With the recent news of the Wii U’s failings, and how it has affected Nintendo financially, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a massively polysyllabic-titled example of what is both right and wrong with the system right now. Wrong, is that this is another Wii U game that is unlikely to be a massive system seller, but right in that it doesn’t give a damn about it.
It’s a reminder that while the world demands that Nintendo go multiformat or release games for mobile devices, they soldier on, bringing highly enjoyable games to a variety of audiences. This latest Kong outing may not be a drastically different outing than the last one, but nonetheless it’s a damn fine 2D platformer. It harkens back to the mid-90’s collect-a-thon platforming days, but that is never a bad thing when it’s done so well.
So we begin our latest rumble in the jungle, as Donkey Kong celebrates his birthday with pals/relations Diddy, Dixie and Cranky. Alas, as our beloved DK is celebrating, a band of angry Viking animals known as the Snowmads are approaching the Kong Islands. Using some sort of magical horn the Snowmads envelope the islands in an arctic wind, dropping temperatures and exposing the Kongs to the cold conditions one would more likely expect to see in around one of the poles. As an ape who dislikes bananas being cold and hard, DK leads his band of primate misfits into a quest to defeat the Snowmads and keep a pleasant tropical breeze running through the Kong Islands.
So we return to familiar platforming territory: A series of levels split into worlds, accessible from the standard world map interface. Controlling the tie-wearing Donkey Kong – as always, he is joined by one of his three brethren, all of whom can be found by finding barrels with their initials on. Naturally, each partner has their own abilities that all have their own uses – Diddy Kong has a jetpack for launching across chasms, Dixie Kong is able to use her hair like a helicopter’s blades in order to jump higher and descend slower, while for his first playable appearance, Cranky Kong can use his cane to jump higher and on spiky surfaces, Scrooge McDuck style.
Each character is able to climb on DK’s back, which allows him to borrow their unique abilities, and also to unleash a special POW attack after filling a gauge by collecting bananas. This attack will not only rid the screen of all enemies, but also turn them into useful power-ups, depending on who DK’s partner is. This screen clearer is an incredibly useful ability at times, especially as, like the previous game, death is an inevitability.
With DK only being able to withstand two hits before biting the dust (unless combined with a partner, which doubles his heart energy), not to mention a ton of bottomless chasms to fall into, you’ll eat through lives, especially when playing co-operatively with a friend. Thankfully, each level is filled with opportunities for extra lives; from 1-Up balloons, hundreds of bananas, and Banana Coins, used to purchase extra lives and other power-ups from the returning Funky Kong’s shop. With this abundance of extra lives available, Tropical Freeze is much fairer to the player than the Wii original, even if it’s technically no easier. But this Kong adventure’s difficulty is well paced, and like any good platformer, death is never unfair and is nearly always due to your own ability.
Tropical Freeze’s approach to co-operative multiplayer is similar to the previous game. Player 1 is always DK, but this time around, Player 2 can choose from any of the three available partners. Unfortunately, it occasionally falls into the regular co-op trap in vehicle-based levels, where although both players are able to control the minecart or jet-barrel, because they share the same mode of transportation, it is much more practical for only one player to man the controls, while the other waits until the end of the section/level. It would be far more enjoyable for both players to have their own vehicles, as opposed to arguing over who gets to play. But otherwise, it’s a very fun game in multiplayer, especially the ability for the partner to jump on DK’s back; it’s a very good way of allowing a player of lesser ability to sit out of the more challenging sections of levels.
Unfortunately, due to the simplistic controls, the button to grab items and onto vines is also used to combine characters. Because of this, co-op players will regularly combine at the most inconvenient times, leading to a few unnecessary deaths. With only four buttons used (jump, attack, activate POW and grab/combine), why couldn’t one of the other triggers be used to combine? Other than this minor, if occasionally frustrating issue, the controls are tight and the Kongs retain their sluggish and heavy physics from previous games. It still feels like you are controlling this large ape, rolling through enemies and using that momentum to jump over hazards is still a unique feeling. Once mastered, these heavier physics are a joy to handle.
Mastering the Kongs’ abilities is essential for not only finishing each level, but also finding each KONG letter and puzzle piece. As you can imagine, these hidden trinkets unlock secrets, and they’re extremely well hidden. But there’s something so pleasing when you see a part of a level that looks somewhat out of place, and investigating it further to find a hidden area. It’s yet another gameplay element that’s just so rewarding.
But these hidden areas wouldn’t be so intriguing if it weren’t for the detail that Retro Studios have put into each level. Each of these varied environments are gorgeous and inventive, with incredibly creative usage of 3D space for a 2D platformer. Jumping into a simple barrel can eject the Kongs far into the distance, with the camera following along for the ride, while you’ll need to really keep an eye on the background to avoid approaching hazards. With some levels changing in a blink of an eye, quick reactions are a necessity. Admittedly, there can be times when the amount of things happening on-screen can be a little distracting, but there are also times when the complexity of visuals are dialled back, such as the silhouette levels, that still look phenomenal, even if they had already been done in the previous game.
However, each level of atmosphere conveyed by the visuals would be nothing if it weren’t for an equally atmospheric soundtrack, and Tropical Freeze certainly delivers on that front. David Wise, the ex-Rare composer who worked on the original Donkey Kong Country trilogy, has returned for Tropical Freeze, after missing out Returns, and his influence is an incredibly welcome one. While fans of the original trilogy will recognise the odd leitmotif here and there, these new compositions are fantastic. The Lion-King inspired savannah themes, and the chilled underwater tracks are certainly the highlights of the game.
VERDICT: While Tropical Freeze is technically not doing anything drastically different from Donkey Kong Country Returns, it’s no less rewarding and, above all, fun. The ease of obtaining powerups, as well as the improved abilities of the Kongs make for a friendlier game than its predecessor. Meanwhile, a host of challenging boss fights that end each island excursion are as old fashioned as you can get and while these encounters can take a little too long to pass, they are no less entertaining to take part in. For modern-day jungle explorers, the mountain of secrets hidden in each level will keep dedicated players occupied for some time. Put simply, it’s old school platforming done right, a wonderful alternative to Mario that is definitely worth adding to any Wii U owners’ collection.
VERY GOOD. An 8/10 is only awarded to a game we consider truly worthy of your hard-earned cash. This game is only held back by a smattering of minor or middling issues and comes highly recommended.
Review code provided by publisher.