Welcome to Saturday Spotlight! In this series, GameLuster staff members share thoughts on games from their currently playing list.
Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 + 2.5 ReMIX
One hot summer day in 2006, I watched a commercial that would change my life. Clips of Jack Sparrow, Mulan and Mushu, Simba, and Tron danced along the screen with a heart wrenching electronic pop song playing in the background. “New allies, worlds, and adventures” written in front of flashy action sequences and dramatic clashes of signature Disney and Final Fantasy characters filled my heart with wonder. Cloud and Sephiroth, Donald Duck and Goofy, Jack Skellington, Simba, Tron, a spikey-haired teen covered head-to-toe in chains and pockets wielding a giant key, mysterious hooded silhouettes, and most importantly, Mickey Mouse, were all there. It was too good to be true, I thought.
A few days later, I booted Kingdom Hearts II into my cousin’s PS2. Almost instantly, I fell in love with the forever inspiring Sora during his quest through various Disney worlds making friends with my favorite childhood characters along the way. I remember finding the gameplay to be fast and flashy, loving the ability to change forms and to gain access to new abilities such as dual-wielding and longer combos.
Along with combining different keyblades that you acquire along your journey, the spells and abilities Sora and his friends have at their disposal feel like a fresh take on the methodical approach of more traditional Final Fantasy games at the time. Unfortunately, due to my abysmal attention span as a child, I never actually finished Kingdom Heart II despite getting to the last boss, Xemnas.
Fast forward to 2019, nearly 17 years after the initial release of Kingdom Hearts in 2002. The long awaited Kingdom Hearts III is set to release only a few weeks into the new year and I found myself reading and watching as much as I could to see where the story had gone. While I enjoyed myself catching up on the story, I felt as if Kingdom Hearts required a plunge rather than a toe-dip.
I purchased the Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 + 2.5 ReMIX collection in the same way I had purchased Kingdom Hearts II back in 2006: completely impulsively. Hesitant I had fallen victim to nostalgia, my fears were washed away as I was charmed by not only the initial simplicity of the story and characters, but of the combat and overall gameplay as well. Though lacking in polish compared to the later entries, Kingdom Hearts delivers on an interesting party-based action RPG that mixes physical attacks upgraded through the trademark ability system along with powerful magic and summon spells. Fighting Cloud in Olympia, relying on Beast to fight through Hollow Bastion, and the final fight with Riku are standout moments that even subsequent entries may not be able to top.
While initially being a PlayStation exclusive, Kingdom Hearts found a home on the Gameboy Advance in 2004. Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is a sequel to Kingdom Hearts in that it follows Sora’s journey to Castle Oblivion immediately after the closing of Kingdom Hearts. To fit the GBA’s simple and mobile playstyle, Kingdom Hearts adopted a card-based fighting system that substituted attacks and spells with cards in a deck. Each card has a numerical value similar to a numbered card in a deck, with 0 cards acting as a pseudo-ace card. Cards can be combined to unleash some of Sora’s signature abilities if they hit a certain number or combinations of cards, such as Curaga or Sonic Blade.
Initially playing on the GBA, the system makes for an interesting and strategic way to play Kingdom Hearts on the go despite some of the inherent problems that come with card games. With the included remastered Kingdom Hearts: ReChain of Memories, a PS2 remake of the game released in 2008, the card system felt a bit out of place, especially when it looks and feels almost exactly like Kingdom Hearts.
Chain of Memories’ story is its strongest aspect, following Sora’s journey through Castle Oblivion as he forgets his memories piece by piece. As the curtains closed, I also wondered if my memories had also been changed, and looked forward to remembering everything I could about Kingdom Hearts II.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
The first Donkey Kong game I played was Donkey Kong Country for the Gameboy Advance when I was around eight or nine. I’m not sure if I ever finished it, but I remember playing it non-stop every time I had a minute to spare. My favorite levels were the ones that involved riding a minecart, and quite often I’d replay those levels because they were so fun.
When Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze first came out on the Wii U, I didn’t buy it. At that point in time, I didn’t play a lot of platformers, so it didn’t seem like my type of game. Years later when I bought a Nintendo Switch and started delving into games that weren’t just action-adventure dramas, I purchased Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze not long after it was released on the Switch. It remained in my backlog for a good year until recently when I decided to give it a whirl. I’d just finished playing Super Mario Odyssey and I was in the mood for another platformer, so I dug out Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, blew off the cobwebs, and installed it.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze on the Switch is almost identical to the Wii U version, but there’s a couple of differences. There’s a new mode called Funky Mode, featuring a new character called Funky Kong. Dressed in shades and a polka-dot bandana, Funky Kong is practically unkillable. He has unlimited roll attacks and underwater corkscrews. He can also double jump and use his trusty surfboard to avoid taking damage from spikes. He’s essentially an “easy” mode for players who want to experience the game without any frustration and rage-quitting. I didn’t play Funky Mode, but it’s nice that it’s available. The other difference to the Wii U version is improved graphics, frame-rates, and loading times, as you would expect.
When I first started Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, I figured it was just the same as any Donkey Kong County game: same mechanics, just prettier graphics. To be honest, that’s pretty much what it is, but it didn’t stop me thoroughly enjoying it. The beginning levels are fairly straightforward to help you get into the groove of the game, and they gradually get more difficult over time. You play as Donkey Kong, but throwing character barrels brings in either Diddy Kong, Dixie Kong, or Cranky Kong to assist you. I found using Dixie Kong was invaluable, especially in the later levels, as her helicopter-esque long jump is a lifesaver (literally!).
Like in other Donkey Kong Country games, there is a good assortment of levels. There are levels that involve riding a rhino or a minecart, ones that are located underwater, and some that force you to run as fast as you can to avoid a hazard or enemy chasing you. There are also these levels that have you pilot a rocket that controls like a game of Flappy Bird. You have to continuously tap the A button and simultaneously avoid a plethora of obstacles that are thrown your way. They were definitely my least favorite sections, and I think I audibly groaned every time I realized the next level was rocket-focused.
The platforming sequences are really fun and challenging. Whether it’s jumping into barrels, bolting across slippery slopes, swinging from vines, or discovering bonus areas to snag a collectible, the levels never feel repetitive and tedious. There are also a lot of collectibles. I didn’t manage to get all of them. Just completing a level was hard enough, so making a detour to grab everything in sight seemed impossible.
There are around six to eight levels per world, with the final level being a boss fight. These boss fights are irritatingly tough. The bosses have several phases and each phase requires two or three hits. They’re fairly similar to bosses in Cuphead, though thankfully not quite as difficult. Nevertheless, I still had some trouble in these levels. Having another person join you in co-op breaks the difficulty down a considerable amount. When you or your partner die, you can keep reviving each other until you both die, you run out of lives, or you complete the level. Co-op, in general, makes Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze a lot simpler. It’s still challenging, but it gives you a better chance at surpassing a particularly unforgiving segment. The only downside is you go through twice as many lives, so you’ll be seeing that game over screen much more frequently than if you were playing solo.
I’ve only recently finished Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, but there’s still more content to keep me busy. After defeating the final boss, another world becomes unlocked – which I still need to play through. There’s also a lot of collectibles I skipped that I still want to grab. Although the game isn’t overly different from other Donkey Kong Country titles, I still had a blast playing it. It’s a really good platformer packed with a lot of challenge. I can’t wait to revisit earlier levels to hunt for missed collectibles and inevitably die a lot more times.