It was when I heard Aquatic Ambience almost note for note as it sounded in the original Donkey Kong Country that I knew I loved Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. It was almost like composer David Wise was saying, “hey, that remix on Wii was nice, but if it’s not broke, don’t fix it”. Tropical Freeze as a game adheres to that particular idiom, but also isn’t afraid to boldly address some of the small complaints levied against Wii’s Donkey Kong Country Returns. The taught, challenging platforming of the series is now complemented with the return of swimming, two additional Kong partners, and a litany of new mechanics, camera angles, and a wonderful soundtrack. Wii U continues to add feathers to what is quickly becoming quite a full cap. Tropical Freeze does not disappoint.
Like Returns, Tropical Freeze opens with a small cinematic explaining the basic premise of the game. The baddies this time around are the malevolent Snomads, a pack of icy animal warriors who have evicted DK from his island paradise and overrun it with frost. Donkey, Diddy, Dixie, and Cranky Kong must make their way back to reclaim their home. Admittedly, beyond this bit of animation (which is outright beautiful and reminiscent of a Pixar or DreamWorks film), there’s not a lot of story to experience in the game. Not that it matters; video games are in the unique position of not needing to have a deep narrative if the focus of the experience is on gameplay. Tropical Freeze is all about its gameplay, and is all the better for it. Still, for those wanting a LittleBigPlanet-level of narrative, this is not that kind of game.
The platforming is as challenging as ever, but as a result is immensely satisfying to pull off. The Donkey Kong Country games are all about creating perpetual motion, learning to time and master DK’s jumps and rolls so as to careen through enemies in a seamless, silky barrage. Hopping and bopping Snomads is almost rhythmical in its execution, something that really helps differentiate this series from the Super Mario Bros. games. A new addition to this dynamic are the new zip-line vines, which DK slides down uncontrollably and must maneuver between while avoiding enemies and pitfalls. I loved these segments, which felt both familiar and refreshing all at once. I did find it a bit disappointing that Donkey’s blowing mechanic was removed, this time around. It seems to have been replaced by the ability to pull items from the ground (which is fun), but the action felt so unique and whimsical that I was sad to see it go.
Mine carts and rocket barrels have returned, much to the chagrin of some players. I’ll be honest, I live for those levels. They’re a perfect way of preventing monotony from setting in, while also providing an additional layer of challenge; as Nicolas Vestre might appreciate me saying, these levels separate beef from side salad (that’s a Dream Team reference!). I was thrilled when the camera pivoted behind the Kongs in certain levels, requiring them to swap between tracks to avoid certain death. Speaking of the Kongs, the implementation of Dixie and Cranky was perfectly handled. Dixie’s spinning hair acts as an opposite to Diddy’s descending downward glide, instead wafting her and Donkey upwards a short distance. Cranky is altogether different with his Scrooge McDuck pogo cane antics, bouncing high and across deadly hazards. While there are certain areas and secrets that can’t be discovered without a specific Kong in tow, the game lets the player be very liberal about which partner they prefer to use at a given time.
I also can’t not mention how swimming has been brought back. It’s brilliant. rather than the simple bobbing up and down of the original DKC trilogy, Tropical Freeze grants Donkey 360 degree movement through the water that would make an olympic swimmer jealous. I felt a wave of giddiness wash over me when I saw DK dive into a pool of water for the first time; it reminded me very strongly of the second stage of Donkey Kong Country 2 and seeing the water down in the hold, realizing quickly that yes, I can jump into it. (I’m a huge sucker for water in a video game; am I alone with that?) The absence of swimming in Returns was palpable, as it was such a big part of the explorative nature of the SNES DKC games. Explore you will, by the way, as there is a ton of bonus areas and hidden exits to find in Tropical Freeze. Players are rewarded for poking their noses into every corner of the game, is all I will say, so be sure to take your time taking in the sights. The game is also playable with a friend, with the same fun co-op gameplay of Returns.
Graphically, Tropical Freeze demonstrates just how important it was for Nintendo to make the switch to HD with Wii U. If Returns was gorgeous, this game is Emma Stone-levels of otherworldly. Shimmering water, African-inspired grasslands, giant octopuses, rain, snow, fire, and a million other environments and effects are on display throughout. I spent as much time just staring at the screen as I did actually playing. This is a masterclass of level design that outstrips most other contemporary platformers by a wide margin. It doesn’t hurt that original series composer David Wise lent his musical stylings once more. I loved what Retro did to recapture the sound of Donkey Kong Country in Returns, but there’s a very pronounced sound to Wise’s work that is more than welcome to hear again. The score is epic, bubbly, and toe-tappingly memorable, with both new tracks and remixes/reinterpretations of favorites from DKC2 and 3, for good measure.
Joining Pikmin 3, Wind Waker HD, and Super Mario 3D Land, Tropical Freeze is yet another reason to own a Wii U. Its blissful platforming is the stuff that inspires people to play video games and make even better ones. I loved every minute I spent getting the Kongs back home, and truly wish that Retro rounds off a trilogy with one, last DKC game. Everything that would have made Returns a better game is on display here, and its wealth of content will keep you busy for many hours and days to come. In an industry dominated by headshots and blood splatter, it’s more important than ever to support and appreciate titles like Tropical Freeze that excel at being something different.
+ Tight controls; the return of swimming; all three Kongs are fun to play with; multiplayer is strong; graphics are spectacular; exquisite soundtrack; mine carts and rocket barrels-that’s right!
– Light on story, which might irk some; no more blowing