Its finally time to talk about the newest installment in the Donkey Kong series with Tropical Freeze. We here at 3GEM took the time to visit the games that made this game possible with the original trio for the SNES. You can check those reviews right here: DKC, DKC2 and DKC3 and Donkey Kong Country Returns, which was also a great start of the franchise new platforming era. So today, we take a look and see if the newest installment can handle the pressure of being part of one of gaming’s most beloved franchises or just fade away with the rest of winter.
The adventure begins with Donkey Kong and his DK crew celebrating his birthday with a jamboree at Donkey Kong’s shack. Everything is put to a halt when an invitation from snowy viking-like critters called the Snomads come to invade the Kong’s island as well as turning into a giant glacier and sending our group of heroes into islands far from home. Now it’s up to Donkey Kong and pals to find their way home and save the island from a complete freeze over.
Now, I`ve heard many people say that the whole idea behind the story for the game seems a little unimaginative, but you can’t forget – this is a Donkey Kong game, after all. Most times the story involves you getting your bananas back from the baddies (you are playing as a giant ape), and it’s never a bad thing to have a story straight to the point. The strong suit for any Donkey Kong game hasn’t been about the idea behind the story, but the gameplay and the difficulty levels throughout the game.
While the game can be difficult at times, it’s not as aggravating as the SNES trio. You won’t be able to cruise your way through the game in one shot, but you won’t die as often. Even if you do, the game gives you an abundance of lives to go through. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it gives you the opportunity to find every little secret hidden in the pitfalls or other dangerous areas. The overall level designs are pretty straightforward, but still add great new elements to keep it exciting. Whether it’s the minecart levels where all hell breaks loose or the calm water levels, the game always keeps you on your toes and interested through every level.
There are three different controller schemes you can try to play the game with. I personally think the Wiimote sideways is the best way to play, as it simplifies the gameplay. Also, while the Wiimote + Nunchuck works very well and the Gamepad doesn’t offer much (which I’ll get back to in a moment), it is as basic as the Wiimote. I felt much more comfortable playing with the Wiimote and I didn’t have to focus on shaking my wrists every time I wanted to do something. The overall response for the motion controls are pretty spot on. On occasion, if you over-shake you will be pitted to your death. So in these rare occasions you can blame the game and not your skills.
Co-op gameplay returns, and with more selection of characters, making it feel much more flexible. There, you can pick which Kong suits you best, and you can move freely around the levels and cause much more damage than you could in a single-player experience. And while Returns was far more difficult to play as two because of its level designs, I found Tropical Freeze to be much easier to play as two. The levels feel bigger and give you more room to move, making it easier to progress. These factors make it the only Donkey Kong game I have felt comfortable playing with another person.
The biggest blunder for Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze was not having any Gamepad functionality besides the off-tv gameplay. Nintendo reportedly said they want to make the Gamepad more appealing to gamers by finding creative ways to showcase why the Wii U is different compared to the other consoles out there, but not putting any other options on the Gamepad seems like a big loss. And yes, I do know the game was supposed to have been an earlier release, before the news on Nintendo and wanting to promote the Gamepad, but it’s still no excuse to ignore the biggest feature of your new console. It just seems like a shame that they overlooked something that could have made the game even better and promoted the Gamepad a little at the same time.
Like I said before, the Donkey Kong Country series has been praised for its solid gameplay, and Tropical Freeze brings back memories from the old school platforming days while adding new ideas into the mix. While most of the original brass is back with Diddy and Dixie with similar abilities as in past games, an older, crankier face comes into play with Cranky Kong and his pogo stick jumping skills. As well, they have added a new power-up called Kong-POW: by filling the meter can defeat all the enemies on the screen as well as turning them into various items. Even Funky Kong makes it into the game, but as a shopkeeper who will help you along the way by selling many different types of useful items (from extra lives to a partner barrel) or even giving a puzzle finding partner in Squawks. Speaking of animal buddies, the lack of pals you get in the game is a little disappointing. Really only Rambi and Squawks made a return to the game, and it feels less exciting once you get them. The worst part of it is that you don’t need them to beat levels, making them feel a little useless. It would have been fun to have seen returning faces like Enguarde the Swordfish or Squitter the Spider. I’d even take Rattly the Rattlesnake back! If you are going to add some animal buddies, make sure to add more or all of them to the game, and make them valuable allies that can really help out in tough times.
The Donkey Kong franchise’s jump from Wii level graphics to HD was made in a successful leap. The game looks terrific in HD, with the vibrant surroundings full of colours, staying true to the Donkey Kong vibe. The background levels are absolutely superb. While the game looks great, there is one issue that stands out: ridiculous loading times. Starting a new level will take some time as it takes a good 15-25 seconds of loading time to be able to actually start. I’m really someone who can’t stand loading times and there are many ways to make them feel like they aren’t there. Take Rayman Legends for example. Before starting a level you could play around a little bit and interact with the characters. Even just a few lines to read would have been much better. They could have done it as simply as that to cover the loading times.
A Nintendo trend I’ve hated since New Super Mario Bros. came out was the art style of the game. It makes it looks bland and boring, and ever since Donkey Kong Country Returns came out, I resented the idea that they choose to go down a similar path. Now, I’m not saying that the games look bad and I do think Tropical Freeze looks great over all, but it makes it look recycled. It’s okay for any Mario game because Mario games have become more family-oriented and have turned into an introduction for kids into gaming. However, Donkey Kong has a much more mature vibe (yes, I realize you play as a giant ape who wants his bananas). It just feels like it’s deceiving people by making it feel more like a Mario game with the cutesy art style and looks like it’s more for kids while being a more difficult game overall. I think having a different art style would have been a proper approach for the game. I personally think a hand drawn art style would have suited the game much better. I really hope that more games don’t follow suit.
The most memorable thing I’ve noticed while playing Tropical Freeze was the soundtrack (composed by series veteran David Wise). If you listen carefully, most of the music is remastered songs from past Donkey Kong Country games while adding its own masterpieces at the same time. This is a really nice tidbit for the fans of the series (new or old) to enjoy every second of the game. And like the days of old, there is a theme to set the tone of every level. The harder levels have a rushed tone making you feel panicked, and the water levels have a calm tone. Even the boss battles have an epic, heavier song to go with them. As always, Donkey Kong games have the soundtrack to leave you speechless every time you hear it.
One of the game’s strong suits is the all of the collectables you can get throughout the game. Like in the other games in the franchise, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze has many little secrets and bonuses to keep you wanting to finish the game at 100% as well as adding many trophies, puzzle pieces scattered all around the game which makes it a blast to try to get them all. All of the levels are worth going back to if you want to get your hands on all the hardware and claim yourself as a hardcore gamer.
Another thing that was great is that every level has its own tone to it, making it feel unique and vibrant. I can’t say enough nice things about the background levels, which was probably my favorite part of the game. They make a very simple design turn into a jaw dropping experience, not to take away from the other levels. They, too, have many cool features in them. Like the rotating cameras while you blast your way through, barrel to barrel. Or the chaos that can come crashing down whenever you try to escape in a minecart. Even the boss battles were all pleasantly special in their own ways. It just makes the experience whole and so well put together while making it seem like an old-school side scrolling platformer.
What’s a little disappointing is that the game isn’t as hardcore as it should be. It’s a challenge for sure, but it is still missing that little extra something to take it from being a difficult game to a cringe fest and, yes, I might be thinking too much in the past with this, but I would have loved to see the return of the Kremlings. The Snomads are fun baddies that have a big variation in between them, but nothing will ever beat King K. Rool and his Kremling followers. Maybe we will see them in the future, but for now I can be happy stomping on some snowy viking baddies.
Like its predecessors, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze brings in the best platforming has to offer. With interesting level designs, as well as enough challenging moments to keep you on your toes, Tropical Freeze becomes one of this year’s early greats. However, it comes with a few issues with loading times, no useful Gamepad functionality, and an art style all too familiar with Nintendo games, all of which brings it down a few pegs. A must-have for the Wii U if you can overlook the the little issues. Donkey Kong’s new installment is deserving to be side by side with the rest of the Country Krew. Now go grab your Wiimotes and go bananas and recapture the frozen memories from the past.
This review is based on a retail version of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze for the Wii U.