Review by Archmonk Iga
Tropical Freeze brims with ingenious design and unrelenting challenge. What more can we ask for in a Donkey Kong game?
As with any Donkey Kong game, I knew going into Tropical Freeze that there would be levels that would challenge me to my wit’s end. Still, the challenges always managed to surprise me when they arrived. What surprised me most of all, however, was that Nintendo and Retro developed yet another DK game full of innovative level design and creative visuals. Frankly, I was expecting DKC Returns (for the Wii) with very few new bells and whistles--and to an extent, that is what I got. Thing is, I thought I would have been disappointed. But Tropical Freeze made sure that I wouldn’t be. Yes, it is more Donkey Kong. But if I’ve come this far with the series, I should understand by now that DK doesn’t need any fancy new gameplay tricks to make it so great. Tropical Freeze is a DK barrel that embraces everything that makes Donkey Kong great – goofy characters, hard-to-reach secrets, fast-paced challenges – and throws itself at you, showering you in bananas and Game Overs.
While it sticks to the formula, there are enough important changes that make Tropical Freeze a must-play for any DK fan. The most obvious change is that Donkey Kong can be joined by not only Diddy Kong, but Dixie Kong or Cranky Kong as well. These three unique characters can be controlled by player 2, and the majority of my time with Tropical Freeze was with another player using these funky monkeys. As player 1, Donkey Kong moves exactly as you’d expect—he feels as heavy as he looks, and he doesn’t walk or run so much as trudge across the stage, requiring much more energy to jump than someone like Mario or Kirby. He is not an easy character to control. His three partners are similar, however their smaller frames grant them certain advantages. Their added abilities can make it easier for newer players (like my player 2) to still have lots of fun with Tropical Freeze. I personally loved the challenge with Donkey Kong, but I know that my player 2 enjoyed himself much more because Dixie Kong’s hair gave him that aerial boost whenever he needed it. Similarly, Diddy Kong has a hovercraft on his back that doesn’t lift him up but allows him to maintain the same speed as when he jumped. Cranky Kong will feel the most foreign to DK vets and newcomers alike—he can bounce on his cane to stay safe from spikes. The three partners also have certain advantages underwater that Donkey Kong lacks. Overall, if Tropical Freeze is to be played with two people, it is designed for the more experienced to control Donkey Kong and the less experienced to use Diddy or Dixie (Dixie is the closest player 2 will get to “easy mode”). Cranky is great for a fun challenge if player 2 is willing, but may be by and large ignored unless you are looking to uncover all of Tropical Freeze’s secrets.
Sadly, your player 2 may be at a disadvantage like mine was. The player 2 controls are by far the worst aspect of Tropical Freeze. Their options are astoundingly limited despite the game letting you use a Wii remote, Wii remote + nunchuk combo, or a Wii U Classic Controller. Since I do not own a Classic Controller, my player 2 opted for the Wii remote turned sideways, favoring the d-pad over the nunchuk’s joystick for the 2D platforming movements. What makes this such a detriment is that there is no button for player 2 to perform a roll, ground-pound, or underwater spin, which are essential in DK gameplay. Instead, it is like DKC Returns in that you must shake the remote to perform these actions. This brought down the experience for my player 2 quite a bit—shaking the remote so frequently and pressing buttons while dealing with the many challenges being thrown from every which way is not in any way an intuitive method of playing. Thankfully, he was able to climb onto my back or simply let me perform these actions as DK with my Gamepad controls when the shaking proved to be too much work. It is a little confusing that Nintendo and Retro thought players would enjoy this cumbersome style of control. I didn’t enjoy it in DKC Returns, and it still isn’t fun in the sequel several years later. Why couldn’t they give us better controller options?
But the truth is, having a second player made the experience so much more fun. Plus, I did play a great deal of Tropical Freeze on my own. You can still have a sidekick join you and use their abilities in single-player, but they might not last long because the game is so challenging. Certain segments also do not even enable player 2 to join, such as the minecart segments, and are among the craziest challenges the game will throw at you. I can’t tell you how many deaths I had during the rocket barrel and cart areas—they are tough, unforgiving, and will tease you with collectables that are just out of your reach the moment you realize they’re there!
These numerous deaths aren’t limited to the cart/rocket sections, of course. Standard platforming fare proves to be an equally great challenge the further you get in Tropical Freeze. My partner and I got sliced and diced too many times to count on the tricky conveyor belts of Fruity Factory. Amiss Abyss is deceptively beautiful, hiding dangerous hazards in its shadows as you swim from one neon jellyfish to the next. To succeed in Tropical Freeze, you will need to do a whole lot of climbing, swinging, launching, jumping, pulling, pushing, rolling, pounding, and bouncing. Collapsing platforms, moving screens, hungry jumping sharks, fiery owls? This game’s got those too. Sometimes the camera angle will even shift and truly test not just your timing and skill, but even your depth perception! And as you’d expect, the unforgiving boss battles will test your wits on the fly. The challenge is indeed very consistent, and often you will think the game is out to get you—especially if you are looking to collect all the KONGs and puzzle pieces. Thank God for sidekicks! The secret levels are among the toughest I have played in a 2D platformer and were in fact made somewhat easier when player 2 dropped out and it was just me and my friend DK (I still died a lot, of course).
The challenge never lets up, and the beautiful and creative level designs, along with the groovy and percussion-heavy soundtrack, may often go unnoticed because you are so focused on staying alive—there were times when I took a break and let my partner play alone, and it was amazing to get to see everything happening in the backgrounds of these gorgeous levels. Thankfully, some of the levels do occasionally let up on the challenge and let you appreciate the incredible art direction. My favorite level was the slightly less challenging Baobab Bonanza, which had a background full of the fat, stumpy trees perched on unusual rock formations, with flowing waterfalls scattered around to the complete its beautiful, artistic ambiance. Tropical Freeze’s soundtrack is also a force to be reckoned with. High Tide Ride perfectly times its steel drum anthem with the heavy jumps and falls of the minecart Donkey Kong launches from one railing to the next. Forgive the pun, but Tropical Freeze doesn’t miss a beat.
Regarding the rest of its presentation, Tropical Freeze is absolutely, unabashedly Donkey Kong. There are lots of bananas, and DK and crew provide plenty of humor with their banana passion. The Snowmads are the nasty villains who freeze DK’s home (on his birthday of all days), made up of cartoon caricatures of penguins and walruses with viking mentalities. The game has an obvious thing for alliteration and rhyming with the names of its levels, which is at the very least kind of cute. Funky Kong also has a store if the game’s challenge proves to be too much for you, and he is full of hilarious one-liners that make shopping with him worth it even if you don’t actually use anything you’ve purchased.
Retro didn’t want to make Tropical Freeze easy for anybody, but they also made sure to keep you coming back because it is so freaking fun. Beating the game alone is an incredible feat, but uncovering all of its secrets and beating the hidden levels brings on a whole new dimension of challenge. It even gives its most dedicated players a Hard Mode and Time Attack—anyone who is able to conquer those is worthy of the highest gaming praise. My partner and I probably put nearly 25 hours into Tropical Freeze. Once we started, we couldn’t stop, despite the numerous Game Overs accompanied by cursing and finger-pointing.
I am not sure why my expectations were low for Tropical Freeze. I guess I figured it’d be more of the same, without considering that more of the same in DK terms is an absolutely wonderful thing. Sure, it was more Donkey Kong. It looked like it, sounded like it, and felt like it. What’s so wrong with that? It’s not rocket-barrel science. All we needed was some Diddy, Dixie and Cranky, plus the usual Nintendo ingenuity, and we’ve got another exceptional entry in a series that prides itself on mixing crazy challenge with crazy fun.
Rating: 4.0 - Great
Product Release: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (US, 02/21/14)
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