Donkey Kong’s return to gaming in 2010’s aptly named Donkey Kong Country Returns proved that the big ape could not just rub shoulders with the best platformers, but was in fact their King. Yes, back in 2010 before Rayman Origins and its exquisite follow-up existed, I proclaimed that Donkey Kong Country was perhaps the finest 2D platformer available. It’s one reason I’ve been confused by fan reaction to the news that developer Retro studios would be working on another Donkey Kong Country game. It doesn’t matter that it’s not the Metroid game you were hoping for…because it’s rather good.
It starts off, like so many games of its ilk, with some semblance of a plot. This time, instead of Kremlings or Tikis to ruin the fun we have a new group of antagonists: Snomads. They’re a group of villainous Vikings who prefer a far colder climate and they’ve come to freeze up Kong Island with their arctic blasts at a rather inopportune time – Donkey’s Kong’s birthday. Naturally, our favourite simian isn’t too pleased with the colder weather, and sets about sending the Snomads back to where they came from. Here’s the entirety of the plot, as delivered by the game’s opening cinematic.
The game, like other recent Nintendo’s titles, admittedly doesn’t deviate much from the established formula, but Retro Studios has done more with this latest DKC than simply change the temperature. The most striking and immediate improvement is that Donkey Kong is in HD for the very first time, and he looks incredible. I spent more time marvelling at his glorious fur than I care to admit, and that’s just one of the bits of fine detail you’ll find stuffed in the game. Though it stays familiar throughout, Tropical Freeze does much to improve the Donkey Kong Country experience.
Tropical Freeze’s mechanics are largely the same as those in the previous game; Kong will still have to jump on things, pummel the ground and grasp on bits of overhanging grass. And it’s still rather challenging. You’ll die…a lot. To help you stay alive a little longer, you get a little help from your friends; support characters who double your life tally and grant you a few abilities. Encounter a branded DK barrel in a level and you’ll find a partner, only now the barrel will alternate between three sets of initials to reveal Diddy, Dixie, or Cranky Kong.
Diddy Kong still clings to Donkey Kong’s back, equipped with a jetpack that can extend his jump like Princess Peach in Super Mario Bros. 2. He’s joined this time by Dixie, whose swinging ponytail increases the height of jumps, and the cantankerous Cranky Kong, whose walking stick allows him to pogo about, like Scrooge McDuck in Capcom’s Duck Tales. Each is useful in their own way, making sections of levels just that little bit less frustrating, or help in finding any of the many collectibles, secret entrances and hidden areas. Each is also capable of enacting a unique “KONG POW” ability that recharges over time. Diddy’s turns all on-screen enemies in to 1up balloons; Dixie turns them in to extra, stackable hearts and Cranky’s Midas touch turns them in to coins.
Playing in co-op, Donkey Kong and his partner are no longer tethered, and it makes the game just that it much more frantic, furious, fun and frustrating . I actually find the game more difficult in co-op; without the crutch afforded by Diddy and co, my giant ape ended up falling to his death more frequently – and the shared pool of lives means they’ll dwindle down twice as fast.
Unlike with Donkey Kong Country Returns, Nintendo’s Superguide is wholly absent. That means that you’ll no longer be able to skip some of the more arduous levels, making it quite a bit trickier for newcomers, whiners and sissies. Fans of old-school challenge and who hate all that hand-holding nonsense will be delighted.
And yes, like the game before it, there are puzzle pieces and letters spelling out KONG on each level. The letters themselves are easy enough to find, but collecting them can be a different story entirely. The puzzle pieces are significantly harder to find. You’ll have to collect all the bananas in a section to reveal them, or find them in hidden areas. It’ll take months to collect everything, and once again doing so unlocks bonus levels that’ll have even the most prodigious platforming pundits swearing in frustration. For the dedicated, there are secret worlds to unlock, if you have the testicular fortitude, patience and wherewithal. Of course, it’s a sort of frustration that’s worth enduring, thanks to the ingenious level design.
That exceedingly clever level design never fails to be interesting; a constant introduction of new elements and challenging set-pieces keeps it fresh and interesting throughout – and that’s despite the fact that if you’ve played Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Wii, you’ve pretty much played this before. Much of that level design goes into making you meet an unfortunate and untimely end – but it’s slightly uneven. You’ll be running about with a cache of 60 lives, only to lose them all on a single level.
Some levels are the sort you’ll breeze through, and then just moments later you’ll be faced with all manner of tricky timed jumps, devilishly evil enemy placements, and bits where you have to use incredible thread-through-needle precision to save yourself from dying. Donkey Kong Country Returns: Tropical Freeze contains what is probably my favourite level in a 2D platformer ever; something that’ll instantly remind older players of the excellent Lion King game. Check it out.
For the most part, just about every level contains the same sort of incredible design, save for one of the game’s islands. Swimming levels in any game are seldom fun, so it’s baffling that Retro decided it would be a good idea to have an entire island very nearly dedicated to underwater shenanigans. Thankfully they’ve made up for that by not falling in to an obvious trap. With ice a central theme to the game I expected very nearly every level to be crusted with ice, making everything slippery and removing much of the precision, but that thankfully only happens right towards the end of the game.
Many other elements from the previous games return. Yes, that includes the tricky as heck Flappy-Bird-like rocket barrel sections, that have you tapping a button to control the ascent of a rocket, while avoiding the obstacles that keep coming at you. Also returning are the game’s infamous mine cart levels, which call on all the platforming precision already required, while hurtling along at considerable speed. Rambi’s back too. As with the first game, you can purchase items to help you on your way; extra lives, green balloons that save you from plummeting to your death and a squawking parrot to help find puzzle pieces are a small sample of the goodies on offer, purchasable with the coins you collect through the game.
Retro’s also made Tropical Freeze’s bosses a little trickier; the standard Nintendo three-phase bosses are nowhere to be seen. The first boss, a Viking sea-lion is easy enough; he slides along the screen just begging for you to jump on him – but soon he’s tossing bombs and dive-bombing penguins and just keeps on coming back for more. The bosses get more inventive and challenging right to the end, where unfortunately, the last boss is a standard trope. It’s a bizarre misstep in an otherwise excellent rogues gallery.
It’s worth noting that there are just six worlds in Tropical Freeze, compared to the 8 in the first game – but the stages are longer, there are far more secret stages and they are – save for all the underwater nonsense – uniformly excellent. It’s also far less gimmicky than its predecessor, with no forced motion controls. In fact it doesn’t use the Wii U’s Gamepad at all.
Yes, you can use it as a controller when playing on the TV, but the pad will then shut off, delivering nothing but sound effects. you can opt to play the game on the Gamepad directly, but then video output to the TV is gone. This is probably to keep the game running at that silky smooth 60fps, but it also shows that some of Nintendo’s best developers have no idea how to use the pad for anything other than gimmickry.