Donkey Kong Country fans waited over a decade for a return to Rare's beloved formula. While they didn't receive a game from the original creators themselves, Retro Studios more than proved themselves worthy of taking over the Donkey Kong Country name with 2010's Donkey Kong Country Returns. It's now 2014, and on a console already spoiled with platforming riches, Retro Studios is at it again with a followup to 2010's Wii entry, this time on the Wii U. While many can argue it's not the game the Wii U needs to move console units, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is as close to platforming nirvana as one can get.
Donkey Kong, Diddy Kong, Dixie Kong, and Cranky Kong are all at a birthday celebration for Donkey Kong. As DK is about to blow out his cake candle, a strong burst of arctic air comes in. A new enemy has arrived at DK Island, the Snowmads, and with a blow of an ancient horn, the entire island freezes over, and in the process, blows DK and pals far, far away. Now, DK and the gang must move from island to island, hoping to return their iced over homeland and kick out the Snowmad forces occupying it. It won't be easy, but seldom anything worthwhile ever is.
Donkey Kong doesn't just have his best bud Diddy along for the adventure this time. No, Dixie Kong who debuted in Donkey Kong Country 2, and Cranky Kong, playable for the first time in the DKC series, join the two characters. Each Kong has its own special ability. Diddy Kong can use his rocket pack to hover across gaps for a limited amount of time. Dixie Kong can twirl her hair like a helicopter, giving her the ability to slowly float downward as well as get some extra air. Finally, Cranky Kong goes all Scrooge McDuck, making the surprisingly competent old Kong curmudgeon be able to use his cane as a pogo stick, reaching new heights and bouncing off spikes effortlessly. Some areas in the game are only accessible if the player has a particular Kong with them.
In single player, Donkey Kong has one of the given Kongs on his back. Several DK barrels allow him to change his partner. Usually the barrels alternate between Kongs, allowing the player to pick up the barrel when they see the character they wish to partner with. In multiplayer mode, the two monkeys are individuals, but are able to team up on certain tricky platforming sections that would be difficult to pull off with two players moving separately from one another. An oversight that drags multiplayer down is that if the second player wants to change what Kong they're playing as, they have to drop out of the game, come back in, and select which Kong they want to change to, a process that takes at least 20 seconds on a good day. This is a needlessly clunky way of doing things when you consider that Super Mario 3D World allowed players to press one button to back out and quickly switch to whichever character they wanted.
New to the series is a special move that is able to be unleashed when enough bananas have been collected. This move, Kong Pow, destroys all enemies on the screen instantly. Depending on which character is with Donkey Kong, the enemies will either leave in their wake 1-up balloons, yellow hearts, or banana coins. Kong Pow isn't a mandatory move, and it really doesn't do anything all that exciting to prove its necessity to be in the game.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is made up of six unique islands, each with their own variety of environments and levels to master. While there are indeed fewer worlds than in its predecessor, Tropical Freeze boasts more levels per world. In addition to this, there are various alternate exits, ten total, that open the way to otherwise locked levels. The secret exits usually require a certain Kong to reach them.
The greatest asset to Tropical Freeze is its masterfully crafted level design. Each introduces its own special type of obstacles to overcome. One level you're bouncing off jelly platforms, another you're riding across zip-lines over bottomless pits, while another you're putting out fires in a burning jungle setting. There's even the return of swimming sections from the original Donkey Kong Country trilogy, as well as levels where DK, the enemies, and the foreground are cast in shadow, making for some really beautiful and artistic levels. Speaking of which, the numerous amount of breathtaking locales, helped visually by some of the most detailed and inspired backgrounds ever seen in a 2D platformer, make Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze's levels a blast to play. Not only are levels designed for simply getting through normally, but they are also created with the capability for speed run sessions. Each platform, enemy, and obstacle was surely carefully considered and placed by Retro Studios' level designers to make speed runs work flawlessly. It's stunning to me how the levels work both in the story mode and in time attack runs so incredibly well.
Returning from the 2010 Wii game, mine cart levels and rocket barrel levels (ones that have the player hitting and releasing a single button to raise and lower the barrel, avoiding hazards along the way) were infamously difficult and more trial and error than anything else in that game. Tropical Freeze makes these levels more fun and fairer with the addition of being able to be hit twice before dying as opposed to the all too common one hit kills that Donkey Kong Country Returns netted players. One of the cooler mine cart levels has Donkey Kong and a partner riding through a sawmill, leaping over chasms and other hazards, jumping on makeshift wooden platforms carved by a saw blade that makes chase to the Kongs, and parts where the player rides on top of a body of water, diving underwater for a short period of time when the Kongs jump.
Each island concludes with a multi-phase boss fight. These are much improved over what was seen in Donkey Kong Country Returns. They're more challenging, more fun to fight, and will get the player's pulse pounding and hands sweating. Each boss follows a particular pattern, but even after learning each boss' tells, it can still be rather difficult to avoid attacks. Still, there is a grand sense of accomplishment in defeating a boss after failing consistently.
If for some reason levels become too challenging, there are ways to overcome them with some assistance. While the Super Kong system from Returns does not make a comeback, Funky Kong's shop offers an abundance of helpful items that may very well save the player in a pickle. With banana coins, one can purchase items that save them from falling into a pit, items that give DK and friends extra health to work with, items that protect the Kongs from one crash on mine cart and rocket barrel levels, and much more. These aren't necessary to fully enjoy the game, but if one is really struggling with a particular level or spot in a stage, these bonuses can be a blessing.
As with Donkey Kong Country Returns, KONG letters and puzzle pieces return. The former unlocks a special super-hard, hair-pulling, teeth-gritting temple level when all of the letters in a world are collected (making six temple levels total). Completing all of these levels unlocks a final world that puts your platforming skills through the wringer. Puzzle pieces are found hidden away in each level, usually 5, 7, or 9 per level. Collecting every piece unlocks concept art in the image gallery. While this might not seem a cool bonus, the added challenge of getting puzzle pieces makes Tropical Freeze even more rewarding, as they are usually located in out of the way spots, places that require expert platforming precision, and bonus rooms. Bonus rooms contain a dozen or so variants that do repeat, unfortunately, which does come across as a little lazy.
For those who couldn't stand shaking the Wii Remote and Nunchuk to perform rolls and other moves in the Wii predecessor, Tropical Freeze proudly supports the Wii U GamePad, Wii U Pro Controller, as well as the old control setups of Donkey Kong Country Returns. That means if you like to shake the controller, then waggle away. Unfortunately, the Wii U GamePad is not used creatively at all for Tropical Freeze. In fact, if you're playing the game on the TV, the GamePad's screen completely turns black. The only use that Tropical Freeze has for the GamePad is off TV play.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze's screenshots do the game justice already, but looking at the game in motion makes the title look sensational even more. Backgrounds rarely repeat themselves, offering an amount of visual variety unparalleled in most other 2D games. The fur of each Kong is rendered marvelously, and the lighting only adds to the visual wonder. There's even portions of levels that forgo the 2D constraints of the game, offering a dynamic camera as the Kongs blast from barrels deep into the background.
Sound-"wise", David Wise makes his long desired return to Nintendo, and he seriously makes up lost time. While the soundtrack is varied and features an immense amount of themes, a fair amount of them are more atmospheric than memorable. However, other themes, such as the fantastic Grassland Grove and Windmill Hills, make it so it looks like David Wise never missed a step. There's even numerous callbacks to past franchise themes, such as Lockjaw's Saga, Stickerbrush Symphony, and Life in the Mines. Overall, the package is both graphically and aurally amazing.
For those who were clamoring for platforming of the utmost quality, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze delivers an enthralling adventure full of neat surprises, level ideas and design, wonderful songs, and gorgeous, well detailed visuals. It's not a perfect game, as there are some annoyances here and there when one dies from several gotcha moments, but Tropical Freeze is a top tier platformer that has somehow surpassed Donkey Kong Country 2 as my favorite game starring Nintendo's great ape yet, something I thought would be impossible. Whether you're looking for a challenge or just a new Wii U game to play, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze will hold you over until winter finally retreats.