Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze – review

  • Format: Wii U
  • Unleashed: Out Now
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Developer: Retro Studios
  • Players: 1-2
  • Site:

Donkey Kong Country is a series that many feel an affinity for after the original Rare-developed trilogy, yet it’s one of the few that some agree doesn’t need nostalgia to appreciate it. After the fun-but-flawed revival in Returns, Retro Studios take another stab at living up those lofty standards in Tropical Freeze.

This latest entry immediately feels like a more grandiose adventure than its predecessor, the opening cinematic setting the stage with music straight out of the latest “epic” blockbuster – only this one stars gorillas and penguins! It’s great to have David Wise back on composing duty here after the lacking soundtrack of Returns.

Visually, a disparate mix of aesthetics are brought together into a cohesive whole. Early examples are the industrial elements and arctic-themed enemies that dot the warm jungle backdrop without coming off as abrasive, thanks to the clever use of colours.

More powerful hardware provides better visuals: the fur in particular stands out as something that brings a new tangibility to the Kong family. While it’s easy to go awry with a cartoon look, Donkey Kong has made the leap into high definition flawlessly without compromising the series’ visual identity. Character design has seen a massive step up. The drab and indistinct enemies of Returns are replaced by penguins, seals, and a host of other animals given an inspired and evocative Nordic theme. Little things like Viking helmets and shields add a ton of character and life to the world.

Each island is varied and distinct. A lot of this is down to the music, executed perfectly to accent each level’s identity. The art is obviously also a major factor in this; the islands look oceans apart despite similar colour palettes being used throughout.

It seems rote to discuss the narrative, but it’s worth noting the great job that’s been done in telling what little stories there are. Tropical Freeze uses simple animations to tell its story, and it’s performed here almost as masterfully as in A Link Between Worlds. Story-focused gamers will find little to compel them to keep coming back, however.

While the only major change to the existing gameplay is a stricter control, there are additions: Dixie and Cranky Kong return. The two fit into the same role as Diddy Kong in sitting on DK’s back to give him a boost in jumping. It’s not just for cosmetics either, each Kong helps out in differing ways: Diddy’s jetpack gives you more distance; Dixie’s hair gives you more height; and Cranky’s cane allows you to slam into the ground. This brings some much needed variety.

The bosses themselves have a larger sense of scale but follow the familiar formula of three phases, though these are given more variety than simply one new attack or fire being added.

For example, the giant Viking seal’s first phase has him sliding at you until you jump off his skull where he’ll then throw fish at you. The second phase has him mixing both of these up with adding an impenetrable roll to his slide and new fish using completely different mechanics. Minor changes, but by the time the third phase rolls around and amps these up again as well as throwing in penguins, it almost feels like an entirely new boss.

This scale carries over to the minecart sections of the game too, the camera given more freedom to send you in all kinds of crazy new directions, making it a ton more satisfying when you get it right. It just makes it a lot more fun; even when you fail you’ll be laughing and smiling, a massive improvement over Returns’ exhausting minecart levels.

In terms of level design, Tropical Freeze is one of the most finely constructed 2D platformers to date. Each level is packed full of ingenious mechanical surprises that are a joy just to experience – even if you screw it up. It’s the next natural progression of the genre that seems to have leapt over a few steps.

There are also dynamic elements in the levels, giving them a sense of being a real, changing world. A minecart level suddenly becomes a boat ride or parts of the level are chipped away beneath you in ways that seem organic in the context of the world around you to eliminate stagnation. This gets more impressive throughout the game and does a great job of creating new challenges without slipping into unfairness.

The series has always had a reputation for being tough-but-fair and Tropical Freeze is no different. The game never does anything unfair; your deaths are always your own fault. The game teaches the player most mechanics without tutorials – a trail of bananas might lead you beneath an enemy’s unusually higher trajectory, showing you that their colour indicates attack height without just unfairly killing you because you lacked information.

Levels are arranged into a series of islands, acting as an overworld map in familiar Donkey Kong Country tradition. In a major improvement over Returns, you can’t simply buy your way into each island’s hidden levels with a key; you now unlock them through previous levels, providing even more incentive for exploration alongside the familiar KONG letters and puzzle pieces.

This line has shocking implications for the Nintendo multiverse.

Another addition to extend the life of the game are the new figurines. Though they’re ultimately a pretty shallow and meaningless feature, collecting is always fun!

The only real negative gameplay aspect is the segments where control is wrested from you to show DK being hurled from barrel to barrel. Even adding a simple button prompt to let you do this yourself would have been a major improvement.

Tropical Freeze makes changes and additions to the groundwork laid down in Returns that make it a much more enjoyable experience, unquestionably living up to – and perhaps even surpassing – the standards of the Donkey Kong Country series. It would have been nice to see a few risks taken with the game to have it stand out, though.

critical score 8

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Written by Adam S

Hailing from Parts Unknown, Adam grew up with a passion for three things: Videogames, anime, and writing. Unfortunately his attempts to combine the three have yet to form Captain Planet, but they have produced some good byproducts.

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