It’s on like Donkey Kong
Before any gamer purchases a console, there is one question he always asks: what does the game library look like? Do these games make this console worth buying? Are they better than the other options out there? Okay that’s three questions. Sue me. But these are questions that the Wii U has had a hard time answering until late last year. Fantastic titles like Super Mario 3D World and Wind Waker HD have helped a lot, but Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is really under a lot of pressure to tip the scale a little farther toward the Wii U’s viability as a console. This is especially evident when you consider that it’s the first major Wii U release this year. The next one is Mario Kart 8, which isn’t scheduled to do its massive scale-tipping until the end of May. So how about it, DKCTF? Do you have what it takes to make the Wii U look more appealing to the nay-sayers?
“… these are questions that the Wii U has had a hard time answering until late last year.”
This time around, the Kongs find themselves under attack from an icy group of bandits from the north known as the Snowmads. The entirety of DK Island is magically covered in snow and ice, while the Kongs are blown five islands away and forced to fight their way back island by island. It’s not much of a story, but it’s not really fair to expect that from a game in the platforming genre. At least it’s not about someone stealing DK’s banana hoard again.
Retro Studios worked hard to create wholly unique worlds that purposefully departed from the overused themes. I feel like they really nailed it for the most part, and each area feels fresh and interesting, while still being a lot of fun and quite challenging. Unfortunately, the game starts off on the wrong foot. I didn’t much care for the overall design or concept of World 1, the music was pretty terrible (more on that later), and things just weren’t quite as interesting as I expected. I still enjoyed playing through it, but I just wasn’t that impressed. I’m happy to say that things really picked up after that, and I felt like each of the other islands were incredibly well done. So let’s break it down a little more, shall we?
Since this is a sequel, much of the core gameplay is the same. The good news is that all the tweaks, changes, and additions are actually improvements on the original game.
One of the major upgrades was actually a gaping absence in the first game: underwater levels. They are very well executed, and are just as interesting and exciting as the regular stages. Instead of strictly creating levels that are underwater-themed, they actually weave the underwater concept throughout many of the regular stages as well. If you’re hopping along some platforms spanning a body of water, you can always just dive in and discover what lies under the waves. There are many iterations of this idea and it makes the worlds feel that much more varied and interesting.
“The levels are designed in such a way that you constantly find yourself evaluating which Kong buddy to bring with you.”
Dixie and Cranky get sidekick status in DKCTF, and of course Diddy is back for more himself. Diddy’s useful jetpack ability remains unchanged, but Dixie brings a height boost with her hair-twirl, and Cranky can use his cane to bounce on spiky surfaces, and that bounce actually propels you a bit higher than DK’s normal jump. The levels are designed in such a way that you constantly find yourself evaluating which Kong buddy to bring with you. At certain points I would progress so far through a level only to discover that I’d picked the wrong sidekick, and would have to switch ’em out and try again.
My favorite addition is actually a subtraction: no more blowing on objects to reveal hidden items, defeat enemies, or unlock pathways. This was an extremely annoying idea from the first game, and it has been replaced by tiny handles that stick out of the ground. Standing over one and holding Y will cause DK to pull on it, resulting in a number of outcomes, from revealing hidden puzzle pieces to drastically altering the level around you.
Finally, Retro added something that I didn’t quite understand at first: dynamic camera angles. Instead of just looking at the Kongs from the side all the time, the camera would move behind them, in front of them, or to other non-traditional angles. It sounds insignificant, but it wasn’t long before I was actually really impressed with this gameplay addition. Barrel blast segments are totally different, and much more interesting. They also apply the idea to mine cart and rocket barrel levels, and the effect is even greater. It also has a way of making the levels feel much more expansive and not quite so linear. Bravo, Retro.
Retro Studios is nonpareil when it comes to creating stages that constantly morph and come alive as you play them. Something in each level is always crumbling, rolling, exploding, shifting, falling, swinging, or bouncing to ensure you miss that jump. This was true of the original DK title by Retro (Donkey Kong Country Returns), and it’s even more true here. I was constantly surprised, amazed, and delighted with the way that every second of every stage was so ever-changing. There were the classic “ground-is-falling-away-in-front-of-you” moments, but things quickly got much crazier. In one stage, you are running away from a giant saw blade that is constantly spitting out chunks of wood in front of you. Those chunks become the platforms you need to jump on (or avoid) next.
In a later world, an entire level is being ripped to shreds by a tornado as you play through it. You are lifted into the sky as platforms, trees, and enemies keep spinning by and you have to figure out the best way to jump from one thing to the next. It’s very engaging and there is rarely a dull moment. Many stages take multiple playthroughs so you can memorize exactly how to time that series of jumps just right to make it through alive.
“Controlling DK is so perfectly precise, and it’s a thrill once you master it.”
The difficulty also increased at a pretty even pace. Retro’s DK games are a few notches above Mario games in difficulty to begin with, but it never felt unfair or impossible. Controlling DK is so perfectly precise, and it’s a thrill once you master it. You find yourself able to skip from one platform to the next seamlessly, but the challenge of precision never goes away. DK has this unique weightiness to him, as opposed to the floaty jump of Mario, and it allows for incredible accuracy once you get the hang of it.
In terms of replay value, DKCTF delivers. The K-O-N-G letters are back, along with a plethora of hidden puzzle pieces, the unlockable super-hard challenge stages make a return, and now the game features hidden “portals” throughout the game that lead to extra levels in each world. I have already found myself revisiting each stage multiple times, and finding all kinds of cool secrets I missed the first time around. You may be the campaign in a dozen or so hours, but you’ll be coming back for a lot more.
I cannot emphasize enough how utterly entertaining and fun the gameplay of DKCTF is. I was never once bored. Level after level, the game delivered. I’m already working on a second play-through.
This part isn’t complicated at all: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is absolutely gorgeous. The vistas are just breathtaking. In one particular level, I literally walked right off the edge of a cliff and died because I was so distracted by the stunning beauty of the backdrop. The dynamic camera angles I mentioned earlier only serve to enhance the look of the game. And let’s not forget that this is officially DK’s first HD adventure. I had to stop a few times and just look. Retro has done a fabulous job of fully realizing the beautiful and varied world’s that DK and friends explore. It’s another proof that amazing graphics do not necessarily equal realism. HD coupled with creative art style can have mind-blowing results, and DKCTF is evidence of that.
“… I literally walked right off the edge of a cliff and died because I was so distracted by the stunning beauty of the backdrop.”
I distinctly remember watching one of the trailers for DKCTF that featured this song and thinking “Oh man… that music is terrible.” I was really worried that the whole game would be like that. I’ve never been so happy to be wrong. The vast majority of the music that David Wise composed is actually quite beautiful in a way I didn’t expect. Rather than just try to convince you it sounds good, allow me to give you links to several good examples.
“… [David Wise] is able to capture the depth and emotion of each level and bring it to life with music.”
The main theme of the game, Homecoming Hijinx, is by far the crown jewel. It begins to play once you finally reach the now-frozen Kong Island, and it captures the urgency of their predicament in a powerful way. I think that’s what I love the most about Wise’s work in this game. In most cases, he is able to capture the depth and emotion of each level and bring it to life with music. There is a level called Scorch ‘n’ Torch where a huge wildfire is sweeping the grasslands and everything around you is going up in flames. If you don’t move fast enough, you’ll be a fried gorilla. The song that Wise composed for this level is absolutely gorgeous, and really brought that feeling to life.
For the most part, Wise’s composition for DKCTF is completely original, like the few tracks I just mentioned. That’s a great thing, but there are a few welcome throwbacks as well. Some songs, while completely new, still have that original DK flavor, like Zipline Shrine and Baobab Bonanza. It feels like DK, but it’s not just a straight remix of an old song. He does, however, bring back a couple of old favorites, like Current Capers.
I definitely had a bad first impression of DKCTF’s music, but it turned out to be a fantastic soundtrack. Perfectly fitting for the game it’s attempting to express.
I’ll go ahead and acknowledge the elephant in the room: It’s hard to ignore what this game isn’t. It isn’t a new Metroid game. Everyone thought for sure Retro was working on a follow up to the Prime series. Then they announced DKCTF. I can’t lie and tell you I wasn’t a little disappointed about that. But what this game is cannot be ignored either. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze has it all. It’s challenging, fun, gorgeous to look at, beautiful to listen to, and has plenty of replay value. Many people shook their heads when Retro announced DKCTF as their next title and have skipped right over it, but those people are missing out on a great game.
So back to our original question: does DKCTF tip the scale further in the Wii U’s direction? Is it another compelling reason to purchase the console? In my humble opinion, yes.
I give Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze a 9.3 out of 10