It’s on like… oh wait, I made that joke three and a half years ago, and it still wasn't funny then
Hard to believe it’s been three and an half years since Donkey Kong Country Returns landed on the Wii. As gorgeous as DKCR’s 60 frames per second presentation was, it was screaming for a platform that could handle something north of 480p. And hence, in all its 720p glory, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze was born, adhering closely to the very same principles that made DKC2 for the SNES a success in the wake of its classic predecessor.
Things are slightly different from the start this time around. Retro Studios has teamed up with Monster Games (Excitebots: Trick Racing, Pilotwings Resort) for Tropical Freeze, though the game feels true enough to the Wii original that you wouldn’t have guessed it if it wasn’t pointed out to you. In fact, in many ways, it’s even closer in spirit to the 16-bit originals, as beloved composer David Wise (Aquatic Ambience, Stickerbush Symphony, and Fear Factory—to name a few favorites) has returned to collaborate with Kenji Yamamoto on the soundtrack too.
The vehicular sequences are back, of course, this time with a twist
The story is just as appropriately ludicrous, too: some evil feral Viking creatures piloting a fleet of ice ships decide to invade Kong’s world, and thus, the tropical paradise that was Donkey Kong Island becomes layered with thick ice and unfamiliar snowflakes. The frosty menace begins to spread as Kong and the gang work their way back toward the affected areas from islands in the distance.
In case you’re worried that this means that a large portion of the game takes place in icy environments, let me be the first to dispel your concerns here: only roughly a sixth of the game relies on winter-like conditions. In fact, for the most part, in Tropical Freeze, the basic template remains the same: you still play as Donkey Kong (as opposed to any of his nimbler relatives), and the gameplay very closely parallels the critically-acclaimed design of DKC Returns—that is to say, it feels enough like the DKC SNES games did, but it permutes that design to a sufficient extent such that none of it feels merely iterative. There are still plenty of well-planned and vividly-decorated traditional platforming levels to traverse, decked out with secrets but challenging enough to simply make it through in the first place. Likewise, you’ll find even more mine cart levels along with the cursed barrel rocket courses, lined with enough peripheral cinematic chaos to keep your blood pumping as you race through to the end.
Time to invent new curse words.
In terms of what specific elements of the formula have changed, for starters, Diddy Kong is no longer the only available companion: now, you’ll see Dixie Kong and Cranky Kong equally often. Most of the time, they’re acquirable via DK barrels which rotate through three corresponding colors: pick up the barrel while it’s the right color to score the Kong of your choice. In single-player mode, the second Kong rides on DK’s back, which scores him additional maneuverability in ways specific to each buddy. Diddy Kong still brings his jetpack, whereas Dixie Kong can also flutter DK upward near the end of a jump, and Cranky Kong can pogo off of on hazardous surfaces (i.e. spikes) using his cane.
Another area where each Kong companion features unique abilities is during underwater segments, which were missing in DKC Returns (some say for the better?). There are quite a few levels where you’ll find yourself mostly underwater, forced to sustain yourself through the use of bubbles scattered throughout the courses. These are still fun but could certainly be labelled the least enjoyable of the bunch—with a few exceptions, where the action is sufficiently hectic and the presentation impressive enough to overcome the cumbersome nature of underwater gameplay. At least swimming is less of a chore when you’re with a buddy in single-player: merely holding A will propel you through the water then, and Cranky Kong can even Judo-chop his way through enemies and obstacles.
Water levels: everyone's favorite worst enemy
There’s only six worlds in the main game this time around too, down from eight in DKCR. However, the number of levels in each world has risen slightly (spanning between seven and eleven—not counting boss stages), and the levels themselves certainly seem longer in Tropical Freeze. There’s also some unlockable content which we won’t mention here, but we will point out that the balance of content has been shifted notably from mainline content to hidden stages: in other words, the full adventure might seem shorter, but only if you don’t take the time to look for secret exits (leading to additional levels) and other goodies.
And, most importantly, the quality of the levels hasn’t really wavered. One of DKCR’s most impressive accomplishments was the fusion of stunning cinematics and lush environments with fundamentally solid platforming gameplay. Tropical Freeze seems every bit as well-tuned, with meticulously-detailed backgrounds (complete with diverse and dynamic elements, such as barrels and leaves in the backdrop that react to DK’s ground-pounding) and an excessive assortment of ancillary animations, such as customized destructive sequences for when your barrel rocket inevitably explodes into a wooden tower or giant rock, bringing the obstacle down in flames with it.
Progression through the levels is also ever more unpredictable, with barrels blasting DK every which way, and creative (never obstructive) camera angles accentuating the trip. It’s this sort of generous application of veteran polish in conjunction with the excellent gameplay that makes the overall experience feel so rich and valuable. It’s as dense as it is expansive—and Retro’s brilliance shines through once again, further solidifying their role as the 90s-era Rare of the 2000s.
It's different enough, and it's fun. 'Nuff said.
In terms of challenge, Tropical Freeze kicks it up a notch from DKCR—shockingly. There are now even more secrets lining every stage, with a larger number of secret exits and some really tricky puzzle pieces. Fortunately, you don’t have to find all of it to see all of the game’s stages—just some of it. Without getting specific, the hidden content is brutally difficult too: even tougher than that of DKCR. Less-experienced gamers will appreciate the return of purchasable perks and augmentations in Funky’s shop, ranging from an extra heart to an invincibility potion which kicks in after the first hit.
In other words, yes, at its heart, this is more of a great thing—and, like nearly all great modern platformers, its brilliance lies less within its foundational design than in the permutation of the basic principles of the genre to produce a unique, fresh-feeling experience in each new level. Tropical Freeze is every bit as successful as DKC Returns when it comes to the overall impression and presentation of its stages, and it’s equally well-designed in the realm of mechanics, too.
Funky has been relegated to shop duties. My, how things have changed.
The six worlds manage a more varied assortment of themes and concepts, too, with such unconventional notions as braving a forest filled with fruit harvesting equipment or platforming (with Rambi the rhino, no less) through tornadic conditions. There’s even an African safari-themed area, complete with cheery chants, dancing trees, and rhythmically bouncing celebratory figures that you have to climb on. And though we love to hate them, the swimming levels feature such memorable sequences as being chased by a massive squid who wants nothing more than to kill you, whether by tentacle or floods of ink. Nearly every level has a scripted excuse of the sort for why you’re dealing with the challenges in front of you, and that’s part of what makes the effort worthwhile.
Returning once more to the topic of aesthetics, Tropical Freeze is predictably bolstered by its newfound HD chops. It’s one of the most gorgeous games on the Wii U yet, with vibrant, richly-animated sights and a still-fluid 60 fps frame rate underneath it all. But David Wise’s return to the audio team (along with Yamamoto) is equally significant; his contributions in Tropical Freeze feel right at home, almost as if it’s 1994 all over again. With a massive assortment of songs, too, the material never really wears out its welcome. You’ll find equal parts new and remixed, with series favorites like the three songs I mentioned at the beginning of this review receiving extra attention (and frequent interlacing throughout various other tunes in the game).
The environment choices are unique and welcomed.
Songs are highly atmospheric and dynamic as well, frequently shifting their instrumentation and intensity to match the current situation in the stage (i.e., underwater, chaotic, etc.). The only gripe, if any, is the fact that the game relies 100% on MIDI, and not always that of the highest quality. In an age where many games (including most of Nintendo’s flagship titles) are including live instruments and orchestras as parts of their soundtracks, it’s always a bit of a disappointment when we regress once more to merely simulating those things.
There are a few additional extras, such as collectible artwork, music, and other items, and a Time Trial mode for each of the game’s stages. You’ll also find quick and easy access to leaderboards for each level. But the largest of these is the co-op multiplayer, which works fairly well as long as both players are good enough to progress through the levels (which, again, can get to be very difficult). The camera always follows the player in front in this mode, though it is always possible for the second player to leap onto DK’s back and ride along instead. On vehicular levels (mine carts, rocket barrels, etc), both players ride together—fortunately. The multiplayer doesn’t fare as well as any of the recent Mario titles, but it’s still a fun inclusion.
Still gorgeous, but even better in HD.
All in all, while it doesn’t break a lot of new ground, Tropical Freeze is an excellent HD follow-up to a fantastic Wii game. It’s just one more reason for platforming lovers to consider a Wii U.