Since their first altercation many years ago, Donkey Kong has been the anti-Mario, where Mario saves the princess and helps to rebuild the mushroom Kingdom, Donkey Kong looks out only for his family and destroys anything that gets in his way be it animal, vegetable or mineral.
Likewise, their latest 2.5D platforming exploits are almost polar opposites. Mario is graceful, jumping with acrobatic ease and leaving almost no sign he’s even been there. Donkey Kong, on the other hand, is a brute, a force to be reckoned with whose very presence transforms the world around him as he tears it apart, literally tugging at the scenery and destroying platforms with his heft as he runs and rolls his way through any that dare oppose him.
New Super Mario Bros U was incredibly inviting and, for want of a better word, easy. It didn’t provide much of a challenge until the later stages of the game. Even then, if you fell down there was always a helpful hand there to pull you back up and carry you to safety. It was a metaphorical stroll up a hill. On the other hand, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze feels like trying to scale a mountain at times. The learning curve is steep and the game is arduous from the outset. By the time you see the credits roll, you’ll feel like you’ve just conquered Everest. The sense of the battle hard won permeates throughout the whole of the game’s design: you’ll lose countless lives just trying to get to a checkpoint, at times you’ll want to toss your gamepad out of the nearest window, but the feeling of satisfaction once you’ve got past a difficult level or boss encounter makes it all worthwhile.
Accompanying the rock hard platforming is a very poignant and harrowing tale about the bonds of fraternity and one family’s attempt to reclaim their homeland from foreign invaders and the dangers of releasing large amounts of Freon into the atmosphere.
OK, maybe I just jazzed the story up a little there; the story is actually much simpler. A group of Norse- themed arctic animals made up of penguins, walrus and particularly pissed off polar bear called the Snowbads have invaded Donkey Kong Island, transformed the once peaceful(ish) tropical island into a wintery death trap and evicted the DK crew in the process.
So it’s up to you to guide Donkey, Diddy, Dixie and Cranky back home through 6 beautiful themed islands which, despite the games name, aren’t all winter themed. In fact, the level of variety, sheer inventiveness, and scale on display is incredible.
Highlights include the Serengeti inspired carnival of Grassland Groove, complete with enormous giraffe and snake puppets that dance in time to the levels upbeat music and the brilliant Sawmill Thrill- best described as the world’s first log flume level, in which DK jumps from a mine cart to a hollowed out log and then back to another cart before finally being chased by a giant saw blade that first destroys and then rebuilds the level around you at breakneck speed.
Underwater sections also make a welcome return in Tropical Freeze, and are given extra depth thanks to a new air meter which must be topped up by inhaling air bubbles a la Sonic the Hedgehog.
These run the gamut from brief sections to entire stages mostly found in World four, the aptly named Sea Breeze cove, such as the calm silhouetted beauty of Amiss Abyss in which you swim through dark caverns, the only light being the glow from luminescent fish and mysterious, ancient technologies that spring to life as you zip past. As well as a tense, thrilling and deadly game of cat and mouse with that bastard octopus from Donkey Kong Country Returns in the aptly named Irate Eight.
Tropical Freeze’s presentation is top notch. Not only is the game-world as bright, chaotic and fun as you would expect form a Nintendo platformer but the level of detail and care taken over every asset in the game is meticulous to say the least: the texture of the wood and slight peeling of the paint on the game’s barrels, the way the rocket barrels fizzle, pop and smoke as DK clings on for dear life, just how cuddly the Kong clan look now. Watching the camera swing from side on to third person as DK is shot deeper into the landscape all works together to give the impression that there is in fact a living breathing world springing to life and falling apart right inside your TV.
Accompanying the beautiful bedlam on screen is a pitch perfect score featuring great remixes of classic tunes and a few new ones to boot by the legendary David Weiss, composer on the original Donkey Kong Country games on the SNES.
If you’ve ever played Donkey Kong Country Returns, you’ll instantly feel at home with Tropical Freeze. However, rolling, jumping and bashing your way through every challenging level is a lot easier thanks to the games new gamepad controls that replace the awkward motions required to roll and pound at the round in Returns with a simple button press, although, you can still use the same wiimote and nunchuck controls of Returns if you want to. Personally, I preferred to use the Gamepad Pro because of its superior d pad and analogue sticks.
There are also no gamepad features save for off-screen play, which to be honest is the only one I really care about, and I’m happy that Retro decided against shoe horning in control features for the sake of it, when they didn’t have to.
This time the entire Kong clan is along for the ride, as DK is able to summon Dixie and Cranky as well as Diddy. Each sub character have their own special abilities that Donkey can utilise whilst he carries them on his back as well as the ability to perform a tag team ‘Kong Fu’ move that kills every enemy on screen by pressing L&R once you’ve collected enough bananas to fill the meter. On land, Diddy works identically to the way he did in DKCR using his jetpack to help extend jumps, whilst underwater he provides an additional boost so you can swim faster. Dixie helps you to gain extra air time and height in a move reminiscent of Yoshi’s flutter jump whilst enabling greater control underwater by twirling her hair. Meanwhile, Cranky Kong does his best Scrooge McDuck impersonation using his cane as a pogo stick to allow you to bounce onto otherwise dangerous obstacles and enemy’s heads as well as gain extra height in the process and fails wildly at enemies underwater once submerged.
Mastering each sub character’s abilities and knowing which sidekick is best for your current situation is vital if you want to get every hidden puzzle piece and K-O-N-G letter strewn throughout the game. Hell, it’s important if you even want to get to the end of a level at times. Tropical Freeze is by no means an easy game, with similar old school ‘tough, but mostly fair’ sensibilities as Dark Souls, getting a perfect run requires not only skill but the ability to memorize levels and a healthy amount of patience as well.
This is exemplified by the game’s incredibly harsh but exciting Boss battles. If you thought the bosses of Returns were tough you haven’t seen anything yet. Each of Tropical Freeze’s boss battles are lengthy, hard fought multi-tiered affairs with no checkpoints that put all that you’ve learnt in the game up to that point to the test.
However that isn’t to say Tropical Freeze is needlessly punishing. The game’s difficulty is somewhat tempered by how easy it is to gain additional lives via a combination of grabbing every last banana you see and the regularity with which the game hands out life saving red balloons. Often doing so before a particularly tricky section to the point where getting stuck is actually beneficial to your balloon stocks and avoiding a game over screen.
However, if you do come up against a level that feels like a proverbial brick wall, Funky Kong has your back so long as you have the necessary coin (also not hard to amass), setting up shop on each island to provide various one shot items to help you on your quest. These include; extra lives, green balloons that save you when you fall down a pit, blue balloons that give you extra air underwater, additional hearts, extra shields for mine carts, banana juice that nullifies damage from the first time you are hit, barrels with Diddy, Dixie and Cranky in, and Sqwarks the parrot who helps you find hidden puzzle pieces and K-O-N-G letter. Alternatively, you can ignore all of that useful stuff and spend all your cash on capsule toys instead (guess what I spent my money on!).
The only problem with Tropical Freeze is its multiplayer that rarely ever comes together. It’s great to have a partner for the game’s boss fights. However, unless you manage to develop a psychic link with your onscreen partner or they are happy to just ride along on DK’s back the entire time and stun enemies, most of the game’s levels are just too fast paced and chaotic for easily coordinated play. More often than not one player will make a jump and the other will find themselves with nowhere to go as the platform they were aiming for has already crumbled away to nothing. As a result you end up burning though your collective lives quicker than you can gain them. In short, most of the time it makes the game harder when it should make it easier and Tropical Freeze is already taxing enough as it is.
Despite this, Tropical Freeze is still an absolute triumph, the perfect blend of old school sensibilities and modern advances. Much in the same way that the original Donkey Kong Country was back on the SNES, Tropical Freeze is a fine showcase of the graphical grunt of the WiiU and one of the best platformers on the system. Which, considering the competition, is just about the biggest compliment I can give it.