The E3 event can be a strange beast, as the unveiling of a sequel to one of the Wii's finest platformers was met with wails of despair in some corners. A number of fans, including this writer, wanted a fresh project from Retro that was either Metroid or something new, and instead we received Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. It's perhaps also peculiar that this has been argued by some as a lazy choice, considering the studio made three Metroid Prime games in a row; in those stakes, good old DK is still one game behind.
In any case, Tropical Freeze faces a challenge to both match and surpass the excellent Donkey Kong Country Returns, and in our time with the game so far it's on its way to achieving just that. What made the Wii game memorable was its continuing ability to ramp up spectacle and challenge in later stages, which we can't judge in a preview, but in around half a dozen hours we've seen plenty of familiarity and clever touches to suggest another strong showing from the ever-popular Retro Studios.
The foundations of the Wii title remain in place, with Donkey Kong having a suitably hefty sense of weight and presence on screen; this new title also runs at 60 frames-per-second, and the familiar animations appear as smooth as ever. We believe the developers when they say that the extra resources of the Wii U have also allowed improved animation, as DK has never looked or felt better when gambolling through stages. As before Diddy Kong is a buddy that gives him a little extra distance in his jump due to his jet pack, while Dixie and Cranky Kong are newcomers. Dixie's ability to add a little extra height to a jump proves useful, while Cranky's DuckTales-style cane / pogo is also particularly helpful for easily traversing spiked pits or taking out horned enemies — some levels give you specific buddies, though in others there's a rotating barrel that lets you choose. Having a buddy also gives you the KONG POW move when you collect 100 bananas — when the meter is full you tap a shoulder button and all enemies on screen are turned into useful items; each buddy prompts different items from this move.
The buddy's qualities vary underwater, too, and that's one of the most important changes in this title; in fact, it wastes no time in throwing you into water to make that very point. Dixie, for her part, gives a quick and smooth stroke, while Cranky amusingly swings his cane as a weapon; the swimming works well, avoiding many of the flaws of underwater sections in other games. It works on an instinctive level, which is perhaps the greatest praise that it can be afforded.
Other changes come in various sizes, but even the small tweaks are noticeable; puzzle side-rooms that require the hasty collection of bananas have been shaken up, for example. Cranky, now that he's 'out in the field', is replaced by Funky Kong in shop duties, and his items represent a fine balancing act between maintaining a good level of challenge and helping newcomers through the experience. Coins can now be spent on green and blue balloons — which save you from (most) pitfalls and give you extra time underwater — while other favourites return to boost your resilience. Mine cart and rocket barrel stages — for they are back — now allow two hits by default, while extra hearts and the puzzle piece-seeking parrot return. You can also purchase barrels for each of the companions, so you can always enter a level fully reinforced, while capsule toys will cater to those with collect 'em all instincts.
It's clear that Retro Studios has sought a solution for all-comers here, as in the early running we've been lavished with lives, coins and resources so that the Game Over screen never seems likely — in single player, at least — yet we feel as challenged as we did on Wii, in some cases more so. Additional levels, for example, are no longer simply accessed from buying a key of collecting all KONG letters, but in some cases are actually hidden in alternate exits, some of which still have us scratching our heads. Boss battles are also a step up, with more detailed attack patterns and, it seems, they're taking a good time longer to defeat. Levels in general can take up to ten minutes on a first run — longer if you die frequently — if you're exploring and trying to find secrets; the stage design hasn't let us down so far.
In fact, we will say that Retro's lost none of its creativity, and this title does surprise on multiple occasions. It takes advantage of new environments — the windmill-populated second world and Savannah world three stand out so far — to try fresh tricks or expand on those of Returns. The dynamic 3D camera — which rotates to give a wow factor to some set-pieces — is utilised surprisingly often, and there are tweaks beyond standard platforming that demonstrate the playfulness expected as standard from a first-party title. You'll find yourself engaging in plenty of play from new camera angles, taking the 2.5D aspect of Returns beyond simplistic depth of field to a perspective far more notable. The plot is fluff, though it rarely matters beyond "DK must defeat such-and-such", but the winter-themed Viking animals appear in various enjoyable guises, again helping Tropical Freeze to establish its own identity.
Retro's been busy in other ways too, and a feature sure to excite speedrunners, and those that simply like to watch masters in action, is the updated Time Attack option. While you can still chase medals in all completed levels, you can also set the game to automatically record your gameplay; when you set a new record you can upload your time. What's exciting is that when you view the online leaderboards, those that recorded their time when connected have replays to view; you simply click the entry and, within seconds, the replay is temporarily downloaded for you to watch. This will likely add a serious amount of replay value and, in our early runs with only a few entries on the boards, admittedly, it's worked perfectly.
As before, two player local multiplayer is a feature and, in our time with the co-op to date, works in much the same way as before. It still doesn't feel like a particularly essential part of the experience, though player two can choose from any of the companions — this can oddly be a disadvantage in early levels catered to specific companions — but losing lives and progressing more with chaotic abandon is standard for this mode. Multiple control schemes are available again, either mimicking the Wii original or, with the GamePad and Wii U Pro Controller, matching the 3DS Returns port's waggle-free alternatives. You still roll and pound as before, meanwhile, though the blowing mechanic — used so frequently in the Wii title — has been ditched; instead we have a new move where the characters can pull items out of the ground. This is actually used a little less than the blowing in Returns, so those than felt stopping to blow every dandelion killed momentum should be pleased.
It's also worth noting that, so far, the GamePad has only been notable for off-TV play, with no other mechanics that we've seen — as a result our pad of choice has been the Pro Controller.
Our early impressions are extremely positive for Tropical Freeze, and we're eager to see how the whole experience stacks up when many more hours and levels are down. It's a natural evolution from Returns with its new features and outstanding visuals — the Wii title was no slouch — while we should also give a shout-out to the music, in which the original composer David Wise is involved; it's outstanding. To date we've enjoyed nostalgic moments — charging through a level with Rambi never gets old — and been charmed by fresh touches and ideas. The lack of GamePad implementation beyond off-TV play is an early surprise, but nevertheless we're full of optimism for the remainder of this title.
If you'll excuse us, we now have more evil wintry animals to face-off against.
Below is a highlights reel of World 1, with Damien (Diddy) and Tom (DK) playing in co-op. More highlights videos for other worlds will be posted in the coming days.