Developer: Retro Studios | Publisher: Nintendo | Played on: Wii U | Price: $49.99 | ESRB: Everyone [Mild Cartoon Violence]
Nintendo’s flagship franchises each excel at doing one thing particularly well: Mario is an approachable platformer for all ages; Zelda fulfills the epic fantasy needs we all crave, Metroid is our exploration and shooting fix, and so on. With the release of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze on Wii U, the follow-up to the Wii’s Donkey Kong Country Returns, Retro Studios’ reimagining of the DK crew corners Nintendo’s need for a precision platformer. No more DK Raps, no more King K. Rool–just gorgeous backdrops, satisfying gameplay, and pitfall after frustrating pitfall.
The Snomads, a group of Viking-like nomadic animals, have thrust Donkey Kong’s home island into a frozen tundra of its former self, forcing DK and his sidekick Diddy Kong into action. Not content with letting the duo handle it on their own, Dixie Kong and Cranky Kong join them on their quest to return their land to normal and drive the invading Snomads away. The plot provides enough of a reason why you are exploring jungles and deserts yet battling enemies that are out of their element (penguins, walruses, etc.), but Tropical Freeze’s story pales in comparison to its excellent gameplay.
Much like DKC: Returns before it, Tropical Freeze has you traversing through six distinct zones each with a handful of levels en route to a boss fight, with puzzle pieces hidden along the way that unlock bonus artwork and other goodies, K-O-N-G letters to collect for even more goodies, as well as secret exits and bonus games to unlock hidden stages and extra lives. Though these side objectives are completely optional, the rewards they grant and the challenge they present are where the best parts of Tropical Freeze lie.
I made the distinction earlier between Mario’s type of platforming and DK’s because they are fundamentally different. In a Mario game you have some leeway to be a bit off with your jumps, or for your reaction time to adjust.
Tropical Freeze takes that notion of safety and throws it in your face.
You have to be damn near exact on your placement of jumps, otherwise its death for you. It’s not just precision jumps—trial and error, and reaction time come into play as well. On many occasions there is little time to react before you fall into a pit or you miss your opportunity to reach that puzzle piece. Seeking out the puzzle pieces and other hidden items showcase the best platforming mechanics the game has to offer as well as the greatest tests of skill. Though the game is challenging from beginning to end, it never feels like you’re being cheated: if you died it’s because you made a mistake, nothing else. Because of this, completing a particularly frustrating segment is immensely rewarding… until you realize something even worse is waiting for you in the next level. It’s great. Sadistic and great!
Most stages are “simple” platforming affairs, having you reach the goal without dying, but some stages offer a twist on gameplay. The mine cart levels return from the Wii game, setting the Kongs thundering down a mine shaft while avoiding obstacles and jumping from rail to rail. Also returning are the rocket barrel stages in which you have to accelerate and decelerate your flying barrel to the goal. There are also some underwater segments, giving Tropical Freeze a hefty amount of variety.
Speaking of variety, new to Tropical Freeze are Dixie Kong and Cranky Kong. The two newcomers, as well as the returning Diddy, bring helpful abilities to Donkey Kong during his adventure. Cranky Kong can bounce on his cane, allowing DK to reach platforms he otherwise couldn’t reach by jumping. Also, Cranky’s cane can traverse over dangerous terrain like spikes without taking damage. Dixie can twirl his hair like a helicopter to lift DK even higher while jumping, effectively giving you a double jump ability. Diddy’s rocket pack sputters at the end of Donkey Kong’s jumps, giving you a little bit extra precision when making your jumps. Each Kong brings something completely different to the table, but no one character is better than the rest. You’re likely find the one that fits your play style best, but if you want to unlock everything the game has to offer you have to complete each level multiple times to using all the characters’ abilities to find, reach, and claim each hidden collectible.
Tropical Freeze treads a thin line being a precision platfomer: if the levels were designed poorly the game wouldn’t be fun to play. Thankfully for us, Tropical Freeze’s levels are incredibly well made. Assuming you’ve got the skills you could blaze through each level, jumping on enemies, swinging on vines, blasting out of barrels, scarcely stopping to take a breather. It may seem maddening to approach the game like this given its difficulty, but each stage is made so brilliantly that you can actually do that: the location of enemies, ledges, and platforms are specifically placed so those looking to speed run the game can easily do so.
The other crucial aspect of a successful platformer is proper controls, and Tropical Freeze manages to pull that off, too… sort of. The default control scheme uses the Wii U Game Pad, but a Wii Remote and Pro Controller are also usable. Of the three I preferred the Game Pad and Pro Controller because they had the most logical placement of buttons. The Wii Remote was clunky and needlessly challenging to use effectively. Regardless of what control scheme you choose, the learning curve is a bit steep: Early in the game you have to jump, grab, let go, and attack while sliding down vines which can be quite rough if you’re not ready for it.
The Wii U is Nintendo’s first foray into the world of 1080p video games, and man, Donkey Kong has never looked better. The intro movie is absolutely gorgeous, and that high quality presentation continues into the stages themselves. Each world is beautifully animated with an amazing amount of detail. The third world in particular stood out: the background was a grass-filled plain with huge trees that literally danced along with the music. At certain points when I blasted through barrels to move to the next area of the level, I was in awe of how much attention went into these scenes, even though they’re literally only seen them for a moment. Without question Tropical Freeze is an early contender for 2014’s best looking game.
Going along with the impressive visuals is the collection of musical tracks that accompany each stage. Each stage’s music fits the scene perfectly: one level has you running through a forest that is on fire and the background music is appropriately hastier than the more serene tune that plays while underwater. While we’re on the note of music, fans of past Donkey Kong Country games will surely recognize some of their favorite tracks remixed in Tropical Freeze.
Multiplayer also makes a comeback. One player controls Donkey Kong and the other takes over one of the sidekicks. It seems like a simple enough idea but the nature of the game and the added chaos that multiplayer brings makes multiplayer suited for those not worried about dying. A lot. Both players share a single pool of lives but separate health bars, meaning one player can play well and the other poorly and suck up all the lives. It has its moments, especially during some of the later boss fights where having two independent characters fighting for one goal is quite advantageous, but overall it’s a feature that is not recommended for serious players.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze takes the foundation set by the earlier Wii game and expands upon it. There are more characters to play, more challenges to overcome, more secrets to find, and truly stunning visuals. The game’s difficulty will likely turn off a lot of casual gamers thinking they’re in for a routine Nintendo platformer, but the dedicated gamers who persevere through the toughest the game has to offer will find a satisfying game with loads of replay value that’s a blast to play.
+ Incredible visuals and detail
+ Challenging, satisfying gameplay
— Multiplayer is too chaotic to play seriously
8.5 / 10