First Impressions: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

Frozen in time?

If there is a rule that Nintendo lives by, it’s that one good turn deserves another. Hence why the E3 2013 revelation that the game Austin, Texas’ Retro Studios has been slaving away on for the past three years is none other than a sequel to Donkey Kong Country Returns isn’t much of a revelation at all. Donkey Kong Country Returns was a huge success, one of the stars of the Nintendo Wii, and its recent double dip on the Nintendo 3DS only reinforced that success. Now here’s Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze for the Nintendo Wii U. There’s much to like about Donkey, Diddy, and now Dixie Kong’s first foray into high definition, but there’s also something missing as well. It lacks that hook, that particular distinction that made each of the original Donkey Kong Country games feel so unique compared to one another.

Part of the problem is that Dixie Kong, the pony-tailed lass that partnered up with Diddy Kong back in Donkey Kong Country 2 and starred in Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble, wasn't playable in Nintendo’s E3 demo. There were five levels on hand, and all five started with Donkey Kong trundling out into the jungle, finding his pal Diddy in a barrel as usual, and then hopping and bopping his way through the levels. The introduction of a new character like Dixie presumably means that the traversal would feel different. Back when, Dixie changed things up because she could helicopter her ponytail about, slowing your descent. Of course, Diddy does that now with his jetpack, and the levels with him feel just like those from Donkey Kong Country Returns, albeit with a new coat of paint.

But even that new coat of paint feels somewhat paltry and thin. Up close, when you’re looking at your results for collecting bananas, K-O-N-G letters, and puzzle pieces in any given level, Donkey’s fur bristles and shines like he just went to the most stylish groomer in town. (Eat your heart out, Star Fox Adventures fur!) Out in the jungle, though, the HD presentation doesn't paint a more vivid and wild portrait of Kong Island. In the first standard run-and-jump stage, the little waddling mynah birds from Returns are still causing trouble, a bit bigger, a bit shinier, but largely the same.

In the mine cart level that follows, the overwhelming familiarity grows. In Donkey Kong Country Returns, Donkey had to jump the cart to dodge falling chunks of ice. This time, it’s flaming airplane wings and rotors. The whole sequence begs the question of why Donkey doesn’t fix the brakes on these accursed carts, but also why Retro Studios didn’t want to shake up the formula for Tropical Freeze’s debut. At least the below-par motion controls of Returns have been removed for playing Tropical Freeze on the Wii U’s GamePad. For those that actually took a liking to the imprecise shaking of the Wii Remote to do Donkey’s crucial roll move – essential for finding collectibles and making those oh so tricky jumps – you can still use the old set up, but the GamePad supports traditional controls.

There’s no denying it all feels smooth. Taking on the demo’s one boss, a fat, tubular walrus who’s one of the band of Viking animals trying to take over Kong’s home, is the same sort of slow, steady exercise in careful dodging as in Returns, but it’s no less fun. It does drag on a long time. The walrus takes many hits rather than the three that used to fell classic Country bosses, which makes it feel a bit tedious, but it works all the same.

That it works is the problem with Tropical Freeze. The last time Retro Studios made its first sequel in a growing franchise, it made something dangerous, something feral. Metroid Prime 2: Echoes was an insane gamble that took the formula of its predecessor, which itself was based on Super Metroid, and twisted into something wholly new. The game has its detractors, saying that the light and dark worlds are too confused and muddled, that the fights against the game’s dark enemies are needlessly drawn out, but they can’t say it wasn’t beautifully risky and it remains a beacon of originality in Nintendo’s catalog of the past fifteen years.

Metroid Prime 2 was the work of studio unafraid of shattering convention. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is the work of a studio and publisher that is dead set on playing it safe and avoiding risk. Is it great to see Donkey Kong Country composer David Wise writing the tunes for this game (which were sadly drowned out by the noise the E3 show floor)? Of course! But why not have something new? This is a new game, a new riff on an old idea, and it should feel that way. It's a smart commercial choice, of course — the Wii original sold very well indeed — but we can't help but feel that something is missing; perhaps that unique hook is waiting further in the game.

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