When Retro Studios' Donkey Kong Country Returns released for the Wii in 2010, I was ecstatic. Since I was 13 years old when I played Rare's original Donkey Kong Country for the first time, I marveled at its solid platforming and varied level design. Returns proved to be as solid in gameplay ideas as the original franchise, and when it was re-released in 3D for the 3DS, I did not hesitate to purchase it again.
Next month, Retro Studios is releasing a sort of sequel to Returns in the form of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. After experiencing a solid four-hour chunk of the game that gave me enough time to get to the very end of World 4, I am glad to report that Tropical Freeze won't be just another by-the-numbers sequel, but an engaging addition to the revamped franchise that adds some intriguing new mechanics while taking out minor annoyances of the original Returns.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (Wii U)
Developer: Retro Studios
Release date: February 21, 2014 (North America and Europe)
If you've seen any of the trailers for Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, you probably are familiar with the basic storyline of the game. Donkey Kong and family are enjoying his birthday when a cold breeze from the north arrives, heralding the arrival of the Horkers of Skyrim...or at least sea lions and other arctic marine animals wearing Nordic equipment, known as the "Snomads." This serves as an intro to an adventure of island-hopping through six distinct islands, rife with platforming challenges and mine cart levels.
Also revealed at various shows such as E3 and PAX 2013, the cast of playable characters includes Diddy Kong and his signature jetpack move, Dixie Kong with her helpful ponytail hover, and now Cranky Kong with his walking stick that works rather similarly to Scrooge McDuck's cane in DuckTales. Each level varies with the characters on offer, though often the barrel containing them will be a multi-character barrel that switches between all three, giving you the option to choose how you want to approach a challenging part of a level. Cranky Kong's cane is especially helpful in areas where the ground is filled with spikes, though you do still have to time your jumps well so that you take no damage each time you land.
One of the changes that I'm personally most pleased with in this latest iteration is the complete removal of the Super Guide, so players can collectively say goodbye to Professor Chops, the checkpoint pig popping up and annoyingly waving a flag to signal that you suck as a videogamer. In his place is a much more revamped shop, curated by none other than good old Funky Kong and his wifebeater/tight jean shorts combo and rad shades. In HD, you can see his funky fur impressively well, and he kinda comes off as the awkward uncle who never really got past that phase in the eighties when being totally bodacious was in.
However, his shop is most excellent, as it carries two new colored balloons -- the green balloon that is essential for saving you from pitfalls at opportune moments in more challenging levels, and the blue balloon that helps you breathe underwater for longer. Another cool addition is a capsule machine that drops out a capsule for a few coins. Each capsule unlocks figurines that you can rotate and view in your Extras menu, including the cast of characters and enemies like the commonly-seen "Tuff Tucks" -- tossable penguins with cute little helmets. The shop has a few other power-ups as well, including extra barrels full of monkeys so that you don't have to go into a level alone if you need that extra help.
Though there is no online co-op mode for Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, there will be online leaderboards that are dedicated to speed-running levels, as well as a single-player Hard mode that unlocks after you beat the main game at least once. The representatives on hand were hesitant to divulge much information on what hard mode entails, though more information was promised in the near future.
In terms of level variety, Tropical Freeze has it in spades. The first island world, "Lost Mangroves," is a swampland with some really cool levels, including one of the first returns of the Donkey Kong silhouette levels. This time around, if you're traveling with Cranky Kong, his stunning white beard is visible rather magnificently next to DK's bright red tie. The level itself is appropriately swampy, with bright green hues and silhouetted huts.
After this world, you're traveling through a pastoral landscape with windmills and giant Alphorns (Alpine Horns) that you must jump across in some really great platforming challenges, as well as a Grasslands/Savannah island that is facing the elements half the time and also a return to the underwater levels in "Seabreeze Cove." As one of the coolest levels I played in Island World 3, "Bright Savannah" involved out-running a windstorm that is tearing the level apart around you, so that your platforms are basically whatever may be blowing about in the wind at any given moment. The game is filled with exciting sequences like this, and even when I lost about 30 of my balloons in one challenging area, I still had absolutely no urge to put the controller down.
As in Donkey Kong Country Returns and in the original franchise, each level contains tons of bananas to find, secret areas everywhere, "KONG" letters that open up secret levels, and of course the occasional mine-cart or rocket-barrel section. The musical scores of each level created by veteran David Wise are wonderful, with a great new standout found in level 2-1. The tune is "Windmill Hills," and it evoked the mood of the theme song to Cheers, with a bit of a folksy country vibe. The wonderful score to the underwater levels is back and revamped, and I wished I could listen to it more at the event as I heard it over the sound of other journalists playing on other systems.
Surprisingly, one of the biggest joys of Tropical Freeze are the boss battles. All of the bosses, including the Viking Sea Lion of the first island, are in no way slouches, and involve understanding their independent move-sets and weaknesses to lob things at them or jump on them and take them down. They also get more dangerous as you take them down, switching up their attacks in intelligently designed ways that keep you guessing at how to properly end them. One of the bosses actually made me think of boss levels in shoot-'em-ups that require you to avoid incessant enemy fire and find brief safe spots before implementing your attack.
There is one small concern that I feel it necessary to air, and that is in playing on the GamePad. As in all of the games before, grabbing onto things requires holding onto the bumpers while manipulating the joystick and jump button, and on the very wide GamePad this is immediately apparent as a recipe for some serious carpal-tunnel, especially since the game is such a challenging and relentless platformer. Furthermore, requiring you to hold down the grab button just feels awkward on the GamePad, and I found myself forgetting to do so several times on tough levels before I'd wise up.
After playing for about an hour on the GamePad I had to shake my hands just to give them a bit of proper exercise, and decided it was a good time to switch controls. Fortunately, several control options are available, including the Wii Remote by itself or the Wiimote and Nunchuk combo, though personally I would highly recommend playing with the Wii U Pro Controller, as it just feels right in one's hands and is perfect for challenging platforming situations.
The biggest thing I want to stress about my four-hour playthrough is that even though Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze is very similar to Returns in terms of general gameplay design, it is shaping up to be a worthy successor due to its varied levels and smart changes to gameplay design. It also looks beautiful on a huge HD screen and the levels seem to run silky smooth.
The challenge has also been increased in only the best way possible, so that deaths are never frustrating because of controls or other problems with level design, but simply because they operate on that addictive "one more try" quality that only the best platformers achieve. I'll definitely be picking up my copy in February to see Donkey Kong and family through to the cold, bitter end.
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