A year on from his stunning Wii comeback in Donkey Kong Country: Returns, Mario’s original arcade nemesis is back to show the porky plumber how 2D platforming ought to be done. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a game that sits proudly among the best of its class, combining the best of old and new to create a near-perfect experience from start to finish.
From the outset, the game harkens back to the Donkey Kongs of old, introducing old favourites Dixie Kong and Cranky Kong as playable characters (a first for Cranky) as well as bringing back Diddy Kong from Returns. Each of these support characters can be found in barrels scattered about the levels, allowing Donkey to utilise their unique abilities by having them ride monkey-back in single player or with the second player controlling them independently in the game’s couch co-op multiplayer mode. Diddy retains his ever-useful jetpack, granting the player a short hover to make tricky jumps more manageable, while Dixie’s helicopter hair gives players who miss a ledge a second wind to propel them upwards to safety.
No matter which character you play, the controls in general feel just as tight as in Returns
But it is Cranky Kong who brings the freshest move-set to the table. Doing his best Scrooge McDuck impersonation, he sports a cane that can be used to give underwater enemies a much-deserved clip around the ear as well as doubling up as a pogo stick, allowing you to tactically traverse spike pits, reach higher platforms or bounce around the entire level like an idiot according to your preference. Given the amount of bottomless pits in Tropical Freeze, his ability isn’t as universally useful as the potentially lifesaving powers of the other characters but the variety in gameplay his play style brings is a welcome addition nonetheless.
No matter which character you play, the controls in general feel just as tight as in Returns, with every movement maintaining a slight momentum that makes judging and executing jumps incredibly reliable. That said, the co-op mode contains a few design flaws which will have you occasionally wanting to throw your controller across the room in frustration. Often the camera has a hard time figuring out how to show both players what’s ahead, even when they’re relatively close together on screen, and trying to grab onto vines and climbable surfaces can lead to a fair few unfair deaths. In addition, it feels as though Nintendo has forgotten which console they’re designing their games for. Only a fraction of the available buttons on all supported controllers are utilised and, save for Off-TV Play, Tropical Freeze doesn’t make any use of the Wii U Gamepad.
It is also unfortunate that drop-in/drop-out co-op play is not supported. If you want to change characters or switch between one or two player mode you have to quit to the main menu and boot your save afresh. However, these are minor niggles in a game that, even in co-op mode, gets away with being ruthlessly difficult precisely because it is generally so very well designed. The way you control Donkey Kong and co. is slightly more complex than in your typical 2D Mario game yet it doesn’t take long before you begin to master the art of swinging, jumping, rolling and grabbing your way through the game’s lengthy campaign.
In contrast to its controls, Tropical Freeze‘s storyline is relatively straightforward. The story serves more as an excuse to present the player with a variety of interesting levels, however, and the game’s presentation more than makes up for its brevity of plot. The Snowmads, the icy antagonists of the game, are set up well. Every type of enemy is brought to life through charming animations that individually characterise them while humorous cutscenes introduce each stellar boss battle and set you up for showdowns that feel personal.
Attention to detail is a running trend throughout the game. Trees bob and sway in the wind, backdrops burst with life and colour and, as is implied by its oxymoronic title, each level of Tropical Freeze embodies a refreshingly unique theme. Gone are the simplistic tropes of jungle world, underground world and volcano world. One minute, you’re swinging under hot air balloons above a forest ravine; the next, you’re jumping between wooden giraffes in a sunset savannah or sliding across the ice in a lava cave. Stages also play very differently to one another. Whether you’re piloting a runaway rocket barrel through a cave of cheese or careening through totem poles on the back of Rambi the Rhino, no one level is like any of the others, creating a real sense of constantly moving forward through an interesting and surprising world. As far as level design goes, Tropical Freeze puts almost every other platformer to shame.
Some levels are even accompanied by dynamic music which evolves the further you get, building to a satisfying crescendo by their finale. Veteran ‘Kongposer’ David Wise has returned to craft a soundtrack brimming with new classics as well as remixes of his old compositions, spanning the genres of tribal, orchestral, electronic, metal, and mash-ups of all of the above and everything in between. The only thing that remains consistent throughout is how well it all accentuates the on-screen action, and even vice-versa in the case of a handful of Rayman-inspired music rhythm stages.
As far as level design goes, Tropical Freeze puts almost every other platformer to shame.
For those looking to book return trips to its luscious world, a generous amount of extra stages, artwork and other goodies can be discovered by finding alternate exits from levels or finding the various collectibles hidden in each world, and time-trials are available from the outset for the hardest of hardcore to try and set their best times on the game’s online leaderboards.
All in all, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a must-own game for any Wii U owner. While co-op can sometimes be an exercise in frustration, its single player campaign raises the bar for the entire platforming genre. It’s unrelentingly fun, charming throughout and, most importantly, wildly inventive from start to finish. You’d have to be bananas to miss it.