We’re in an era of 2D platformers when it comes to Nintendo, whether you like that fact or not. It started with games like New Super Mario Bros., Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Donkey Kong Country Returns and Kirby’s Return to Dreamland.
Late in the console’s life, the Wii became a bastion for these 2D, first party titles. For a while, it was wonderful.
Then Nintendo beat the drum a little too frequently. We saw New Super Mario Bros. Wii, New Super Mario Bros. 2, New Super Mario Bros. U, and New Super Luigi U. The 2D formula has started to wear a little thin for some potential gamers, which would explain the immense outpouring of love and support for the recent Super Mario 3D World.
But, here we are again. We have a brand new 2D title to inspect and enjoy. From Retro Studios, the same folks that are responsible for both Metroid Prime and Donkey Kong Country Returns, comes Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, a new 2D platformer for the Wii U.
Does it suffer the same feeling of genre exhaustion that bit New Super Mario Bros. U? Or, do DK and his pals rise up to stand as an enjoyable game worth your time and money?
Hangin’ with the Kongs
The whole story with Tropical Freeze, if you haven’t guessed based on the subtitle alone, is that Donkey Kong’s tropical paradise gets blown into a frozen wasteland by an invading viking force. Don’t go expecting the entire game to be a massive collection of slippery ice levels. It’s not, thank goodness.
Just like all the other Donkey Kong Country platformers, Tropical Freeze presents an exceptional selection of environments and areas. Yes, there’s a frozen wasteland. There’s also a savannah, jungle, forest, island and fruit factory. If you were afraid of an icy monotony, dismiss that notion right now. The variety here is noteworthy. No two levels are the same.
The plot beat that brings the viking force to Donkey Kong’s home includes Diddy Kong, Dixie Kong and Cranky Kong. All four characters are present in this game, though not playable unless you add a second human player to the mix.
When playing solo, which is the way I completed this adventure, you’ll always play as Donkey Kong. Think of the other four characters as power-ups or augments. With Diddy, Donkey Kong’s jumps have more hang time. Dixie lets DK jump higher. Cranky Kong offers a normal jump, though his cane can be used exactly like Scrooge McDuck’s in DuckTales, a point that several onlookers noted during my play.
Never played DuckTales? What’s your deal!? Cranky can pogo on his cane as long as you press the jump button again while Donkey Kong is in the air. This pogo let’s you bounce through spikes, for instance, or reach a little higher.
Much like the varied levels, these separate Kongs make it possible to approach each stage with a unique strategy. If the platforming in one area is a little tough, Diddy or Dixie might be your best bet. If one level features a whole lot of spikes or horned enemies, you might want to roll through with Cranky Kong on your shoulders.
I did find that my personal preference swung towards Dixie or Diddy, leaving Cranky as the odd ape out. Cranky’s pogo ability was fun, make no mistake, but I didn’t find it as useful in this platformer as Dixie or Diddy.
Odd GamePad Use and Frustrating Boss Fights
I’ll swing back to pouring compliments on the visuals, level design and music in Tropical Freeze, but I wanted to create an entire section for what I feel will be the chief complaints for actual consumers when it comes to this game.
First comes a problem that I felt should be easily dismissed. It will, no doubt, be talked about, though I’m not convinced it’s as bad as others might suggest. When playing Tropical Freeze on your television, the Wii U’s GamePad stays blank. It displays nothing. No level information, no item collection, no quasi mini-map. Nothing.
Tropical Freeze has offscreen play, which of course is a big GamePad feature, but standard play offers no exceptional features on the Wii U exclusive controller.
I’m of two minds here, honestly. I think it’s a little odd that a first party Nintendo game would release that makes no use of the GamePad beyond off-TV play. That sort of bucks against every other title released for the system. I don’t necessarily have a problem with it, especially since I prefered the Wii U Pro Controller for this game, but I do find it odd.
The other part of me, though? I actually like that the GamePad doesn’t show anything as opposed to the alternative. The only other major 2D platforming adventure released by Nintendo so far on the Wii U is New Super Mario Bros. U. In that game, the GamePad mirrors the television exactly. I found that distracting, and I often wished I could disable it entirely during play. That’s done for me in Tropical Freeze, which is why I’m not necessarily “dinging” this title for Retro’s offbeat design decision.
The boss fights here, on the other hand, might deserve some negative buzz. Don’t get me wrong, I like being challenged. Tropical Freeze is a tough little game, one that might make gamers toss their controllers in classic rage. I enjoy that, as weird as that might sound. I like tough platformers a lot.
The boss fights feel cheap at times. Not because they are especially hard, but because they are so long and offer no checkpoints. You’ll wage war on a boss as you learn their typically complicated attack patterns. You’ll get, maybe, 10 minutes into a fight as you figure out when they’ll be open for a beating. Then you’ll die. You’ll miss a pattern change and die.
As there are no checkpoints, you’ll be blasted all the way back to the beginning of the fight. You’ll watch all of their animations and slow attack patterns as you make your way deeper into a battle you’ve already waged once, twice or three times. Because bosses are so easy during the first five minutes, and I mean super easy, I wished they’d automagically checkpointed the battles at the halfway point. That’s not because I didn’t want the challenge again, it’s because the opening bits of each fight actually got boring after replaying a handful of times.
Boring is never good in a game, especially an action platformer that’s otherwise delightful.
That’s Right, It’s “Delightful”
Right. For the two major points that I found problematic in Tropical Freeze, there’s an enormous wealth of the things I flat out adored.
Let’s start with the music. David Wise is back. The original composer responsible for the soundtracks in the SNES entries in this series makes a triumphant return here. The tunes in Tropical Freeze are wonderful. Water levels return, and the music they bring is just as glorious as the stuff you might remember from 20 years ago. I’m still humming tunes from stages I beat weeks ago.
Retro Studios also went crazy with referential nods. Whether it’s dropping Samus’ ship from Metroid Prime in the background of a level or having Donkey Kong whip out a 3DS during his idle stance in order to play Animal Crossing: New Leaf, the subtle prods at Nintendo’s aging library are all fantastic.
Then there are the cart levels. The cart levels in Donkey Kong games going all the way back to the original Country entry on the SNES have always been my favorite levels. They blend a perfect mix of frustration, timing, difficulty and thrill together for what winds up being a memorable stage. The cart levels of are here, and they offer crazy twists like log flumes, fruit slicing mechs and crumbling environments.
We also see a return of the strange levels that keep DK and his pals in shadow, except for their accessories. You’ll see an example of that in play in the video that heads up this section. These are also fantastic forays into design, and when they do come up, they bring with them an extra layer of style that really doesn’t exist anywhere else during the game.
Finally, and it’s so odd that I’m noting this so far after the revolution of HD gaming, it’s really nice to see a Donkey Kong game in HD. Nintendo’s always had a penchant for making the best of their hardware, regardless of how “underpowered” it might be. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is gorgeous.
Yes, there are 10-15 second load times at the beginning of each level. After that, there were no stutters, framerate drops or slowdowns. The game runs crisply at 60FPS, I believe, and it looks fantastic doing so.
Familiarity be damned, this game feels like a deliberate labor of love from Retro Studios.
Yes. This will feel very familiar. Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D was remade for the Nintendo 3DS not even a year ago. That’s a worthy point of detraction for those who might think that Nintendo is playing it a little safe with sequel selections these days.
However, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a blast. Familiarity be damned, this game feels like a deliberate labor of love from Retro Studios. It’s tough, it’s charming, it’s inventive, it’s aurally wonderful and visually delightful. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is, first and foremost, a lot of fun.
I’m not exactly ready for Nintendo to drop another sequel in this series on us just yet, but I’m in love with what they’ve done so far. It’s not perfect, but this is easily going to be one of the year’s best platformers. Donkey Kong fans should be happy with that. I know I am.