Developer: Retro Studios
Medium: Wii U Disc/Digital
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a fantastic return to the world originally created by Rare on the Super Nintendo, which was then brought back to life by the development team at Retro Studios on the Wii in 2010. Like most, I was a bit disappointed to learn that the first Wii U title by Retro would be a sequel to Donkey Kong Country Returns, but that disappointment was quickly replaced by eager anticipation fueled by the fact that Donkey Kong Country Returns was one of my favorite titles for the Wii.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze sees the return of Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong, this time aided by Dixie and Cranky. You’ll navigate across six islands featuring a number of levels set across the backdrop of Donkey Kong Island. The story here features a group of arctic invaders dubbed The Snowmads, comprised mostly of penguins, walruses, and owls. Each world culminates in a memorable and challenging boss encounter, which generally outshines those featured in DKCR.
You could argue that Tropical Freeze is more of the same, as it does bear a striking resemblance to DKCR’s mechanics. Obvious additions come from the two extra characters, but by and large you’ll be treading familiar water here. There’s still KONG letters and puzzle pieces to collect, secret exits that lead to hidden levels, bonus events tucked into out of the way places, and a metric ton of bananas to grab. Donkey Kong and crew can roll and bounce off of most enemies, and at times will find themselves riding atop an animal buddy, swimming underwater, perilously driving mine carts, and trying to stay aloft in rocket-fueled barrels.
Some changes and tweaks have been made to take advantage of the improved hardware, with an emphasis on dynamic camera angles to capture specific action sequences. On-rails segments will often switch from 2D to 3D perspective, which thankfully is more impressive than it is confusing. Swimming is now aided by a spin attack that’s effective at eliminating enemies, and with a partner in tow spinning can dramatically improve Donkey Kong’s underwater speed and mobility. There’s also various sections that will make use of items or hooks buried or attached to the ground, which can grant Donkey Kong different items, destructible barrels, or trigger environment changes.
KONG-Pow is a new ability introduced in Tropical Freeze, which allows you to trigger a special move provided you have a partner in tow and have filled the appropriate meter. When activated, it will eliminate all on-screen enemies, and leave behind various goodies dependent on the partner you’re currently using. There are also new items available through Funky Kong’s item shop, including different colored balloons to save you from falling and drowning. Time Attack mode returns too, but with an option to upload scores and replays to the internet. You can view replays from other players by viewing them in the leaderboard, which breaks down into top global players, friends, and players closest to you in ranking.
The level design in DKC: Tropical Freeze is fantastic throughout. I can’t think of a single dull moment across the six main worlds, but I can recall plenty of memorable levels. The mix between standard platforming, swimming, and on-rails mine cart or rocket barrel sections is also handled well. You’ll find yourself constantly surprised by different elements introduced in later levels, with a solid difficulty curve that doesn’t get as frustrating as late-game DKCR did. However, there are still moments where you’ll be thankful for the plethora of lives on offer.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze excels in both visuals and audio too. The game looks absolutely gorgeous in motion, with fantastic attention to detail given to each level. Donkey Kong and company are lovingly rendered, with surprisingly realistic fur, and fluid animation. Each level is jam-packed with varied background and foreground elements, often interacting with each other. The enemy design featured is solid, keeping in line with its Viking theme often in a comedic manner. I found the bosses to be exceptional, and far more memorable than those featured in Donkey Kong Country Returns. Learning patterns and avoiding attacks provides a real challenge, and I’m not ashamed to say that I died more than a few times on just about every boss featured.
The soundtrack headed up by famed composer David Wise is a real special treat for fans of the original SNES series. You’ll hear lots of new tracks that fit well with the tropical theme that runs rampant throughout the DKC series, and you’ll also hear a few recognizable remixes. I’m sure this will be a real contender for soundtrack of the year, despite the fact we have a good 9 months or so before that debate can even start. I found myself looking forward to every instance that involved being underwater and you’ll have little trouble finding your own favorite musical moments throughout.
There are a couple things here that I found odd about the game, considering Nintendo's usual desire to utilize system features fully. The Wii U GamePad isn’t really utilized for anything other than controls, so outside of the option for off-TV play you’ll not see any touch-screen gimmicks or other second-screen uses. But if you do opt to play the game through the GamePad screen, I’ll say that there’s not a significant loss when it comes to visuals, and it’s perfectly playable scaled down.
Also, DKC: Tropical Freeze doesn’t seem to have any specific MiiVerse features worth noting. I’m assuming you’ll be able to upload images and make posts to a dedicated community board, but of course that isn’t live until launch. But there’s no mention of MiiVerse in menu options or settings, which I found surprising. We were told that online functions wouldn’t be live here, but online leaderboards seem to work fine prior to launch. I found this to be a minor disappointment, because I actually like seeing MiiVerse implemented in interesting ways like in The Wind Waker HD and Super Mario 3D World.
The six worlds offered by Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze may fall a bit short of expectations, and lead fans to worry about lack of content. But the reality is that there’s a lot being offered up throughout each world, with hidden stages, paths, secrets and collectibles. The real challenge, of course, comes not just from beating each world, but clearing them completely and unlocking all goods hidden throughout. It may not take an exceptional amount of time to simply finish the game, but you’ll certainly put a lot more hours into chasing all the extras.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze marks another high-quality release for Nintendo on the Wii U, and adds one more reason to pick up the hardware if you haven’t already. It’s another fantastic platformer delivered with absolute care from developer Retro Studios, and it’s another shining gem in the small but impressive line-up for Wii U. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze definitely qualifies as a must-have title for Nintendo fans everywhere.