I am a huge fan of the Donkey Kong Country series. In my opinion, Donkey Kong Country 2 is the greatest 2D platformer ever made. As you may imagine, I was pretty excited when I heard Retro was going to be reviving the series with Donkey Kong Country Returns. However, that game left me rather disappointed. A lot of the wacky charm Rare had brought to the series was gone. The tacked on motion controls were terrible, and the level design was hit or miss. As such, I wasn’t really anticipating that Retro’s follow up, Tropical Freeze, would be able to recapture the genius of the original series. I’m glad to be proven wrong, and Tropical Freeze is currently the best reason to own a Wii U.
Donkey Kong Country games are 2D platformers and thus rely heavily on precision controls and something I refer to as flow. What I mean by flow is the ability to seamlessly traverse the level without having to grind to a full stop. Being able to move quickly through a level, bouncing off enemies and reaching the end in style has been a core element of the genre since the original Super Mario Bros. Donkey Kong is a heavy ape and the controls reflect that. There is a certain heft to each jump and it takes some getting used to if you’re accustomed to the older style. However, with Donkey Kong’s corpulence mastered, the game does have extraordinary flow, something attested by the time trials available for every level. The general control options are liberated from Return’s forced motion controls and the roll command is now mapped to the controller (Gamepad or Pro Controller).
Controls falter and die without good level design, however. Fortunately, Tropical Freeze succeeds brilliantly in this respect. Every level is a joy to play through, and I fell into the habit of speed running them without caring for any collectibles just because they were so fun to plow through. There is a good variety of level types from basic left-to-right platforming, chasing wall, mine cart levels, and the still-frustrating rocket levels. These last two have been made easier than they were in Returns, but they still provide a healthy, occasionally frustrating, challenge to gamers. Water levels have returned and they’re a nice diversion, though the controls are noticeably less refined in these areas so they can get grating when overused as they are in one of the worlds. Also unfortunately is Retro’s unwillingness to bring back more animal pals than Rambi the Rhino. These animals worked brilliant wonders at varying gameplay, and it’s a complete missed opportunity not to use them.
Speaking of difficulty, Tropical Freeze is not an easy game. Though I don’t think it approaches the unforgiving nature of Returns, you will die often as you navigate its penguin-ladden levels. You do possess a set number of lives – a holdover from the era of arcades – but the amount of bananas, balloons, and coins available mean that you will be swimming in so many lives that they might as well be unlimited. Coins collected through levels can be exchanged at Funky Kong’s shop for a variety of tools to help ease the difficulty from extra lives to invincibility potions which can be used inside a level at will. As with Returns and other modern Nintendo games, if you fail a level enough, the game will offer to play it through for you so you can continue the game despite that one sticky spot.
New to Tropical Freeze are two additional team-mates for Donkey Kong on top of Diddy Kong who was available in Returns. Dixie Kong has finally made a return to the series after being perplexingly ousted by Tiny Kong in Donkey Kong 64. And, for the first time, the old curmudgeon Cranky Kong is playable. On normal mode, single player gamers will have control over Donkey Kong. The partners will only give abilities. Diddy uses his rocket pack to glide a short distance. Dixie allows you to fly upwards slightly, and Cranky lets you bounce on his cane like Scrooge MacDuck. Dixie is easily the most useful in terms of playing it safe, and you’ll often find yourself gunning for her when the partner barrel lets you choose which partner to use. Cranky on the other hand seems to allow for the most reckless, but fast plays. Diddy doesn’t cut it compared to Dixie, which makes the partner system not entirely balanced, but still fun. On hard mode, you have the option of playing as one of the ancillary Kongs.
Graphically, the game is gorgeous and a testament to why last gen tech is still great in the face of mounting current gen pressure. The cartoony style and art design work great, and it’s amazing the amount of effort and time that clearly went into making every single one of Donkey Kong’s hairs stand out. Penguins and other winter-themed baddies are the new main enemies in this game and they are infinitely more charming than Returns’ Tikis. The joy that goes into a walrus viking is indescribable. From a music standpoint, Tropical Freeze marks the return of the original Donkey Kong Country composer, and it shows. The musical accompaniment, whether a spirited Oktoberfest ballad throughout the alpine levels, or remixes of old favourites such as Aquatic Ambiance or Stickerbrush Symphony, is among the best in the series.
Altogether, Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze is an absolute pleasure to play through. It’s difficult at times, but never to the extent that it hampers the excellent game under it. With collectables unlocking new levels, time trials, and a hard mode, this is a game that can keep you busy for much longer than a traditional platformed. Most importantly, once you’re done everything, it’s still a blast to run through the game, just as it was with the original series. All of this combined makes me question the sanity of Gamespot’s 6.0 review.
Score – 9.5
– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer