Developer: Retro Studios, Monster Games | Publisher: Nintendo | Played On: Wii U | Release Date: February 21, 2014 | ESRB: Everyone [Mild Cartoon Violence]
Every now and then, even the most likeable, long-established and well-meaning celebrity gets ‘frozen out’, ‘kicked off the island’ or both at the same time—and if there’s one thing the voracious media hive-mind loves, it’s a good comeback story, isn’t it? Damn straight; (re-)enter Donkey Kong and company, starring in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze.
At a Nintendo hands-on event last week—Japanese publisher, Japanese venue, Japanese hotel and sure, why not, Chinese food—we got a good long sit-down with the fifth installment of the Donkey Kong Country series (and the first in HD). In Tropical Freeze it turns out that a group of Viking-wannabe foes—the ‘Snomads’, a bestiary that includes warrior walruses, surprisingly bad-ass penguins and some of the freakiest-looking owls you are likely to see in a videogame this side of Silent Hill Zoo Adventures—have given the cold shoulder to our heroes, literally freezing the island over and sweeping DK and his sunshine-band of simian sidekicks well off Donkey Kong Island with a mighty, icy, ill wind.
So far off, in fact, that they now have to make their voyage home across six different island-environments (including the altered landscape of the now-frozen Donkey Kong Island) teeming with new high-definition, side-scrolling dangers. The odds are against you, and you have to run on your knuckles most of the time: Will you rise to the challenge? What would Commander Peter Quincy Taggart say?
Donkey Kong is joined by Diddy Kong, Dixie Kong (in her third appearance in the primary series) and Cranky Kong (in his first appearance as a playable character in the series). It’s a new adventure, but players of the previous games will of course immediately find themselves in familiar country at least in terms of base mechanics.
As ever, players directly control Donkey Kong, who is able at regular intervals to rescue and enlist the aid of companion-characters—who either ‘ride shotgun’ on DK’s shoulders in single-player or act independently via the agency of a second player/controller: Diddy Kong returns with his helpful jetpack to aid in crossing inconveniently-large gaps; Dixie Kong can whip that comely pony-tail of hers into action as a makeshift propeller, allowing players to gently descend/coast, and also gives an initial jump-assist (for those otherwise harder-to-reach platforms and secrets).
Meanwhile, Cranky Kong is able to use his cane not only to safely bounce on/from otherwise dangerously-spiky surfaces, but also as a way of inflicting slightly higher kinetic damage in direct bounce attacks on the game’s numerous foes, including those found in boss battles. As Cranky Kong is now off to directly aid in Donkey Kong’s voyage home, it has fallen to Funky Kong to take over as the in-game shopkeeper—purveyor of boosts, potentially life-saving balloons and collectable, machine-vended mini-figurines.
Beyond the game’s new HD graphics (which include some really dazzling visuals, such as camera-tracking wraparounds following the contours of curving/corkscrewing mine-cart descents, for example), Tropical Freeze also offers a wide range of mechanics. Once players have collected enough bananas and maxed out their so-dubbed ‘Kong-POW’ meter (and it just now occurs to me maybe that explains the Chinese food!), it enables an attack of the same name—effectively a ‘smart bomb’ strike that defeats all onscreen enemies and leaves snaggable items in their wake (lifesaving balloons for Diddy, banana-coins for Cranky, and health-hearts for Dixie). ‘Swimming sections’ are back, air-meter and all, and players can now conduct attacks while underwater. Also, players can hurl stunned enemies as projectiles or wrench objects out of the ground, such as certain ‘plugs’ whose yanking can activate mechanisms, drain areas and, for some reason, cause huge beanstalk-like growths to erupt out of the ground. These myriad mechanics are in addition to the now-classic staples of the series, such as chained barrel-blasting and rollicking mine-cart sections.
In a time of ever more complex, elaborate open-world games, it takes a strong artistic commitment to keep the more traditional sidescroller alive and kicking, and much of the appeal of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze rests undeniably in the inventiveness and sheer, vibrant charm of its execution: The HD environs are absolutely alive and thrumming with color, humor and striking detail. There’s the Viking-styled boats of the ‘Snomads’ crowding up to shore in the background; the waddling, bad-ass enemy penguins with shoulder-mounted herring-launchers, if you please; and the aforementioned brooding, spooky owls which I kid you not are just freaky looking, to the point of being a little unnerving. The island is packed full of challenges and secrets, including camouflaged, mechanism-protected items and special level-exits; and when all else fails, a second player joining in gets to crank off support-fire with a bubble-gun. You can’t ask fairer than that.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is slated to release in the US on February 21, 2014.