Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze Review
It’s that time again for WiiU and platform game enthusiasts to crack open their wallets as the king of swing is back. When I mean King of Swing, I meant Nintendo’s famous prime ape mascot Donkey Kong and not the late jazz musician and performer Benny Goodman who was known as the “King of Swing”. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (DKC:TF) is the sequel to the excellent Wii title Donkey Kong Country Returns (2010), a return to Donkey Kong’s 2D roots that first began in 1994 on the Super Nintendo Entertainment system and spawned two more sequels in 1995 and 1996. Tropical Freeze is developed by Retro Studios, a western subsidiary of Nintendo who also worked on the Metroid Prime Trilogy and of course, Donkey Kong Country Returns. When Tropical Freeze was shown at E3 2013, people were disappointed. These people wanted Retro Studios to create another instalment in the Metroid series, another established IP or a brand new IP. To them, Tropical Freeze was just another platformer on a console full of platforming titles. Was Tropical Freeze worth the four year wait in the KONGa queue? Yes!
The game kicks off with an incredible looking cut-scene showing Donkey Kong celebrating his birthday surrounded by his loved ones: Diddy Kong, Dixie Kong and Cranky Kong. The cut-scene looks so good that one can easily mistake it for a Pixar or Dreamworks movie scene. As with any other Donkey Kong game, the antagonists, The Snowmads, a group of fearless sea creatures dressed as Vikings sail towards DK Island, the home of the Kong family and convert the once tropical island into a frosty glacier blowing away the Kongs in the process. Donkey Kong and his gang must travel through six neighbouring islands and reclaim back DK Island from these invaders.
I find The Snowmads a lot more interesting as antagonists than the boring, soulless Tikis Tikis, the antagonists in Donkey Kong Country Returns. It’s a shame that we did not get to see the Kremlins return with K.K Rool, the original antagonists from the first three Country games. I personally love them the most. The story is very generic but does it really matter when this game’s focus is on its platforming mechanics — which delivers by the truckload by the way.
A major problem I had with DKC: Returns was the lack of controller options. Being forced to use the Wiimotes and the nun-chuck to control Donkey Kong got tiring especially when you had to forward roll which involved flicking your wrist forward and back. Tropical Freeze quashes this issue by allowing players to pick a control scheme that suits them. There are up to three controller layouts. You can play with the gamePad both on your Television or off-TV play, WiiU Pro controller and with the Wiimote + Numbchuck, Well done to Nintendo and Retro Studios for giving gamers the option to pick their favourite controller scheme. I played the entire game using the WiiU pro controller. This made the game feel like a pure platformer with no motion gimmick that was sadly hindering my enjoyment of the game.
The controls. The game plays the same way you expect from a Donkey Kong Country title. Donkey Kong feels clunky and hefty but strong and nimble. You jump on enemies, grab them and roll into them. Tropical Freeze introduces a brand new power-up called the “Kong Pow attack”. Sitting next to your heart meter is a yellow meter that fills up once you start collecting bananas. Once you fill up this bar, you can unleash the Kong Pow attack which converts all enemies on the screen into extra lives (balloons), medals and bananas. I hardly used this power-up but this is a handy power-up for more in-experienced players.
Diddy, Dixie and Cranky Kong have also returned to help Donkey Kong reclaim DK island from the Snowmads. Cranky Kong plays almost identically to Scrooge McDuck from Capcom’s Ducktales game where he uses a stick to bounce on enemies and spikes. Dixie Kong uses her ponytail to help Donkey Kong reach hard to reach platforms and Diddy Kong uses his jetpack power to make that leap of faith across large gaps between platforms.
Tropical Freeze is Donkey Kong’s first adventure into the jungles of High Definition and the visuals look fantastic. The game’s visual charm still remains intact from Returns but looks even better thanks to the advanced hardware of the WiiU. Backgrounds are rich with shades of beautiful color, enemies are brimming with personality that animate beautifully across the screen. The game runs at a smooth 60fps constantly throughout the game. A technical achievement for Retro Studios. Tropical Freeze is one of the best looking WiiU games on the system, if not THE best looking game so far.
The Donkey Kong Country franchise is well known for its no-nonsense difficulty and Tropical Freeze continues that trend. This game may look cartoony and kiddie to some but it will hand you your gorilla-shaped backside if you rush through a stage carelessly. It is an apple and oranges comparison but Tropical Freeze is the Dark Souls of platforming titles. You will die a lot, but you will be rewarded for your patience and commitment to the game. Extra life balloons pop up often throughout the game but you will lose them faster than gaining them if you choose to be cocky and rush through the game in a hurry. Boss fights are harder but a lot more enjoyable and fun compared to the bosses found in Returns which I personally found a bit dull and predictable.
Like in Returns, each level is littered with incredibly well-hidden jigsaw puzzle pieces and K-O-N-G letters. Collecting all the KONG letters in each stages grants you access to a K-temple stage. These stages separate the men from the boys when it comes to platforming skills so make sure you have plenty of extra lives. Each stage can be played over and over again in Time-Trial mode. Your fastest time can be uploaded to Miiverse and Nintendo’s servers and can be shared amongst other players through a leader board system. You can view videos of others attempts at this stage but be warned, some people are too good at this game so it may depress you.
One of the best things about Tropical Freeze is the incredible amount of diversity in the game’s level design. The game has over 30 stages shared across six worlds and not one stage feels the same. In one stage you are being chased by a giant octopus shooting poisonous ink at you, traversing through a scorching forest engulfed by flames, being blown away by a Savannah storm and my personal favourite, the saw-mill mine-cart stage that throws you out of a mine cart and into a fast moving log on a production conveyer belt. This kind of diversity makes the game always interesting and full of surprises around every corner. It is incredible how Retro Studios crammed so many ideas into DKC Returns but still have so many great “leftover” ideas for Tropical Freeze.
Tropical Freeze also re-introduces swimming stages which were sadly absent from Returns and last seen in Donkey Kong Country 3 eighteen years ago. This is the first time Retro Studios have actually worked on water stages for a Country game. Have they delivered? Yes. The water stages are some of the harder stages which forces you to slow down when swimming through strong currents and avoiding enemies/obstacles. I died quite a lot but hearing a delightfully soothing remix of Aquatic Ambience eased my troubled, frustrated soul.
Another major complaint I had with Returns was the soundtrack. A soundtrack that relied too heavily on, in my eyes butchered remixes of classic Country tracks. Donkey Kong Country has always been well known for having some of the best videogame music in the industry. This was all thanks to David Wise, Eveline Ascher and Robin Beanland who worked on the Country soundtrack at Rare at the time. Retro Studios and Nintendo made the right move by asking David Wise to return and work on the soundtrack for Tropical Freeze. This announcement was shortly made after E3 where the game was revealed to the public during a Nintendo Direct. The moment gamers found out that David Wise was the lead composer for the game alongside Kenji Yamamoto (Metroid Prime composer), hype for the game skyrocketed. That’s how much people love him and respect his musical talent.
Does David Wise still have the musical touch 20 years later? Absolutely. Tropical Freeze’s entire soundtrack curb-stomps Return’s soundtrack with a mixture of jazzy trumpet/sax filled remixes of past Country games and brand new original tracks that sound similar to some of David Wise’s earlier work like Diddy Kong Racing and of course, the Donkey Kong Country series. At least 80% of the tracks in the game are tracks that I will hum for years to come. They are that good. I also really enjoyed some of David Wise’s more ambient soundtracks like Scorch N Torch, Forest Folly and Grassland Groove. To be honest, I enjoyed every single track in the game. David Wise is one of those video game composers who really knows how to create the right track for the right setting and Tropical Freeze is yet another title he can add to his portfolio of musical masterpieces. You can view a playlist of his work here.
Overall, Retro Studios has created and added another game to their track record of high-calibre games. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a fantastic 2D platformer that borrows from its predecessors but keeps the game feeling satisfyingly fresh and modern with tight platforming mechanics , great level design and a fantastic musical score. Easily one of the best games on WiiU, hands down. If Retro Studios made a 3rd Donkey Kong game, I would welcome it. That’s how much I loved Tropical Freeze.