I must be the odd one of the Donkey Kong fan base, while many praised Donkey Kong Country Returns in 2010 on the Wii I found I couldn’t have cared less about it as I didn’t really enjoy it. In fact it has been 15 years since I last really enjoyed a Donkey Kong game and that was Donkey Kong 64. But even with that I still felt compelled to give the ape another shot and I am glad I did as Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze recaptures the magic of the older games while adding to it to create one of the best 2D platformers in a long time.
Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze begins with Donkey Kong and friends Diddy, Dixie and Cranky celebrating Donkey Kong’s birthday. During this little bit everything seems at peace on DK island but as you would expect this peace is short lived as suddenly from across the water comes a new series of arctic animals which are the enemies known as the Snowmads. In the blow of a horn they freeze Donkey Kong’s island and send Donkey Kong and his friends flying across the ocean and they must start their journey back to save their home.
Level design is key to creating a fun and stable 2D platformer and at all turns Tropical Freeze does this right. Set across 6 islands, each island provides a diverse theme from the other islands and this continues into the very design itself for each level. At no point does any level feel repetitive or like you have been there previously as each level usually adds something new to keep things interesting right up until the end of the game. As you journey across islands levels hold the theme of the African savannah, the traditional jungle, the frozen Donkey Kong island, an island filled with fruit based levels from a fruit factory and even the return of underwater levels. It is a little thing but I was glad to see Donkey Kong able to swim again and so fluently that it makes levels more interesting.
While many of the levels in the game do feel diverse there are definitely a few standouts among the bunch. In one particular level you must ride a mine cart through a sawmill which builds the obstacles out in front of you and halfway through turns into a raft ride, another has you running through a burning savannah requiring that you at times put out fires to proceed, another has you running across a savannah with it dancing to the music and another that literally builds as you go through the level. These may be the standouts for me but each level holds a special place that makes them all fun.
One of the best additions to the game is the dynamic camera which adds new depth to each level it appears in. It doesn’t appear very often but in a selection of levels it adds a new challenge as well as providing some great views. For the purposes of barrel blasting, rocket barrel riding, and riding mine carts the camera added to each level by providing great opportunity to see the amazing design and also provide new challenges such as changing rails and barrel blasting across locations.
The music in the game is also very good. Retro Studios has gotten hold of Donkey Kong Country music master David Wise to create some beautiful and well done scores behind each level. Most levels have some fantastic music to them which is a joy to listen to and make me want to stop just to listen to each one. Particularly when I came across themes I recognized from the older games which have been brilliantly redone, such as the beautiful Aquatic Ambiance.
The ability to change supporting characters is one of the best changes Retro has made to the games as we got to see new ways to play and new opportunities for challenge. As usual we got to see Diddy as a supporting character, but we also got to see the return of Dixie and the introduction of Cranky as a playable character. At different points each character has their use but mostly they are used for their additional jumping abilities. Diddy helps to keep you hovering for longer, Dixie adds a form of double jump and Cranky uses his cane like a pogo stick to jump on enemies and little spikes in the ground. Through most of my playthrough I spent my time playing with Dixie as her abilities far surpass Diddy and Cranky’s. In fact I only ever used Diddy if that was my only choice or by accident as I otherwise never actually had a reason to choose him over Dixie.
Retro has hit the perfect difficulty spike for Tropical Freeze continuing from what Returns did right. The early levels in the game are never overly challenging and are more to teach you how to play, and any deaths are usually just stupid mistakes. Further down the track the levels do start to get challenging, filled with timed jump gaps, tight spots and careful jumps. Even the enemies themselves add to the challenge with new types recurringly added that change up the way you play and even at times being almost unavoidable. Further the levels themselves with the many platforms and the rocket barrel levels provide a decent challenge in timing movements.
Likewise, the boss battles in the game are equally challenging. They never get to a point where they are unbeatable or almost impossible but they do put up quite a fight. From beginning to end each boss battle keeps you on your toes as they are often unpredictable and often they are quite hard to hit, requiring adequate timing to launch a throw or jump on a specific part of them. Also it was nice to know that the bosses never repeat themselves and each one is as unique as the last.
Retro Studios did miss out on a few opportunities with Tropical Freeze, namely my biggest issue being the use of the Gamepad. If you are playing on the TV then the Gamepad’s screen is completely blank which makes it feel mostly useless. This was actually my preferred controller though, and because this annoyed me I ended up using the option to play solely on the Gamepad, as it gave the controller more meaning though I do wish Retro had found some significant points for the controller.
Multiplayer also fails to really get anywhere often the second player has a character which has its individual abilities at a better standard then the player that is playing as Donkey Kong. Often I found lead to deaths for myself as Donkey Kong because the other player was faster then myself and in other levels the paths would crumble away under my feet because they would get there first or even or the opposite way around. The multiplayer can work but only if the two players can work in sync and when they’re not it is a travesty, but working together and looking out for one another is the key so hopefully you can find a good partner otherwise I would recommend the single player only.
Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is a definite stand out in the Wii U’s library and in my eyes a true return to what made the original Donkey Kong Country games so fun. In future I would like to see a Donkey Kong game in the same vein as Donkey Kong 64 but for now this is enough of a tide over that is still fun and reminiscent of the past. If you own a Wii U this game can’t be missed and we must give our thanks to Retro Studios for making this excellent game.