Donkey Kong Country Returns set the bar pretty high for future platformers when it released on the Wii back in 2010, but even though it was close to perfect, I still managed to struggle a bit with its forced motion control support. After a handful of delays, Retro Studios has released its direct sequel — Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze — for the Wii U and has thankfully addressed the motion control concerns I had with Returns four years ago. The end result is not only the most amazing platformer I’ve experienced in almost two decades, but one of the absolute best games I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing through.[youtube http://youtu.be/HSxDAyit9ak]
Just as DK and the gang are about to blow out the candle on his banana birthday cake, a swarm of viking-like animals called Snowmads roll up to Donkey Kong Island and claim it as their own. Turning the once-lush island in to a newly frozen fortress, the Snowmad leader blows a large horn that sends DK, Diddy, Cranky and Dixie flying across the sky. Enlisting the help of the Kong family, DK sets off on an adventure to make his way back to Donkey Kong Island and reclaim it as their own once more.
Like DKC Returns, Tropical Freeze is a very challenging platformer set in various gorgeous landscapes. While Donkey Kong Country Returns offered up 9 different worlds to play through, Tropical Freeze only offers 6, but the variety in every single level is astounding. Even though each world features some form of platforming, swimming or riding a mine cart, each level does so in a different way that makes it feel unique.
For instance, riding a mine cart in one level may offer a traditional Donkey Kong Country experience, while the next may switch to a 3D perspective and task you with jumping between 5 different tracks to avoid hazards. Some levels may mix platforming and swimming in smaller doses while some of the later levels will be fully dedicated to swimming around in the pitch dark (complete with Limbo-style silhouettes), letting you light the way by dashing through schools of neon colored fish. There was never a dull moment in Tropical Freeze and no world or level ever overstayed its welcome with me.
Graphically, Tropical Freeze is probably the most visually impressive title on Nintendo’s current-gen console, which is an impressive feat as its mostly a 2D platformer and wasn’t made by Nintendo themselves. Character models for the enemies were just as well designed as the members of the Kong family, featuring viking-themed variations of owls, rabbits, walrus and seals. You can tell that Retro Studios put a lot of TLC in to Tropical Freeze after playing through just a few levels, especially as DK sits down with Diddy on his back and you guys play Pac-Man together while you’re controller is idle. It’s small things like that, that really show that quality was a huge concern of both Retro Studios and Nintendo.
Although the character models were top notch — realistic animal fur and all — what really stole the show was the level design. Every environment is meticulously detailed and has so much going on in the background that I had no choice but to move along slowly to take it all in; so much so that I probably chalked up about 10 deaths just gazing at the goings on in the background.
One level in particular takes place during a tornado, and you can see different layers of grass and debris getting blown in every which direction. Another level is set in what resembles an African desert, requiring DK to leap from large animal puppets while trees and platforms dance along to the Lion King-style background music, courtesy of returning veteran Donkey Kong Country composer, David Wise.
David Wise was absent for Donkey Kong Country Returns, and even though Returns offered a respectable soundtrack, his absence is made even more apparent during his masterful collection presented in Tropical Freeze. What’s more is that Retro Studios took his music a step further and had certain levels constantly evolve with the musical notes in the background; deeper bass notes will emit gusts of air from large horns that DK can use to reach higher platforms, etc..
New to the Donkey Kong universe is the Kong Pow attack. Collecting bananas fills up a separate meter that allows DK and his chosen bro-op buddy to unleash a unique, screen-clearing attack that differs depending on who is riding along on his back. Each of the Kong’s already grant you two additional life hearts and offer DK their own special ability — Dixie’s pigtail spin to glide and jump higher, Diddy’s jetpack to glide across gaps and Cranky’s Ducktales-style pogostick attack that also lets you bounce on spiked floors — but they also transform each enemy affected by Kong Pow in to a different useful object. Diddy, for instance, will change enemies in to extra lives while Cranky turns them to coins and Dixie in to golden hearts, which acts as an armor of sorts for your health meter.
I found myself going through a large majority of the game with Dixie Kong as I preferred her pigtail spin to the other two alternatives, but swapping to Diddy was more ideal if I was in need of a few extra lives. Cranky was more beneficial for swimming levels as his cane attack could take out spiked puffer fish that would otherwise need to be avoided altogether by carefully swimming around them. You can change your platforming partner at various barrels scattered throughout the levels, but you also have the option to visit Funky Kong’s shop to purchase extra lives, various life-saving items and barrels that allow you to start a level with the Kong of your choice.
As I mentioned earlier in the review, Tropical Freeze is a very challenging game. If you’re familiar with the advanced difficulty of Donkey Kong Country Returns, you’ll have a better idea of what you’re up against, but I personally feel that Tropical Freeze is even more difficult. The beauty of Tropical Freeze‘s challenge is that no death ever feels cheap. The game controls so well and every level is finely tuned that if you miss that jump or crash your rocket barrel in to a rock, it’s always your fault, but you’ll learn from your mistake, dust yourself off and try again. Hell, I lost 27 lives in the second-to-last level just on one part, but each time I got further and further until I got the pattern down and in the end, victory never tasted so sweet.
The Donkey Kong Country series has always offered up some great boss fights, and Tropical Freeze is no different. Each boss has its own unique pattern and challenging learning curve, but again, no death ever feels cheap. Learning each boss’s pattern is the key to victory and all six bosses change their tactics as they inch closer to death, requiring quick reflexes and the need to adapt on the fly. I thoroughly enjoyed each of the six boss fights and found them all to be more enjoyable than any offered in Returns — and that isn’t meant to discredit Returns in any way.
I actually hold Returns in high regard and since its release I have often touted it as one of the best games the Wii has in its extensive library of quality titles. The only thing that held Returns back for me was getting used to the forced implementation of motion control commands, and thankfully Retro Studios offers a wide array of control schemes that soothe even the most savage of beasts. Aside from using the Wii U Gamepad, you can also choose to use the Wii U Pro Controller or a Motion Plus Wiimote. Even more, you can swap between using the classic D-pad to going the analog route, but there is oddly no option to use both at the same time.
This brings me to my only single complaint with Tropical Freeze, and that’s not having the ability to switch between the analog stick and the D-pad without pausing the game and switching my control scheme through the options menu. I stress that this isn’t really a big deal as both control schemes are rock solid and extremely responsive, but I tended to favor using the classic D-pad during platforming sections and the analog for swimming.
I know there was an initial gripe with Tropical Freeze not using the Wii U Gamepad screen for any sort of menu navigation or anything, which is true, but the weight of that complaint is going to vary from player to player. Personally, I don’t care as I tend to pay more attention to my TV than I do the Gamepad, but you do have the option to play off-screen by changing your primary output from television to Gamepad in the options menu. So basically off-screen play is there, but if you’re not using it your Gamepad screen will just be blacked out. I prefer the Wii U Pro Controller myself, so this really wasn’t a concern of mine.
If you’re looking for something to play with your friends, Tropical Freeze also offers a solid co-op mode where your Ninten-bro can take control of Diddy, Dixie or Cranky while you handle the big man himself.
Overall, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze has set a new standard in terms of 2D platforming, which is a bold statement as that’s something that’s usually reserved for Super Mario Bros or Rayman as of late. If you own a Wii U and haven’t picked up Tropical Freeze yet, you owe it to yourself as a fan of video games to check it out, especially if you’re in to platformers. My initial playthrough lasted just shy of 9 hours and I have every intention of going back through each level to collect all of the KONG letters and puzzle pieces. Scores this high are usually reserved for special occasions, but Tropical Freeze is, indeed, a special occasion.
Bradley Keene is an avid gamer & freelance blogger from Baltimore, MD who typically handles news and reviews here at What’s Your Tag?. If he’s not knee-deep in an RPG or some form of Nintendo game, he’s usually watching terrible horror films or listening to Gwar. Follow him on Twitter @amgfail_WYT, or contact him by e-mail at email@example.com.