The news that Retro Studios was working on Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze was something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, this meant that they weren’t currently working on reviving one of Nintendo’s other dormant franchises (Star Fox, I’m looking at you). On the other, you know just what to expect from this release: an enjoyable, challenging platformer in the spirit of the original SNES Donkey Kong Country trilogy and its recent Wii followup, and to that end, they succeeded.
It’s just another day on Donkey Kong Island as DK and friends appear to be celebrating the big ape’s birthday. The fun and games don’t last long though, as the viking-like Snowmads of the North Sea move in to try to claim the island for themselves. With a blow of a large horn, the entire island is encased in ice while the Kong clan is swept away to a neighboring island. Of course, they don’t take this lying down, and no sooner do they land that the journey home begins, and then it’s on like Donkey Kong.
The first thing you’ll notice when firing up Tropical Freeze is just how sharp the game looks. Retro Studios is no stranger to crafting impressive visuals on aging tech (the Metroid Prime games can attest to that), but the amount of detail in the various stages is incredible. Each of the game’s six main islands carries a central theme, be it underwater or an island full of fruit and jelly, and each stage within that somehow manages to be distinct. You’ll encounter crashed airplanes, cyclones that toss around structures, or creatures frozen in ice as you progress towards the finish line. Heck, even Donkey Kong’s fur makes me want to reach out to my TV to pet him. It’s difficult to imagine a game about a cartoony gorilla being a feast for the eyes, but that’s really how impressive it is.
In the audio department, you’ll find a balanced mix of both new and old tracks from series’ past. Some of the more memorable ones made the cut, though sadly the DK rap was not among them. You’ll also find that, even though DK and crew don’t actually speak, they certainly have no qualms about grunting to show that they mean business, and their foes aren’t shy about doing the same.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze follows the same formula as its Wii predecessor, and is a 2D platformer in the same vein as the New Super Mario Bros. series. Unlike Mario, DKC seems definitely more geared towards the hardcore platforming crowd, as this game can be downright punishing at times. While not as maddeningly difficult as Donkey Kong Country Returns, there is at least one feature that game had that kept victory within reach: The Super Guide. Tropical Freeze does not have a Super Guide, which means that if you find yourself riding the struggle bus in the later stages, the game is not there to bail you out. As scary as this sounds, a few concessions were made in its place. Funky Kong sets up shop on each island, allowing you to exchange the many coins you find for some valuable items. He has balloons for extra lives, extending your breath underwater (yes, you have an oxygen meter), and catching you when you fall into a pit. There’s also hearts that extend your life bar for the entirety of a level, shields for strengthening vehicles, and parrots for finding treasure. Multiples of these items can be equipped to get you through a particularly difficult stage, so success is certainly as easy as it can be, short of having the game play it for you.
The game can be played with a myriad of different control setups, including the Wii remote, the remote/nunchuk combo, or the Wii U Pro controller, so use of the standard Game Pad is not required. In fact, the touchscreen isn’t used at all during the game save for off-TV play. The screen on the controller actually shuts off when you play on the TV, so there’s not even a map or statistics that take up space on the thing, which is interesting. While I enjoyed being able to use either the thumbstick or directional pad to move, I found it a bit problematic (at least with the Game Pad) to have DK’s roll and ground pound mapped to the same button. Moving the thumbstick at all while hitting the button for the ground pound will send DK into a somersault, sometimes careening him off a cliff. Short of that, the jumping controls were responsive and utilizing the shoulder buttons to grab and throw things worked out well.
It’s not all running and jumping though. A few levels require you to swim underwater, ride a non-stop barrel rocket, or careen toward the goal in a runaway minecart. They’re not necessarily all from a 2D perspective either. Sometimes that camera will pan left and you’ll have somewhat of an over-the-shoulder view as you jump side to side between rails or dodge attacks from oncoming assailants. There isn’t a huge focus on the animal companions, though the rhino does make a return in a few stages, offering quick passage through weak walls and enemies.
Donkey Kong is not alone in his fight against the Snowmads. He has not one, not two, but three fellow compatriots that can either be controlled by a second player, or can ride around on DK’s back. In two player mode, both characters are maneuvered separately, each having two life hearts to their name. By contrast, single player mode combines these life hearts, offering four hits before the player is taken out. There are also additional benefits depending on the character being carried. Having Diddy Kong will allow you to make use of his rocket pack, giving you a few seconds to float before plummeting back to the ground. Dixie Kong operates similarly with her helicopter hair, except she drifts upward after a time. Then there’s Cranky Kong (yes, Cranky Kong is a playable character) who can bounce around on his cane like Scrooge McDuck and traverse spiky surfaces. To top it all off, charging up a meter will grant access to a Kong Pow attack, where the characters will high five/bro fist each other and turn all enemies into usable items.
Beyond the core game, there are numerous unlockable stages and collectibles to be found. Each stage has four letters that spell out “Kong” to be tracked down, as well as a series of puzzle pieces. After completing a level, you can go back through it to record your best time and potentially upload it to the game’s leaderboards. If you’re into digital figurines, Funky Kong has a dispenser in his shop that will spit some out at the cost of a few coins, though like buying a Happy Meal, you might end up with multiples of the same thing.
If you had the pleasure of experiencing Donkey Kong Country Returns, then Tropical Freeze will feel like better looking extension of that game, which is by no means a bad thing. The levels are varied, the design is fantastic, and the fact that you can play as Cranky Kong in two player mode is worth the price of admission alone. Beware though, as this is not a platformer for the squeamish, and despite the generous number of checkpoints, the game is most certainly out to get you.
Short Attention Span Summary
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze brings more of the Retro Studios magic. Solid platforming action, varied levels, and tons of collectibles await those that are up for the challenge, though beware that there’s no Super Guide to save you this time. The game also has a wonderful presentation, showcasing some of the best looking gorilla fur I’ve ever laid eyes upon. Also, two words: Cranky Kong! Still, it isn’t a huge leap forward over its Wii predecessor, so don’t go in expecting huge leaps in innovation. If you’re looking for an excellent Wii U platformer, this is a great candidate.