As I played through the first two worlds of Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, I found I had so many impressions forming, I figured I'd better write them down to keep them straight. It turned into a mini-review so here we go:
The biggest thing I keep thinking about while playing Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is how all the little details just drive home how much this isn't the Donkey Kong Country I knew and loved in the 90's. It feels more like a DKC-inspired platformer with its own design aesthetic. For example:
Retro obviously just looked at Rayman's underwater levels and said "yeah let's do that, but with Sonic-esque air metering". Pummeling enemies? Worrying about finding air? Way to completely miss the point. Underwater levels in DKC are supposed to be about precision-swimming to avoid obstacles. The panic comes from trying to navigate a tricky section full of enemies, not from having to race to the nearest air bubble. And on the occasions when you find an Enguarde crate, there's something special in way the dynamic changes--not only are the controls smoother, but you can now destroy what once stood as a deadly obstacle. I will say I like how the music changes in real-time when you switch between land and water though.
I was excited when I heard about team-up abilities, but then I found out it was a lame "kill everything on the screen by pressing a button" variety and immediately lost interest. How is that platforming? The partner system in the DKC games was an enhancement of platforming. You could switch between two characters that play differently for strategic reasons (Donkey for tough enemies, Diddy for tough jumps/tighter platforming, Dixie for long distance precision and slow jumps). And don't get me started on throwing your partner to get to a higher area or avoid enemies. Like DKCR, I got the feeling that this was made as a generic DKC-esque platformer and then the actual Donkey Kong stuff was skinned in later with no thought to how an actual DKC game really plays.
The music is very upbeat. Too upbeat, in fact. Much like how the first game's rendition of the bonus theme completely missed the point of the bonus music--making it feel calm and peaceful, rather than jaunty and energetic--the music in this game is smooth to a fault. Sure the original DKC had 'DK Island Swing' and 'Aquatic Ambiance', but almost as soon as you get past the first area, you have the first minecart stage--frantic and tense, befitting the deadly stage itself. By comparison, the first couple minecart stages here have such calm music you'd think you were on a log plume ride at Disney. Likewise the cave levels were atmospheric, but in a moody way, whereas the caves in this are mostly just bland (although a small hit of Cave Dweller Concert creeps in at times, just enough to get you thinking about it before fading away to almost nothing again).
And speaking of bonus levels, they're the same lame "collect everything on the screen in the time limit" junk from last game. Where's the variety? "Find the token?" "Bash the Baddies?" How about a collection level where the bananas appear one-at-a-time? Even the first DKC had more bonus-area variety than this.
Finally, If the first game was supposed to be New Donkey Kong Country, than this is clearly New Donkey Kong Country 3, aesthetically-speaking. What happened to 2 guys? You know, the best one? You guys have the level design chops, now you just need the aesthetic and gameplay to match.
Now with all of that, you probably think I hate the game, right? Well, actually I'm loving it. The fact that the only complaints I can formulate are that it doesn't remind me enough of one my top 10 best games ever made is indication that there's not much there to criticize. Knowing that it's a direct follow-up to DKCR, I was already prepared for it to be less like the SNES series than I wanted, and as a follow-up to Returns, this game could hardly be better.
Tropical Freeze makes a few small, but much appreciated improvements over its predecessor. No more forced waggle is a big one. I never found the shake controls to be the deal breaker a lot of people did, but they weren't ideal, and the 3DS port really drove that home. The blowing mechanic was also one of those "works better in theory" ideas--even in the 3DS port, I found myself getting hurt or killed too often when I tried to do a blow without fully stopping, or doing a ground pound when I meant to blow out a fiery enemy. The pulling things with X/Y mechanic is a good, albeit kind of unnecessary, replacement. The barrel levels now have two hearts, just like minecarts, with the opportunity to refuel when possible. This is probably the best improvement because the "one false move and you're dead" design of the first game made those levels a real exercise in frustration. They play out a lot more like minecart levels now--you get some forgiveness if you don't dodge everything perfectly, but if you hit a ledge or screw up more than once, you're still done. And, although a lot of the enemies are pretty clearly just reskins of DKCR enemies, the aesthetic this time around is a lot more enjoyable--that's probably subjective but I find (ant)arctic mammals a lot more endearing than tiki creatures. Still a far cry from the iconic Kremlings and creatures of the original series, but if you're going to go original, seals and penguins with viking gear is a pretty good way to do it.
Plus, I've barely scratched the surface of the game, so there's still hope for it to fix some of my aesthetic concerns, too. Alpine Incline in World 2 features the most Donkey Kong Country track I've heard so far in either game--and I don't just mean style-wise. The instruments, arrangement, everything sounds like it could be from one of the classic games--maybe the Wise-composed GBA version of DKC3? And I'll have to listen to it a few more times, but I thought I detected a hint of Bayou Boogie in the first world's silhouette level. If we're going to get any DKC2 music homages this time around, it probably won't be until later in the game anyway. (I know everyone's excited for Stickerbrush Symphony, but I'm personally most excited for the possibility of Hot-Headed Bop (not likely, given the setting, I suppose), Lockjaw's Locker, anything based on Gangplank Galleon, Chain Link Chamber, or the best track from the game, Hornet Hole (search your feelings, you know it's true)). And as long as there's game left, I'll hold out hope for more Buddies.
A couple other small observations: The game does seem a bit more difficult--not so much in the platforming (yet) but in the general challenge. I haven't found all the puzzle pieces in any single stage yet, and the first boss was, while not terribly difficult, certainly more complex than any boss from the original Donkey Kong Country. There's a "trinket shop" now--spend 5 banana coins to get a random figurine of a character from the game. It seems a bit rigged (I got, like, 10 Donkey Kongs in 25 purchases) but that might just be because I haven't seen enough unique enemies yet. In any case, I'm always a sucker for those things and it gives you something to spend all those coins on. Also, I've noticed the game stutters pretty seriously when loading levels. The levels themselves are smooth, so it's not a huge deal, but it's still a little concerning. Beyond that, the game is absolutely gorgeous, so I can forgive the game for the occasional hiccup while loading.
In summary, if you even mildly enjoyed Donkey Kong Country Returns, you should definitely give Tropical Freeze a look--there's a lot more to like this time around. And if you liked Returns, then this is absolutely a must-buy. Anyone looking for a nostalgic reminder of the SNES days should probably not get their hopes up too much, though.