches, visit a fruit processing factory (okay that’s new?) and finally confront the snowy tundra. It’s all pretty standard, but Retro pulled out all the stops with the environments.
The Wii U’s HD graphics add a lot of charm to the DKC franchise. Levels are packed to the brim with detail and color, with every level trying their best to show off their unique personality. Huge set pieces make the world feel like an actual place that could possibly exist, turning the islands into plausible locations instead of guided playgrounds.
The most striking areas are the returning silhouette levels, saturating the hell out of the colors to their bare details.
The colors and the themes do good work of bringing back that trademark Donkey Kong Country atmosphere, with detail and care going into all of the backgrounds and level art. The game oozes style, and there was always something to look at. The level designs even did a good job of incorporating the secrets, many times my eyes were just naturally drawn to those out-of-the-way places that were hiding the elusive puzzle pieces and secret exits. Everything had cohesive flow and just made sense.
Alright, last one, I promise. This is important.
Grassland Groove by David Wise/Kenji Yamamoto
The music, for me, is what ties this game all together. While Donkey Kong Country Returns’ music was largely forgettable, playing it safe with remixes and simpler tunes, Tropical Freeze makes the music one of it’s centerpieces. The first time it “clicked” was when I got to the level Grassland Groove (the track which should be playing now). In it, background elements moved, altering the platforms themselves, in time to the music. The level was shuffling, dancing, along with the music that backed it. The big ass grin that spread across my face as I played spoke volumes.
Making a triumphant return to soundtrack duties is composer David Wise, returning to the Donkey Kong series for the first time since Donkey Kong Country 3. When Nintendo announced that he would be helming musical duties, my expectations shot through the roof. The SNES trilogy soundtracks were part of what defined those games to me, and he was sorely missing in Donkey Kong Country Returns.
The songs are tailored to the levels, the effects of which obviously had a lot of thought put to them. The ambient water tunes, the sweeping plains melodies, and the rocking boss battles, all slid right in to place snugly, and it worked wonders with the game’s colorful and striking graphical style to define the atmosphere.
Any expectations I had were completely crushed, and the soundtrack will be remembered as a bona fide classic. My only complaint is (as of writing) Nintendo hasn’t put it up for sale anywhere for me to throw money at, which is a huge missed opportunity.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a platformer worth checking out. Come for the smooth mechanics and the smoother music, stay for the rewarding difficulty and replayability. There’s enough in it to keep the average gamer occupied for some time, provided they have enough motivation to stick with it when it’s at its most frustrating. Not for the weak-willed and for those who don’t like retro game design choices. While I feel like some of it’s mechanics could stand for some modernization, the overall package is something worth commendation.
I hope this isn’t the last we’ll see of the lovable ape and his family.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a game built as a love letter for the retro crowd, but some sensibilities could stand to be updated.