Donkey Kong Country is a video game franchise that’s now five games strong. If you’re not counting all the various spin-offs, and Donkey Kong 64, that is. What Rareware started all the way back on the Super Nintendo has evolved considerably, with Retro Studios taking the reins for the previous adventure, Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Wii. And they’re back again, and about time too, with Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze for the Wii U.
The second of Retro Studios’ monkeyshines may have come out some time ago, but this blog is pretty much for reviewing whatever I feel like reviewing, and I feel like reviewing this. Besides, if you missed out on this game, let me give you a reason to pick it up.
Donkey Kong is celebrating his birthday with his nephew Diddy Kong, Diddy’s girlfriend Dixie Kong, and the original gorilla from the arcade game grown old with a cane, Cranky Kong. Little do they know that approaching their island is a group of animal Vikings known as the Snowmads, made up of penguins, walruses, and owls, oh my. They’ve set their sights on the island, and using some powerful magic, freeze the whole thing and blow the Kong family away.
It’s a pretty typical Donkey Kong story – something of his was taken, and he will cross all the lands and bust all the heads he needs to in order to retrieve it.
The gameplay is inspired by his rival Mario’s own platformers. The difference is that Mario is more of an introduction to platformers, tending to remain easy until you find extra challenges, Mario’s fairly easy to keep under control, and providing a number of powerups to make things easier for you in the form of projectiles or limited flight. Donkey Kong’s adventures are much more difficult, focusing on precise platforming with a weighty character that, if you’re not careful, can be prone to careening into trouble with little effort, and his powerups are spread much more thin and are more situational.
Make no mistake – while the first island of the game won’t provide too much of a challenge for most people, once you hit the second island, the game takes the kid gloves off and starts shuttling you through a series of challenges that will take away your extra life balloons as fast as it gives them to you.
Donkey Kong himself is pretty easy to control. He’s surprisingly fast for a big guy, and while he doesn’t jump quite as high as Mario, it’s nothing to sneeze at. Using the Control Stick control scheme lets you precisely control his speed to a ridiculous degree, something the New Super Mario Bros. series has never quite caught on to. He has grace, but he also has weight. He can save himself from a misplaced jump or two, but throwing him into a full-speed rolling jump means accepting the consequences, no matter how dire. It feels like you’re controlling a large, powerful ape, and that’s a good thing.
His powerups come in the form of his fellow Kongs, who all ride on his back, one-at-a-time. Whichever one you pick determines the additional ability DK has in addition to a faster, unlimited roll. Diddy packs a jetpack for a hover manoeuvre to help with some tricky platforming, Dixie uses her ponytail to propel the duo a little bit higher to make those extra-tough jumps, and Cranky uses his cane as a pogo stick a-la Scrooge McDuck to traverse dangerous terrain. They also add two more hit points to DK’s own two. Get hit twice, the monkey on your back falls off. Get hit twice more, and it’s curtains for Kong.
Out of them all, Dixie’s by far the most useful – she combines the traits of Diddy and Cranky into one, essentially – though the others won’t go unused throughout your adventure. Some levels will force you into accepting a certain partner, others will let you pick, though you can always bring in a preferred buddy either by keeping them after the end of a level, or jumping into the multiplayer mode where the second player gets to choose who they play as. Player One, however, is stuck with Donkey Kong.
There’s also Rambi the Rhino, who appears in a few levels. He’s to Donkey Kong what Yoshi is to Mario – a ridable ally who can help DK overcome obstacles he couldn’t on his own. While the number of levels with Rambi can probably be counted on one hand, they’re fun nonetheless, and it’s great to see him return from the first game.
The exact challenges you’ll overcome may vary from level to level, but in the end, it’s all about getting from Point A to Point B. You don’t have a time limit most of the time, so you’re free to explore the levels in order to find puzzle pieces, KONG letters, and loads upon loads of bananas. In one level, you might have to navigate through a graveyard of broken aircraft, while in another, you’re finding your way through pitch-black waters, the lights of jellyfish acting as your guide. There’s fewer levels than in the first game, but they’re generally longer to make up for it. This isn’t a bad thing either – rarely will you end up doing the same thing more than twice.
Before I said this game was challenging, but I feel it must be stated again. This game does not wait for you to catch up. Gone is the Super Guide of Returns, and while you can buy items from Funky Kong’s shop to make the going a little bit easier, you’re going to have to finish the levels as they come – no skipping around, no free passes. Even with the few concessions the game makes – vehicle levels now give you two hit-points instead of just one, and every Kong duo has a screen-clearing move after gathering enough bananas – the challenge in this game feels much higher than in Returns. Veterans will be quite pleased – newcomers may be disheartened. Collecting all the KONG letters in every level of an island also unlocks an extra temple level for that island, that provides even greater challenges – the game’s tough, basically.
Never does it feel like you are cheated of your victory, however. The controls are super-tight and responsive – you’re in complete control of Donkey Kong, and any jumps that lead to his doom are invariably your fault. As the game continues, it will throw in wrenches like collapsing platforms and the like, but it won’t throw things at you that you don’t see coming unless you’re barrelling through too quickly for your own good. The camera is zoomed out at just the right degree most of the time, coming in close in low-intensity moments, and pulling out to provide a larger picture when you’re in a hectic moment. Bananas are also cleverly placed to provide paths of safe passage – though they may not always lead to secrets, they generally lead to the way forward.
The spectacle of the game is something to behold, however. Even though it’s challenging to navigate platforms floating around in a tornado, the visuals are stunning. One of my personal favourite levels is one of the dreaded mine cart stages. It starts out pretty standard, before you find yourself in a lumber mill. Then, just as it seems to end after a rather short ride, you instead find yourself piloting a log through a log flume, and then back through another mill as the track is torn apart by a giant buzzsaw. There’s a lot of levels with this level of “wow, this is really happening” moments – it’s important to know, however, that you’re almost always in complete control as they happen. They’re not cinematic cutscenes or quick-time events – yes, that volcano in the background is spewing volcanic rocks and it looks cool, but now you have to dodge them.
The game also features water levels, something that was missing in Returns due to the developers not figuring out a way to fit them into the game’s faster pace. They must have figured it out here, though, because they maintain momentum every time they show up. I suspect this is aided by the new oxygen meter – DK and his crew can no longer stay underwater indefinitely and must often find bubbles to refill the meter. I actually have no problem with this – it keeps things moving and they’re plentiful enough anyway.
After beating a level, you unlock a Time Trial mode. This challenges you to finish the level as quickly as possible – don’t bother with bananas, don’t leap for letters, just go fast. You can pick a buddy Kong or go it with what the level normally gives you, which is a nice feature, and doubly nice is the ability to see replays of other people’s runs online so you can see for yourself how to get the best times. You get ranked bronze, silver, or gold, although there’s an extra rank, shiny gold, reserved only for the truly perfect.
Time Trials aren’t easy, either. To get gold requires a level of precision that’s above and beyond what most people might be capable of, let alone shiny gold. You’re given the barest, barest minimum in several cases – often the difference between a shiny gold and a regular gold is a single second, although that second will be the most frustrating one of your life. You can’t stop for anything, anything – a single mistake can cost you even a gold medal. The challenge is sometimes a bit absurd, but thankfully, it’s not required.
The graphics are truly stunning. The fur physics on the Kongs looks impeccable, and really helps sell the main character’s weight even more seeing it react with the way he moves. Backgrounds are bright, colourful, and often full of life – you’ll find yourself being attacked by things on other planes of the game. The dynamic camera is used excellently – it makes the game feel much more active than Returns. The return of the silhouette levels is greatly appreciated, and the game is locked at 60 FPS. No dips, no chugs, no nothing – smooth as butter while lookin’ good doing it. The game also looks pretty good on the GamePad’s screen, which is of course, an option for use.
The animations are another thing that’s fantastic. From his scrunching up on the ledges of platforms to the graceful dives into the water, DK looks great in motion, as do all the rest of the cast. It’s important, too, because paying attention to the way enemies act can clue you in on their attacks, which really comes into play in the game’s excellent array of boss fights. Even subtle things like the characters’ idles, such as Donkey Kong pulling out a 3DS and playing one of several games (which you can actually hear, and includes his own!), as Cranky simply reads a paper instead of watching as Diddy and Dixie would – it really adds to the charm of this game.
As if a great package couldn’t get better, the soundtrack. Man alive, I cannot give this soundtrack enough praise. Kenji Yamamoto returns from, well, Returns, which had a great soundtrack even if it was mostly remixes of the original Donkey Kong Country. Joining him, however, is David Wise, one of the original composers for Donkey Kong Country and head composer for Donkey Kong Country 2. Together, they’ve put out a soundtrack that’s out of this world. Mostly original tracks – though if you pay attention, you’ll hear so many nods to the classics it’s mind-blowing – every song fits the situation it’s needed for. A particular moment that stood out – I start a water level and once I hit the water, a faster-paced remix of Aquatic Ambience kicks in. “Sounds good,” I think, until, mere seconds later, I hear the hint of something that is decidedly not Aquatic Ambience.
One background event later, and the song has seamlessly and almost unnoticeably shifted into a remix of not Aquatic Ambience, but Lockjaw’s Saga, from Country 2. I had personally been hoping for a remix of that tune in particular once the water levels started, and it blew my mind that they were able to mix two songs together that sounded so different, so disparate, and yet, make them sound as if they had all this time been two halves of one whole, while still remaining faithful to what they were.
Now, the cost of all this amazingness is that the load-times are fairly lengthy. It’s not a game-breaker, and it’s not quite as bad as the infamous Sonic the Hedgehog 2006, but jumping into a level will require you to wait about five to ten seconds to actually play, as will leaving to get back to the map, or even starting up a save file. Restarting time-trials also results in a slight delay of a couple seconds between attempts. This was a problem with Donkey Kong Country Returns as well. It’s understandable why the levels take so long to load – they’re very dense in detail and quite large besides – but it does halt the pace a bit more than, say, Super Mario 3D World which loads in levels much faster.
Adding to this that the game is much shorter (the worlds all have about the same number of levels as Returns’ but the game is short two worlds) may end up making Tropical Freeze feel like it’s over far too quickly. Even with a handful of secret levels and lots to find, it is, overall, a much more compact package. This may or may not be a fault – one the one hand, it leaves you wanting a lot more, but on the other, it definitely feels that by the end they’ve done everything they wanted to do, so perhaps it’s better that it ends where it does instead of going on longer than it should and wind up losing steam. It’s a bit hard to tell.
In short, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is one of those games that doesn’t come along very often, something that’s truly excellent on just about every level. Is it a bit short, yes, is it a little too challenging sometimes, maybe. But the satisfaction from completing it is second-to-none. Nearly every level presents a new challenge, a new spectacle. The game is a blast from start to finish, plain and simple.
If you’re up to the challenge, definitely add this one to your library.