The Donkey Kong Country games are almost the perfect package for a gamer like me. Their artistic direction is fantastically realised, their soundtracks are some of the greatest pieces ever showcased in a video game and the gameplay is en pointe, balancing perfectly between a feeling of challenge and a feeling of accessibility. Retro Studio’s first game in the franchise, Returns, was a welcome “return” (sorry) for the franchise. There were a few shortcomings – namely the unimaginative enemy designs and the reliance on motion controls – but the game was largely an enjoyable romp that harkened back to the good old days of the original Donkey Kong trilogy while modernising it to a point where it looked great and had a much more alive and dynamic feel. It was difficult to imagine Retro could possibly top what they established with Returns. But they have. And it’s called Tropical Freeze.
Tropical Freeze is similar to any Donkey Kong game in that the story is fairly simplistic and serves no real purpose other than to provide an excuse for Donkey Kong to move from area to area to reach his goal. The game opens with Donkey Kong, Diddy Kong, Dixie Kong and Cranky Kong all celebrating a birthday, when suddenly a group of Viking-like enemies, the Snowmads, launch a siege on Kong Island. Their enigmatic leader unleashes a blizzard that freezes the island completely and blows the Kongs far away from their home. In a bid to reclaim their cherished home, Donkey Kong and his sidekicks travel through the archipelago of Kong Island to defeat the Snowmad.
Probably the worst thing about Returns were the Tiki Tribe. They were a replacement for the Kremlins and they weren’t the most interesting of enemies. Which begs the question – are the Snowmads up to par? In short, they definitely are. Almost every enemy is presented with such personality and pizzazz that it’s hard not to love them as you take them down. It’s by no means a replacement for the now beloved Kremlins from the original games, but it is pretty close. Donkey Kong and his pals still look as emotive as ever; helping add more personality and, dare I say it, charm, to a very simplistic story.
Tropical Freeze provides a myriad of control options for players and it’s most certainly welcome. Players can use the Wii Remote, the GamePad, the Wii U Pro Controller or the tried and true Wii Remote and Nunchuk. All of these control methods have their pros and cons, but the game plays best with the GamePad or the Pro Controller. Neither of them use motion controls to activate manoeuvres such as rolling and as such feel closest to the original games and quite honestly, feels the proper way they are meant to be played. Control methods can be swapped and chosen at the beginning of the game or mid-game in the options menu so there’s room to move if players change their minds.
Each of Donkey Kong’s sidekicks have their own unique abilities which players can employ to help find the multitude of secrets scattered through each level. Diddy can hover (as in Returns), Dixie can use her ponytail as a helicopter for a momentary boost and slow fall rate (think Yoshi’s flutter jump) while Cranky can use his cane to bounce off of spiky surfaces. All of these abilities are required in one way or another throughout the game, and the game generally gives players each character (in their own marked barrel) prior during single player.
During multiplayer, however, you’ve got to hope that your partner has chosen a compatible character otherwise some bonuses or collectibles will be missed. Once again, these are changeable in the main menu or options – and even if you don’t have the right character, most collectibles are still obtainable (but might require a sacrifice or two). Rambi returns as an animal buddy and is still on his own, while Squawks returns as an item that can be purchased from Funky Kong to alert players to when a secret nearby. It is a simple system, but it helps things remain focused.
The level design is, on the whole, absolutely fantastic. The Donkey Kong games do have a reputation for being rather difficult, and this is especially true of Tropical Freeze, though items can alleviate some of this stress. Each level is well crafted to take advantage of all the Kong’s abilities – especially when trying to go for collectibles, which will separate more novice players from more experienced ones. Boss battles are well designed too, eschewing the traditional “jump on them three times” design and instead providing more dynamic and unpredictable encounters. And unlike a certain other Nintendo platformer, they are genuinely difficult. In games, boss battles should be a culmination of all you’ve learnt in the game so far to test the player, and in that regard most of Tropical Freeze’s offerings are incredibly successful. They’re fast and they’re enjoyable.
There’s a lot of levels and a lot of worlds, and more importantly, a lot of secrets to find in the Kong Island archipelago. For the average player, a combination of the game’s harrowing difficulty and lengthy adventure will net the player roughly twelve to fifteen hours of gameplay, but those who want to go back and get absolutely everything will easily stretch this beyond twenty hours. Multiplayer is included, and much like with Returns it works well – less experienced players can even jump on Donkey Kong’s back and ride with him should a segment of a level be too difficult for them to complete on their own.
Other modes include a time attack mode, hard mode, and there’s even a secret world to get through too. Time attack mode is particularly enjoyable and noteworthy as it allows players to upload their replays of their speed runs to Miiverse, which is a fantastic use of Nintendo’s online infrastructure and a good way to keep things competitive within the community.
Without a doubt the aspect Retro Studios always gets right with their games is presentation and Tropical Freeze is no exception. Every single one of the game’s levels feels absolutely unique and while assets may be reused from time to time, it’s barely noticeable. It’s astonishing how much work the team has put into each level, especially considering most players will not spend more than ten to fifteen minutes in each. Everything feels alive and moving in both the foreground and the background, without being too distracting to the player. The Kongs themselves look as great as ever too – especially Donkey and Funky who sport some of the most realistic looking fur I’ve not seen in a video game since Starfox Adventures and Conker: Live and Reloaded. In short, this is a game that looks absolutely amazing and do anything in half measures in terms of presentation.
Which brings us to the soundtrack – which is composed by Kenji Yamamoto, of Metroid Prime fame and David Wise, who composed a large majority of the soundtrack for the original trilogy. As with the visuals, the game’s soundtrack is absolutely phenomenal. Remixes of old music from the original trilogy breathe new life into levels where they might not have seemed appropriate in the first place. Original pieces give a sense of vibrancy and dynamicity to levels – one of which made me feel like I was participating in a production of The Lion King. The team working on the game’s sound have truly outdone themselves here and in some instances even topped the original trilogy. There, I said it.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze manages to not only succeed the previous game, Returns, but completely eclipse it. The level design is fantastic from both gameplay and presentation perspectives, the score has a perfect combination of brilliantly executed old and new and most importantly – it’s fantastic fun. There’s very little games that I can recommend unconditionally to anyone, but chances are if you’re a Wii U owner, you must own this game. One of the unequivocally greatest platforming games to grace the industry.