Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze Review
A barrel blast into nostalgia town
Donkey Kong has had a strange time of it at Nintendo over the years. Always a prominent member of the Big N’s character roster, but never given the five star treatment that the likes of Mario and Zelda receive. He’s been in all the sports titles, parties and karts, and had a spin off series on portable consoles with the Mario vs. Donkey Kong games – which hark back to the big ape’s original release and his rivalry with Mario. But it’s the Country series, that for me at least, have always been the ‘real’ DK games, and the only time he’s been treated as the heavy hitter he so obviously is. I mean look at those arms!
Tropical Freeze then is the fifth title in the side-scrolling series, and the second from the Texas-based Retro Studios, following Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Wii in 2010. Prior to that, Rare made the original Country trilogy in the mid 1990s on the SNES (a series I fondly remember growing up with). Tropical Freeze, however, has the tricky task of recapturing the excitement that Returns brought back to the series without becoming a ‘me too’ sequel, and I have to say that it both succeeds and falters in its mission in the way that so many sequels do; it manages to improve on its forbear in significant ways by using the original as a template to iron out any flaws and to build from, but having said that, it’s not doing an awful lot that’s new and it doesn’t have the ‘wow’ factor that Returns had after the series had been away for so long.
In fact, Tropical Freeze is a similar title to Super Mario Galaxy 2: both games are better than their respective originals in nearly every way, but there’s that unshakable feeling that we’ve done this all before, and recently too. And I think your enjoyment of DK’s latest romp is going to be heavily influenced by whether or not you think more of the same is enough. But let me make myself quite clear. That ‘more’ is some of the most engrossing, fun and visually appealing (not to mention infuriatingly difficult!) left to right action I’ve played in quite some time. Probably since Returns, in fact.
Let’s get to it. A hoard of anthropomorphic Vikings of the penguin, walrus and polar bear variety have taken control of DK island, shrouding the ape’s home in a tight, wintry grasp. Donkey Kong and his pals, used to their eternal summer setting and their laid-back lifestyle, simply want things to return to how they should be. There’s a warmly pleasing element at the core of the Donkey Kong Country games, and that’s family. The ‘stories’ of this series are not about kidnappings or villains taking over the world, but simply about a bunch of apes doing what needs to be done to live in peace. I can respect that. And while we’re on the subject of family, the playable DK clan has expanded since Returns, offering us Dixie (for the first time since 1997) and Cranky, making his playable debut. To be honest, I’m not quite sure how he’s still alive, let alone pogo-bouncing around on his cane – more on that in a bit – but there you go, and they’re a welcome addition, a nice wrinkle to the otherwise much unchanged formula.
The partners all handle slightly differently and have a unique skill; Diddy still hovers, Dixie spins her hair for an upward boost and Cranky can use his aforementioned ‘pogo’ ability to bounce on his cane a la Scrooge McDuck. They’re almost a variation on a difficulty setting too with Diddy being your middle-grounder, Cranky requiring a little expertise and practice, whilst Dixie is your instant-win dream machine, saving you from numerous pitfalls with her upward thrust, perfectly suited for newbies. They also each have a unique Kong Pow ability – a move available after a meter is charged, allowing you and your monkey buddy to turn all enemies on screen into coins, hearts and balloons depending on the partner. It’s a handy trick, and one I often forgot about, but it can be very useful, especially on the tougher levels. Of which there are many.
And again, when it comes to difficulty, I have to liken Tropical Freeze to Super Mario Galaxy 2; just as in Mario’s universe-hopping adventure, Retro Studios assume that you’ve played the previous game, as the difficulty almost seems to continue on from the end of Returns. Well maybe that’s overdoing it, but it does ramp up rather quickly and I actually found myself dying several times on world one. (I’m going to say that this was because I was a bit rusty and still getting into the swing of things, and not because I suck…) But either way, the sometimes harsh and unforgiving spikes in difficulty and ‘learn and repeat’ style gauntlets are going to sieve people out: you either love this sort of perfectionist style gameplay, or it’s going to frustrate you into a rage quit, particularly later on. I for one (for some mad reason) love the punishment and subsequent satisfaction of a good old fashioned 2D platformer, but it’s worth noting for those that think the colorful ambience equates to a nice, relaxing ride.
Tropical Freeze is often gorgeous, with great art direction, really coming to life and popping in HD on the Wii U, only slightly let down by the ageing engine of Returns. Yes, things like DK’s fur are better realized and yes everything is cleaner and crisper, but I couldn’t help feeling (that especially for how long it’s taken to develop this sequel) that Retro could have pushed the visuals even further. There are also sometimes annoyingly long load times and the loading screen as you enter a level often stutters – nothing to really right home about, but lacking the true polish I expect from a flagship Nintendo game.
Whilst we’re hovering over the negative – Dixie style! – Tropical Freeze makes absolutely no use of the Wii U’s specific hardware. The only thing gamepad related is the option to play on the second screen when the TV’s being used for something else. That’s it – even when you play single player on the TV as normal, the gamepad goes blank, not even mirroring the image as so many Wii U games tend to do. The fact that Nintendo themselves don’t know what to do with their hardware speaks volumes, and although the game is a core, traditional platformer that many could argue wouldn’t benefit from any gamepad ‘gimmicks’, I think it’s simply lazy and would like to have seen some unique features that enhanced the gameplay – and more importantly, helped to differentiate Tropical Freeze from its predecessor and peers (I mean, just look at Rayman Legends) .
After that mini speed bump though, let’s straighten up a little here. I’m only marginally disappointed because the Donkey Kong Country games were some of my favourite growing up and because I think Retro’s take on the series is even better than the originals. I want these games to be perfect, and in many ways they’re very close! Take the music – oh the music! Composer David Wise, from the original trilogy, is back on Tropical Freeze and it’s simply a godsend. The music in Returns was good, but here it’s exquisite. A perfect blend of rambunctious new tunes and interesting twists of old ones, pulling at the nostalgia strings in all the right ways. I found this to be particularly true of the underwater theme that took me straight back to sitting on bean bags with my brother way too close to the TV on a Saturday morning. This is what I want from my DK game; pure unadulterated fun that blends old and new in perfect synergy, remaining true to the series, whilst still pushing forwards.
All in all, Tropical Freeze almost gets there. If you loved Returns and want more, this is for you. Go get it. Now. However, if you felt ‘done’ with DK after Returns or any of the previous Country games, there’s not a whole lot here to entice you back. And fundamentally that’s not just a problem with Donkey Kong, but with many of Nintendo’s core franchises at the moment – they often play it too safe, and although that can work for a time, it’s a risky move as players may move on without them. But, for now at least, there’s a crowd out there (me included) that will eat this up, and love it. But will we be there next time? I’m not so sure. Maybe not if things aren’t shaken up a bit. For now, though, let’s just enjoy Tropical Freeze. But let’s hope, too, that there’s something more out there for the big ape in the future.