Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze Review
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
Ain't no business like monkey business
It says much for the level of expectation placed upon Nintendo and Retro Studios that some questioned the decision to revisit the world of Donkey Kong for Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, yet that initial reaction should be pushed aside. Anyone that discounts this title due to the fact it’s not the exact franchise they wanted is missing out, as the brilliant Donkey Kong Country Returns gets a sequel that should be cherished by enthusiastic gamers looking for a challenge. We’ll break some suspense right away — Tropical Freeze does not disappoint.
The last time that DK had a run of core platforming titles was in the days of Rare and the Super NES, after which the ambitious Donkey Kong 64 and Donkey Kong Jungle Beat — among others — explored new directions and experimented with the brand. The aptly named Returns on Wii naturally brought comparisons between Retro Studios and the iconic Rare, especially as the Texas Studio had taken a major diversion from its Metroid Prime Trilogy and delivered a platformer of the highest standard. It’s earned a reputation as a go-to development studio for high quality, lovingly crafted games.
Tropical Freeze suitably continues the reborn series, then, and fans of the Super NES Donkey Kong platformers and Returns can rejoice. Returns successfully maintained the spirit of its predecessors with a modern feel, utilising the available technology for impressive physics that gave DK a feeling of weight and presence suitable for an enormous tie-wearing ape. These latest titles can stand toe-to-toe with their illustrious 16-bit predecessors and share a common ground, and this Wii U entry does much to honour what’s come before.
The initial impression of Tropical Freeze is undoubtedly impressive. The upgrade to HD courtesy of the Wii U’s capabilities is striking, especially as the Wii title was such a visual achievement. We may have experienced amusement as well as affection when Satoru Iwata referenced HD fur at E3 2013, but the Nintendo President wasn’t kidding. It is eye-catching.
The core worlds also take turns between playing with the standard world tropes and mixing things up, with the varied environments allowing Retro’s designers breathing space to flex their creative muscles. In fact, it’s within seconds that you’re bashing your way out of a plane and high-diving into water, bringing a much-demanded return to swimming. We’re not sure how elegantly apes actually swim but the mechanic is impeccable here, with basic movement, an equivalent of a roll and buddy-specific moves instinctive and natural to use. There are moments when swimming is extensively used, and they feel like a pleasing change of pace rather than a chore.
There’s a playfulness and confidence on show throughout, with the six worlds — two shy of that in Returns — maximising their themes. On the surface it’s tempting to query a world count two short of the previous, but the development philosophy has clearly been to produce an entirely engaging, detailed approach to level design; many stages will take up to ten minutes, occasionally beyond, on a first playthrough. Exceptions can be those focused on minecart rides or rocket barrels, both making their return, and while we wouldn’t go so far as to say the longer stages are a superior offering to those of the Wii title, they are often enrapturing and up to Retro Studio’s standards.
Of the environments provided, most feel entirely fresh. Autumn Heights — the second World — is full of windmills, deadly sawmills and an extraordinary level that sees you scaling the heights into the skies. Bright Savannah opens with one of the best stages in the entire game, while gradually introducing clever one-off mechanics such as fire-dousing, while a barrel-heavy stage in the following world greatly shows off the new dynamic 3D camera. As the worlds progress there’s slightly more familiar ground, but only a faint familiarity, and the level design becomes even more eccentric. While a 2D platformer at its core, Retro Studios occasionally makes the most of the dynamic camera that it’s created to shake up the formula.
The overall effect while progressing is one of continual surprise and delight. The attention to detail is both a credit to the hardware and the development team, too, enlivening the backgrounds with subtle animations and nods to fans. Enemy designs are also exceptional, with fluent animations and often humourous behaviours. Boss fights, which appear at the end of each world, are also a step up from what came before, with more phases and tougher patterns this time around. They add to the cinematic flair that is a frequent feature, with personality that wouldn’t be out of place in a Pixar movie.
This title also benefits hugely from the return of David Wise, who was once Rare's sole in-house musician and served as the composer for the original Donkey Kong Country; here, he has produced an outstanding soundtrack to accompany the impressive landscapes. This is quality music produced by an expert ear, and this title is one of a number from Nintendo in recent times that dispels any doubt over the value of the audio experience.
To this point we’ve focused on environments and the surprise factor that imbues each level, as those are the elements that have stuck with us. It would all be for nought, of course, if the handling and controls weren’t just right. First up it’s worth emphasizing that the framerate is locked at 60fps, bringing a smoothness to gameplay that is absolutely vital. Those that played and enjoyed Returns either on the Wii or 3DS, meanwhile, should know what to expect with controls, as this title supports the various options seen before. DK and his buddies run, jump grab and pound the ground, with a pulling mechanic replacing the blow of the Wii title.
For those that enjoyed the tactile feel of motion controls for pounding and rolling, the Wii Remote on its own or with a Nunchuk are supported. Our preference is a motion-free control scheme, however, and the GamePad and Wii U Pro Controller give the exact same options. While it’s possible to control movement with the D-Pad and utilise a dash button, the analogue stick means that the focus is solely on the face and shoulder buttons for Donkey Kong’s key moves; in itself this moveset is more complicated than many of Nintendo’s platforming titles, so those jumping in as newcomers will need time to adjust.
The motion-free controls do mean that once you’re familiar with the ape’s abilities you’re well equipped for the challenge. There’s a surprising degree of skill required in even early levels, as you transition from swinging, to bouncing to rolling, often in precise patterns. We never saw a game over screen as the title lavished us with extra lives, but we died plenty of times. This is a tough challenge, with just one small section that did, we feel, provide excessive difficulty through a slightly flawed opportunity to roll jump. Retro Studios has adopted tough love in stripping away the Super Guide, opting instead for assist items and even allowing two hits as default in mine cart and rocket barrel levels. The Funky Kong store sells special balloons — purchased with banana coins found in levels — that save you from most falls or provide extra oxygen underwater, as well as alternatives that allow more hits or temporary invincibility. There’s plenty of currency to go around, and less skilful players will be keeping Funky’s shop in business.
As before, DK needs help, and while Diddy Kong remains a valuable option with his jump-lengthening jetpack, Dixie and Cranky arrive to add their own skillsets. Dixie’s Helicopter Spin provides more air-time and a little extra height, while Cranky Kong’s Cane Bounce — with an obvious similarity to DuckTales — gives a little extra height and the ability to jump (or bounce, to be more accurate) on the heads of helmet-wearing enemies or spikes. Underwater the abilities are different again, with Dixie having a useful propeller effect and Cranky swinging his cane at the amphibious enemies within range.
In the early running the game assigns you particular partners as you find barrels, and levels are clearly designed to cater to specific abilities, with some areas only reachable with that character’s ability. As you progress through the campaign the barrels rotate on the spot, giving you the choice of which companion to use. Some may opt for a preferred buddy, but the intention is to judge the environment and, in the case of secret exits and collectibles, replay stages with alternative companions to get different jobs done.
And replayability is strong for single players, with "KONG" letters once again vital in each stage; collecting them all is imperative to see the whole game. Puzzle pieces are for completionists, with images unlockable, while each world’s hidden levels can be deviously difficult to find. Unlike the simple option in Returns of buying a key, this time around you have to find portals within specific levels; the world map and summary screens offer clues of where exits can be found, but they are tricky to track down. The satisfaction of finding a hidden area that’s eluded you for a long spell is particularly gratifying, and in general the task of beating this game 100% requires a great deal of skill, patience and time. As a result the campaign can be anything from 10-14 hours, to more like 20 and beyond — it’s down to individuals and their desire to see the job through.
Even after the campaigning is done, Tropical Freeze has an extra offering catered to compulsive, competitive experts or those seeking greater longevity. Time trials for each level are back, with bronze, silver and gold medals to be won; the hook this time is that you can connect online and, if happy with your run, record it for prosperity with online leaderboards. The extra string in the bow is the fact that a replay of your run is also saved for others to watch; a friend keen to see how you bested their time can simply sit back and see for themselves. With speedrunning such a key aspect of platformers, in particular, this is a terrific feature — if the number one time seems implausible to you it’s possible, assuming the player allowed a replay to be taken at the time of the run, to learn how it was done. The possibilities for discovering shortcuts and tricks from the best players is exciting, and in our pre-launch tests the whole process was intuitive and quick.
At this stage you may be wondering what, if anything, Tropical Freeze does wrong. Very little is the short answer, but for its moments of brilliance there are areas where the title falls short of perfection. Multiplayer is an obvious area, for while it’s functional and fun with a friend in the right frame of mind, it feels like an inclusion out of obligation rather than design.
We’ve mentioned that buddies and their abilities can be critical in some stages, but in some cases they’re not just vital for finding hidden areas but also for basic progress. In fact, with the role of alternative skills from the accompanying characters this feels like even more of a single player focused game than its predecessor. While the second player can choose their character of choice — player one is DK — the levels feel less tightly wound, and play takes on a looser, more chaotic aspect. Another minor complaint is that the option to add a new player when into the main game is within a pause menu and, in our experience, can be unintuitive; a quick drop-in and drop-out screen in the world view would avoid that confusion. While the multiplayer is enjoyable overall, it joins the list of other 2D platformers that struggle to translate to two-player co-op.
There can be moments, to give an example, where a stage with many spikes is far more accessible with Cranky Kong in single player. In multiplayer, and if the other player is Diddy or Dixie, the difficulty ramps up, and it becomes a scramble to finish while sacrificing as few lives as possible. Even the Kong Pow move — accumulated with 100 bananas and used to obliterate on screen enemies to be turned into items — is bizarrely tricky to execute. A simple button press in single player, in co-op player two must hop on DK’s back, which is not adequately explained in the game, which is followed by a co-ordinated button. The principle is sound, but levels that ebb and flow in single player become stop-start affairs. That’s not to say that co-op isn’t an enjoyable endeavour, but it fails to keep adequate company with the single player experience while the difficulty of the game will, we should warn, frustrate younger or less skilled gamers.
We must also address the well-publicised issue of the GamePad’s role. While off-TV is very welcome, its lack of use is surprising when the importance and prominent role of this title is considered. It’s just a large Pro Controller, with the screen fading to black during play. While we would never advocate tacky functionality added for no good reason, it’s striking that this title does nothing to utilise what it has to offer. This game doesn’t even use basic functions, like those in Super Mario 3D World, for playful, fun ideas. Retro Studios made the call that it was simply going to use the power of the hardware and stick to its template; it’s an admirable stance, especially as the experience is so full of variety, but it’s also a missed opportunity. We don’t want unnecessary gimmickry, but occasional innovation could have added to the experience. This title, in a parallel universe, could exist on a Wii HD without such a thing as the GamePad, and that seems like a pity.
Those minor complaints shouldn’t overrule or override the emphasis on all that is wonderful about Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze, however. Retro Studios has again combined technological mastery, through stunning visuals and clever camerawork, with a flair for design. Whether the background is a vibrant safari, a cave or beach in sunset, there’s a thrill in exploring every nook and cranny or, occasionally, running riot with Rambi the Rhino. There are flourishes and surprises at regular intervals, whether in subtle animations of our animal heroes or in blindly spending money on collectible toys from a Capsule machine. Everywhere you look there’s another addition that is meaningless on the surface, yet vital to making the game a success.
Retro Studios has demonstrated once again that it can take a treasured Nintendo franchise and keep it relevant, with modern thrills and retro nods expertly combined. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze utilises the Wii U’s graphical capabilities beautifully, with levels both stunning in design and looks, and impressive set-pieces that never skip a frame and can test any gamer’s skills. As a single player experience it is near flawless, but the precision of the level design can lead the often fun multiplayer into moments of chaos.
It’s another excellent title on Wii U, and a demonstration of how skilful developers and powerful hardware can be combined for spectacular results. Small touches and masterful contributions, such as the music of David Wise, only add to the experience, and this joins the lengthening list of must-have Wii U games.