Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze Review

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Earlier this year Nintendo brought back its discounted rerelease line. Nintendo Selects, which has gone by other names on previous consoles includes some great Wii U stuff this time out. Super Mario 3D World, Pikmin 3, and the NES Remix pack being popular choices. But there was another inclusion that doesn’t seem to get as much recognition.

Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is the follow-up to Donkey Kong Country Returns. A game that came out on the Wii, and has also been re released in this iteration of the Selects line. Both of these games were developed by Retro Studios the studio known for the excellent Metroid Prime Trilogy.  DKCR was met with a lot of praise as well. Tropical Freeze was also lauded, but didn’t make the splash previous Donkey Kong games have.

PROS: One of the best Donkey Kong Country games ever. Possibly the best.

CONS: Some might find the game too brutal under the cute exterior.

SADISTIC: The Snomad penguins. Explosives. Death traps. A Gundam. YES A GUNDAM.

Which is a shame, because Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a really good iteration of the series. In fact in many ways (as blasphemous this may seem to some), it is actually better than the Rare games released on the Super NES. It takes everything that was great about those classic Game Paks, and eschews some of the annoyances. All while having its own feel, and taking some chances.

The first chance the game takes is replacing the antagonist. Donkey Kong is celebrating his birthday with his friends Cranky, Diddy, and Dixie when a chill blows out his candles. Upon looking out the window, the Kongs see a massive army of penguins, walruses, and seals converging on the island. The invaders effectively take over Donkey Kong’s homeland, and so he has to drive back the occupants, and save the day.

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But as in the days of Rare, things won’t be easy in this Retro helmed game. The Snowmads (This is what the antagonists are actually called) have created some of the most difficult platformer stages ever conceived. One thing you’re going to notice right off the bat are how each world has a theme. You’ll also notice each stage within the world has a spin on that theme. In one world you’ll see fruit themed levels, some are jungle stages with a fruit theme. Others have a more science fiction feel, but still incorporating a fruit theme. Giant blades chop up watermelons, and oranges. Watermelons, and oranges you happen to need to walk on to get ahead.

All of this stuff isn’t just for show. Much of it is actually built into the game play itself. An enemy may set a platform on fire. You can put out the fire, but then the platform has a finite number of seconds it can support your weight. Part of a level may sink into the icy ocean, but Donkey Kong needs to follow that sinking part in order to uncover a secret.

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The game has a plethora of secrets too. The number rivals that of the Super NES DKC, games as well as Super Mario World. It even takes a page from SMW by adding secret exits in many of the stages which can then lead to secret stages. The game also has a pretty good variety of things to do. Some stages are your typical horizontal, or vertical platforming stages. Others are rail sections invoking the mine car play of the original games. There are also on rail rocket levels, where you have to control a rocket by pumping a gas button.

Tropical Freeze reuses these mechanics a number of times throughout the game. But each time it does, it finds a way to make it feel different or new. Sometimes this can be a simple perspective change. Other times it can be an excellent use of the world’s theme. Often times you’ll find stages that combine all of the mechanics to make for a really challenging experience.

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Speaking of challenges, on top of the secret stages, the game will give you the optional task of collecting not only the letters K-O-N-G but puzzle pieces too. Finding enough of these will unlock some sketches, and test renders. The letters are usually in plain sight. But the puzzle pieces aren’t. Often times they’re found in hidden pathways, or behind a piece of scenery. There are also hidden mini game rooms in levels. These will take you back to Donkey Kong 64’s numerous ones. Completing these also gets you puzzle pieces.

Normally you might not want to bother with that sort of thing. Except that in this game finding all of that stuff, along with every secret exit will unlock a hidden world, as well as an even more difficult mode. This mode makes you complete the game with a single hit marker, zero checkpoints, and without any help from the other Kongs. It even kneecaps you by shutting down the game’s shop system, which I’ll explain a little bit later.

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While some of the later stages can feel punishing, they don’t usually feel unfair. Save for a few exceptions, you’re going to know it was your own fault for dying. But that doesn’t make it any less difficult. Tropical Freeze is unabashed in its insistence you suck it up. Yet, it still manages to throw you a few huge bones. First of all, it is very easy to earn 1-Ups. There are the expected 1-Up balloons. But there are tons of bananas, and banana coins in every stage. More than enough for you to earn several extra lives. In fact, even the worst player can probably expect to have over 50 lives by the time they reach the final boss.

The other major favor the game provides is the shop. Going in with your banana coins allows you to buy an extra heart for the health meter, Barrels to start with Dixie, Diddy, or Cranky who act as assist characters, and an invincibility potion among other things. There is also the gum ball machine for you to be given randomly selected collectibles. Again, while they might not be something most players care about, those who go for pure completion of their games will. That means in order to play the secret world, and hit up masochism mode, getting those models is worth it.

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Tropical Freeze also has a two player mode. In this mode players work cooperatively to get through all of the game’s worlds, and stages. Both players choose their Kongs, and controller of choice. This mode can be a blessing and a curse. While tackling the bosses may prove easier, some of the levels might actually prove harder. Why? Because like Battletoads, both players are going to need to be at around the same skill level. Particularly when getting to later levels, where being on the same page is paramount. Thankfully, if one of you fails, it doesn’t completely penalize the other player. But in sections where things are easier with say, Donkey Kong, and Dixie Kong, losing Dixie Kong will make it that much harder.

Speaking of the Kongs, each of the three has their own distinct advantages. Cranky Kong, the withered grouchy, old Kong will give you the option to bounce higher off of his cane. Think of him a lot like Scrooge McDuck in DuckTales. The difference being you can’t just hold down the jump button to bounce on forever. Each bounce requires a perfectly timed button press to master.

Dixie Kong has her helicopter blade move where her hair twirls around for flight. She also has an advantage in water stages, as her hair lets her fight water currents that the other Kongs simply can’t compete with. She’s probably the one most players will align with most. I know in my play through, I found her the most versatile character.

Finally you have Diddy Kong, and as expected he has his trusty jet pack. This lets you hover for a few seconds, and it gives you some assistance crossing some gaps in the game. It is even helpful in other areas as well. Overall I didn’t use him as much as Dixie, but there were some cases where hovering did work better than flying.

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That’s another thing about the level design. Some stages are really built around having a specific Kong employed to help you. Don’t get me wrong, each of these stages can be completed without using any of the Kongs. But using a specific Kong is necessary for navigating some areas, or even finding secrets. Case in point, using Cranky to pogo jump off of a spiked ball onto an owl, and into a hidden puzzle piece. Or using Dixie to fight an underwater current to swim to a secret exit. The game has a ton of this stuff, which makes me wonder how some players are good enough to beat the hidden hard mode.

Bosses also follow the fair, but difficult design philosophy. When you first encounter some of the game’s bosses you’ll want to rip your hair out in frustration. But if you persevere, and don’t give up you’ll eventually learn their pattern. With enough practice you’ll realize what you have to do during that pattern, and rise above. Eventually you may even find clearing some of the bosses easy. Except for that fish boss. That thing has to even stress out the masters of Donkey Kong.

But even after you clear it the first time you’ll want to go back to find all of the things you missed. The game has a wonderful amount of creativity behind it. Whether it’s finding new ways to use its mechanics, the music, the art style, or the new characters. Even something as simple as giving the Kongs a new enemy to face really does help the game grow beyond the designs we’ve seen since 1994. For some it may feel like going from Bowser to Wart. But that isn’t a bad way to mix it up.

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I didn’t even talk much about the graphics, and sound. These are both astonishingly well done. While some screen shots in this review or footage on YouTube might give you a good idea of how things are, it looks even better on your TV or monitor. The character models have a lot of small details that you might not appreciate at first, until you realize just how few games really go this extra mile. Even games on more potent hardware. The fur on the Kongs. The engravings, and dings on the Snowmads’ armor. The textures on not only objects, but the terrain. These little touches really do show just how much work Retro’s artists put into a project.

Beyond the graphics, are again, little flourishes in the animation. The expressions on the enemies’ faces changing. The look of water pouring from the background to the foreground. The transitions the game often employs continue the attention to detail throughout the game. You might not have time to look at some of it because you’ll be trying to survive. But if you have 70 lives stored up, risk ten of them to take in some of this stuff. It may not be the flashiest stuff you’ve seen in a game, but it does make the world seem just that much more alive.

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The music, and sound effects are also exceptional, with little grunts, squeals, and other noises going along with the animated characters nicely. The soundtrack also has a wider variety of genres than you might expect. You’ll have the typical tropical island themes, but also some nice instrumental folk music, tribal drum music, some alt-country themes, and the game even manages to throw in some heavy metal now, and again.

If you have a Wii U, and haven’t played this one yet you might want to give this a spin. It’s a lot of fun to play, has a lot of charm, and a lot of challenge. It definitely should hold a place among some of the best platformers in recent years. Retro Studios really did outdo themselves with this one. Though giving that one relentless penguin a Gundam may haunt me the rest of my days.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

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