I’m pretty sure that at some point, I promised to do an in-depth look at this game -- which a couple of people apparently wanted, for some reason. (Masochism, perhaps?) I didn’t forget, of course; to make a mostly-stupid story short, let’s just say “blame Watch Dogs” and strike the record. And let’s not delay any longer. Ready for a long-ass post on Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze?
I sure hope so. I can’t think of a better way to close out the year -- if only to fulfill self-ordained informal contracts. Well, that, and to erase the lingering, pus-soaked taste of this year's worst games from my mind. The best of them heal all wounds.
So here’s the setup. DK and pals -- Diddy, Dixie, and Cranky -- are all about ready to get their party in full swing (ha) complete with a banana cake-type thing. But before DK can dig in, their island is invaded by the Snowmads -- a bunch of Viking-style baddies out to seize the island for themselves. And before DK can even take the first swing, that’s exactly what they do; their boss uses his giant horn to plunge the island into a new ice age, and exile the Kongs from the Snowmads’ new home. Now DK and the gang have to take back what’s theirs -- one jump, roll, and barrel toss at a time.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Tropical Freeze is the same game as the Wii’s DKC Returns, because they’re pretty much the same. They didn’t even bother with the GamePad, so unless you do some off-TV play, the screen will go dark. And even if the game looks better than its predecessor, it still follows the guideline spread out -- i.e. be pretty much the old DKC games, only with better graphics. Progress, right?
As is usually the case, the object of each level is to head from the start to the goal -- in this case a floating barrel -- with as many lives intact as your skills will allow. So if you want to be a little salty, you can pare Tropical Freeze right down to the basics and leave it at that. But even if I made it sound like an issue at the start, it really isn’t when you get down to it.
In the same sense that (Ultra) Street Fighter 4 isn’t the same game as (any given version of) Street Fighter 2, TF is not JUST DKC with better graphics. So really, it’s hard to heap hate on a genre as long as it’s creating a sense of progression; it’s either that, or each individual game’s execution is so high that it doesn’t make you think about the nitty-gritty. See: Guilty Gear Xrd -- because it’s poetry in motion after Hugh Jackman’s training regimen.
What I like about TF is just how involved the levels are in the experience. It’s pretty much a given that most of the dangers you’ll face come from bottomless pits, so making your jumps count is more than a little important. But the game is constantly tossing in these variations on the formula, so you have to adapt. Thunderstorms, factory machines, massive persimmons, fires, and even giant octopi are threats you’ll have to deal with along the way, complicating each leap over a bottomless pit.
But the thing about the levels is that it makes better use of spectacle than most spectacle-driven games. Example: I played a bit of The Evil Within a while back, and there was a sequence where you had to run down a hallway to escape blades of doom. The music swelled, the camera shook, the scenery was all kinds of uninviting, and…I barely felt the fear the game wanted me to. Why? It’s because all I had to do was walk down a hallway. Hardly engaging stuff. Comparatively, TF has you engaging in the platforming -- interacting with a level changing before your eyes -- while the sequence-based threat approaches you. So basically, you’re facing certain death as you face certain death.
It’s stuff like that -- and more, all things considered -- that makes the classic platformer still have worth in the modern gaming world. I’ve had more scares and heart-stopping moments in TF than in The Evil Within, The Last of Us, and Resident Evil 5 and 6 put together. I’m involved in what’s going on! I can actually die because of my lack of skill! Cool stuff is actually happening besides “run from point A to point B”! And the levels look so freakin’ good! And the music is just so NGHNNNGFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF --
It’s probably best to learn your movement options before the end of the first world. You’ve got your basic run and jump, but learning how to roll into a run -- and by extension long jump -- will seriously help you out in a pinch. Or ensure your doom, potentially. But the interesting thing about TF (and something that feeds into its fear-inspiring ability) is that DK’s movement is structured in such a way that sometimes you just barely feel like you made it onto a ledge. All things considered, it kind of makes sense; I don’t know much about gorillas, but I don’t imagine them being the most agile of creatures.
The core conceit -- the reason for DK’s less-than-mobile nature -- is because the player is supposed to make use of the other Kongs to bolster his movement, via letting one ride on his back. Think of it as a sort of Kong-gattai. Join with Diddy, and you can use his jetpack to go farther. Join with Dixie, and you can use her ponytail to go higher. Join with Cranky, and you can bounce off obstacles and enemies. Having a gattai partner certainly makes things easier on you -- because you also get a screen-clearing super move -- but the tradeoff is that if you’re not careful, you lose your extra Kong and the extra mobility it affords.
If you can hold onto a Kong, you’ve proven that you’re good enough to handle the game -- and because of it, get to progress more easily and quickly. If you can’t hold onto a Kong, then you can still make it through the game, but you’ll have to learn how to make it through levels without a crutch. The only advantage I can possibly think of that DK might have over the others is that his roll maybe goes farther. So basically, you run the risk of having one player “crippled” -- and by extension, one player constantly yammering about how DK is so bad.
But maybe that’s the point.
Far be it from me to promote antisocial behavior, but hear me out on this. Yes, TF is 100% playable and beatable with two players, so you don’t have to worry about some unfair advantage -- just the usual concerns about who’s pulling the team and who isn’t. But for a while now I’ve been thinking that there’s a disadvantage to playing every game with friends, and by extension making every game based on/around multiplayer.
Admit it: you experience things differently with friends than you do on your own. Watching Twilight by yourself? A miserable, headache-inducing experience. Watching Twilight with friends? Guaranteed to bring on the laughs. But that doesn’t make Twilight good (and by extension doesn’t make multiplayer games -- hello, Destiny -- inherently fun).
What I’m getting at here is that sometimes you need to experience certain things on your own -- without anyone or anything to color your perceptions. Think about it -- don’t you think there’s a reason why movie theaters put you in the dark, promote relative silence from the audience, and are extremely against cell phone use during the movie?
It’s because even if you are with friends/family, the setup is such that you get to engage with the movie on a solo, personal level. You get to observe its subtleties in a way you might not with a bunch of jokers. Granted, that means that the product in question has to hold up to scrutiny. And you know what? TF does.
The draw of TF comes from its levels -- the visuals, aesthetics, layout, music, what have you. (Especially the music, in a lot of cases; some of the music from the Africa-themed world will practically staple a smile to your face.) I don’t think there’s a single line of dialogue spoken outright in this game, and outside of the opening and ending cutscenes there’s little in the way of a straight narrative. If you’re looking for weight, you’ll have to fill in the story for yourself. You’ll have to make use of what the game DOES provide in order to get more out of TF than just “this is a fun game”. And I’m wholly convinced you can do that.
The thing separates TF from Super Mario 3D World is that Mario’s latest adventure pretty much requires exploration in order to advance through the game -- but paradoxically, it can feel like you’re punished for doing so. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not devaluing 3D World just because DK’s latest is in our midst. I’m just saying that the two games are out to accomplish different things, and I prefer one approach over the other. 3D World runs the risk of trivializing its worlds because the players are only looking through it to find Green Stars; couple that with a persistent timer, and you can’t digest each level -- and the world at large -- as much as you’d hope.
When you’re not being chased by an incoming threat, you get to take in TF at a more leisurely pace. You actually do get to digest it -- enjoy its elements as deeply or as superficially as you wish. Okay, sure, you’re incentivized to have a look around to find puzzle pieces, but A) that’s for unlockable art, and B) it’s not required. The KONG letters are there too, but they’re less about scouring every inch of the level and more about testing your abilities -- asking if you’ve got the skills (and the guts) to grab them in the middle of your run. There’s a difference. The line blurs at times, yes, but there is a line; TF wants you to feel the world, not just conquer it. The question is, why?
Well, let’s step back a bit. See, the thing that I can’t help but come back to again and again is the Kong-gattai mechanic. That was put in there for a reason, as antithetical it may seem to modern-day sensibilities. You have to play as DK. You aren’t guaranteed to have a buddy Kong with you to make things easier. You can -- and likely should -- take control away from Player Two so that Player One can have a slightly better time. Why? Those are some very specific design choices; they can’t possibly be an accident.
Because they aren’t.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that DK is the star of the game. Setting aside the fact that his name is in the title, he’s also the largest of the Kongs by a wide margin. The apes may have clothes, shelter, and some of the fixings of modern society (and beyond, considering that Diddy has a working jetpack), but it’s safe to assume they still operate under basic rules. The chief rule? The biggest and strongest ape gets to lead the pack. So all things considered, that means either Funky Kong is in charge, or DK is. Three guesses as to who’s the one true King of Swing.
The alternative theory I have -- absurd as it may be -- is that DK rules because he’s inherited the power from his ancestral Kong kings. To be more specific, he rules because he can’t die in a conventional sense. Sure, if he falls down a pit in the game he’ll lose a life, but what does that mean contextually? You lose a balloon and go back a few paces, and get to do it again and again until you get it right. DK may die, but he’ll just be reborn so that he can learn from his past mistakes and rectify them. In other words, being the king means being trapped in a cycle of death and rebirth -- a cruel fate, but one that bestows great knowledge to a rightful ruler. And as the saying goes…
I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t buy into my theory of DK being trapped in some metaphysical ouroboros, because even I think I’m reaching farther than Mr. Fantastic playing a game of pin the tail on the donkey. But even if there’s no direct cycle of rebirth, I’d still argue there’s a symbolic one -- or more precisely, a cycle of injustice and justice. Redemption of crimes through crimes, and justifying past crimes. In simplest terms, the rules of nature weave their way through the game, ensuring a never-ending conflict between the Kongs and any other takers in their universe.
Consider the Snowmads. At first glance, they’re just a bunch of bullies eager to muscle in on Kong territory. And while that’s more or less true, when viewed with a broader scope they’re only doing what they need to for their survival. They need food. They need shelter. They need a place to call home. And what better place to set up shop than an island brimming with resources? They have to do a little remodeling, sure, but the tradeoff is that it’s almost as simple as tooting a horn.
Jeez, is there any instrument more hilarious than the trombone?
Anyway, what’s consistently bothered me about TF -- and I suppose the other DKC games, by extension -- is this: where the hell did all the machines and vehicles come from? Seriously, there are pirate ships all over the place (and not all of them from the Snowmads, I’d bet), fruit processing plants, miles’ worth of mine cart tracks, and at least one full-on, fully-functional factory. And let’s not forget Funky sets up shop in a series of downed airplanes. So did the Kongs make all of this stuff? I’d like to say yes, but that just begs the question of why they live the way they do -- in treehouses and such -- instead of in towering, industrialized cities of their own creation.
My theory on the subject is this: the Kongs aren’t the first ones to inhabit that island, or the islands (i.e. most of the levels in TF) surrounding the main one. Rather, the chain of them collectively represents a territory fought over for generations, and occupied by different creatures/cultures. The wars of old simply left the islands mostly uninhabited, with all the machines and mechanisms left to decay, and the land itself forcibly uncultivated. Only pockets of resistance remain -- a porcupine here, a bird there -- and the Snowmads are trying to capitalize on that. They’re trying to systematically occupy all of those islands to harvest the remnants of the past -- the things that DK has forgotten are of incredible importance.
Remember how I said earlier how the only one who could have been king was either DK or Funky? Well, my theory is that Funky willingly stepped away from the throne so he could devote himself to archaeological pursuits. He’s an ape devoted to uncovering the mysteries of the past, even if that means putting him at odds with DK. (That’d probably help explain why he charges you for supplies; behind that smile lays a wellspring of resentment.) The King of Swing lives for the moment, with only the slightest care for the future. Content with a life of banana-themed cakes and eternal summer weather, he’s more than willing to let his brethren Kongs live as they see fit.
The Snowmads change all of that. The exiled king and his closest friends have to fight their way back to their stolen peak, with the fate of the other Kongs up in the air. (It’s true that there’s not enough evidence to say anything conclusive about their state of affairs; on the other hand, there’s at least one level featuring a raging avalanche, so draw your own conclusions.) They know about the resources left practically untouched by the Kongs, and are more than willing to use it in their stead; because of that, you tend to see penguins, walruses, and other wintry foes making their rounds through each level. Of course, they’re after more than just a few whirring gizmos.
It’s worth noting that there are secret exits in some of the game’s levels, marked not by a floating barrel but instead by a swirling portal of light. On top of that, there are special trinkets you can find and collect to unlock a bonus world, just in case you aren’t satisfied with the beating the game gives you on a regular basis. The important thing is that the history of these islands is multi-layered -- and below the technological layer that we can obviously spot, and below the evidence of travelers who set up shop, there’s a layer that implies some sort of precursor race.
That is, there was an ancient civilization that used a magic variant of technology to construct ruins, temples, and more. I’d bet that that’s what Funky is after, even if you never see him leave his shop(s); by extension, the Snowmads might be eager to harvest those secrets for themselves, if only for the sake of saying “Ha ha, it’s mine now!”
DK may be strong and (ostensibly) kind, but he’s still something of a slothful leader. He’s grown lax on his throne, and the Snowmad invasion has forced him to remember what it means to be a King of Swing. There’s no doubt that he’s got the power to face the future, but he doesn’t have the wisdom gained from observing the past -- from the ancient, bloody struggles of his forebears. He may have secured the island from threats past (there’s probably a reason why the recent games have to keep making new enemies, and for more than legal issues), but he has yet to learn firsthand what it means to know true hardship. That is, until the events of this game.
Even if you don’t believe in (or care about) the worldly struggles of the Kongs, there’s still plenty of weight in the implied personal struggle. Consider this: Diddy, Dixie, and Cranky have to rely on DK to see them through plenty of struggles, up to and including riding on his back. He gives them power -- via their screen-clearing attack -- and they in turn give their liege increased mobility. So on a practical level the Kongs draw strength from one another so that they can one day make it back home.
But it goes beyond that. DK is their leader, and there’s pressure on him that can’t be applied to anyone else. It’s fortunate that the four Kongs managed to stick together despite the Snowmads’ sneak attack, but they’re still an absurd distance away from home. Forced to say goodbye to everything they know and love, while contending with both the sins of the past and the threats of the present, they have no choice but to press on through dangerous territory. And you could argue that the journey’s not even worth it; the final world has the Kongs returning to a frozen DK Island, rendered nigh-unrecognizable by enough snow to fill South Dakota.
Human or ape, that doesn’t strike me as the sort of thing you just shrug off. It’d probably help my case if the Kongs didn’t universally cheer and shout “WOO-HOO!” at every opportunity, but in exchange, some of the music in the game -- in the later levels most of all -- really helps paint the direness of the situation. Still, imagine what it would be like if there was just one more cutscene in the game -- one sequence designed to establish rapport. For example, imagine the Kongs find a frozen banana after a level overflowing with traps. Think of how they might react.
Diddy tries to play it all off as a laughing matter, but you can hear how rattled he is as he tries to pal around with DK. Dixie’s more visibly shaken, and says out loud (relatively speaking) what no one else is willing to: “Do we have a home to go back to?” Cranky stays quiet and contemplative, as does DK -- the latter of the two saying that it’s time to start pressing forward, albeit curtly.
But while DK puts up a front when he’s around Diddy and Dixie, he’ll confide in Cranky between levels, or when the night sets in. I can just imagine him admitting that he’s worried, and shocked by the world of the past the group is travelling through, and (naturally) voicing his concerns about his worthiness as a king. The Snowmads’ assault has left his confidence shaken, and he’s become wary of the consequences of his actions -- or lack thereof. And Cranky, wise as he is, supports DK by telling him tales of kings past -- that merely by doubting himself and by caring about his closest friends, he’s proven himself worthy of the throne.
DK acknowledges that, and chooses to move forward even if his friends’ high hopes weigh down on him. Both he and Cranky understand that the Snowmads, and the countless other enemies out there, are eager to destroy the Kongs’ way of life -- to destroy their culture (by smashing bananas, for example) simply because they can. Because of that, DK fights on with renewed vigor to reclaim his homeland, with the potential of the past, present, and future setting his simian heart ablaze.
That’s pretty much all my headcanon -- the validity of which is pretty debatable. But even so, that’s hardly the important thing about TF. No, the important thing about it -- about any game, arguably -- is its ability to inspire that headcanon. To transcend the limits of pixels and platforms, and become something that provokes thought. Provokes discussion. Provokes theorizing. You can do that with a million worlds, a thousand, one, or even zero; what matters is that it IS possible.
It reminds me of what Sun Tzu once said: “It is best to win without fighting.” The game’s straight narrative is so bare you’d be forgiven for thinking that there’s no story at all -- but if you pay even a shred of attention to what’s going on around you, then you can make your own. You can turn off the console and walk away with something meaningful gained each time. Every time. And if games are going to get better -- if they’re going to reach their full potential as a medium -- then maybe that’s what they should be doing on a regular basis.
Maybe. Just maybe.
But seriously, those rocket barrel levels are bullshit.