Although its total lifetime sales have now been completely eclipsed by its successor, it seems that Nintendo’s Wii U is only just now beginning to be appreciated for what it accomplished as a platform since its total library is now in the rear-view mirror. For all of Nintendo’s issues concerning the console’s messaging and lack of ability to communicate its best attributes, gamers absolutely could not dispute the quality on display in the wealth of wonderful first-party titles that came to the platform over the course of its lifespan.
Now that we’re firmly planted in the era of the company’s home console/handheld hybrid in the form of the Nintendo Switch, the new system’s runaway success makes clear that some of those spectacular first-party titles from the Wii U deserve a new lease on life. Ideally, this will expose them to a bigger audience and perhaps allow them to be fully recognized for the masterpieces they are.
One of those masterpieces is, most definitely, Retro Studios’ Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze.
Originally released in February of 2014 on the Wii U, Tropical Freeze first arrived just about four years after the extremely successful Donkey Kong Country Returns for Nintendo’s original Wii console. Returns signified Nintendo’s embracing the kind of enthralling platforming that defined the original Donkey Kong Country trilogy on the Super Nintendo for the first time in years. Developer Retro Studios, of Metroid Prime fame, returned Nintendo’s iconic ape to a more familiar kind of prominence after some interesting…deviations he’d been on since original DKC developer Rare stepped away from Nintendo in 2002.
After an “experimental” stage that saw good ol’ DK have to use bongos and participate in Barrel Blast racing, Donkey Kong Country Returns was a return to form. With Tropical Freeze, Retro Studios sought to build upon that foundation by taking Donkey Kong platforming to a whole new level, and the sheer success they achieved in Tropical Freeze needs to be seen to be believed.
Design and Story
In true Nintendo fashion, story isn’t much of a driving force for DK and the crew in this adventure. While celebrating his birthday with all of his friends…or, is it family? Isn’t the current Donkey Kong actually supposed to be the old Donkey Kong Junior, and Cranky Kong is the original Donkey Kong? Anyways, they all celebrate DK’s birthday over a delicious-looking giant banana split. Then, suddenly an invading force made up of the “Snowmads” – an evil cabal of penguins, seals, walruses and polar bears – follow their leader, Lord Frederik, by invading Donkey Kong Island. After blowing on his giant Gjallarhorn and ushering in a biting winter on the tropical island, DK and the Kongs are expelled from the main island and have to make their way across all the other ones to put a stop to the icy invasion.
After the introduction, you begin the game on the first of the six islands you’ll have to traverse, with each one becoming successively colder and more “wintery.” Playing through each different stage shows off an impressive, intricate, and beautiful art design philosophy: from the first stages in the Lost Mangroves, to the beaming rhythm of the Bright Savannah, all the way back to the frozen DK Island, the art design of Tropical Freeze is second-to-none in its whimsy, its vibrancy, and its beauty.
Two other kinds of recurring level types jump out for their wonderful aesthetic choices. In a few stages, the player character becomes a dark silhouette, with only a couple of accents appearing in full color. Against the darkness of shadow, you discern characters by the likes of DK’s necktie, Diddy’s hat and shirt, Dixie’s cap and ponytail, etc. The silhouette levels are all gorgeous, as are the underwater levels. The aesthetic choices that Retro Studios chose to implement in Tropical Freeze accentuate the simplistic beauty that just goes to show something the best Nintendo games always have: you don’t need to be on the most powerful console on the block in order to make a gorgeous-looking game.
Also coming in as a best-in-class component is the musical score. Original Donkey Kong Country composer David Wise makes his return to the series in Tropical Freeze, and the music is surprisingly reactionary to the stages, while also being toe-tappingly elegant and completely evocative of the spirit of the original Super Nintendo trilogy. While the music in Donkey Kong Country Returns was great, there’s something that feels more definitive and lively about the score to Tropical Freeze, especially in its use of different instruments, as well as in its whole new musical compositions that complement the existing themes Wise created 24 years ago.
Much like many other games published by Nintendo, Tropical Freeze shows off a very high pedigree of visual and auditory design, and when it comes to Retro Studios, it’s hard to expect anything less from the creators of Metroid Prime.
Don’t let that whimsical design and toe-tapping music fool you, though: under all the bright rays of sunshine, gleaming ice and golden bananas, there’s a game that will put any gamer’s platforming skills to the ultimate test.
Extremely intricate level design, disappearing platforms, quickly-appearing spikes, hazardous weather, deadly projectiles, blistering mine karts, and overall breakneck speed make Tropical Freeze a very difficult, stiff platformer. It’s likely that playing in its normal mode will make you scream in protest and lose life balloons left and right. Sometimes your movements need to be so precise that it could take you upwards of twenty different tries to actually get past some of the more complex stages.
So, even knowing that this game will likely come with a whole heap of frustration, what makes it so incredibly good in spite of that? With its complexity, with the needed precision, and with its sheer intricacy, the game is brilliantly designed from top to bottom. Sure, it starts off with pretty basic platforming levels, but chances are the game will surprise you with how creative the basic act of platforming can get.
The old standby mine kart levels get turned on their head by instantly throwing you from a crumbling track into a log flume ride, before throwing you out of a buzzsaw and back into a mine kart. Different levels cause you to utilize your Kong pals to traverse specific obstacles, like using Cranky’s cane to get over spikes, or Dixie’s hair twirl to gain just enough altitude to make it up to an elusive platform. Although you’ll have a hard time getting through some of these levels, the way the whole game is designed makes clear to you that when you fall off a cliff, get clipped through a propeller blade or crushed by a polar bear’s giant mallet, it’s your fault.
The game has a steep learning curve, but once you get the specifics of the controls down, you realize that the levels do give you very quick, subtle hints at how to move past a tough obstacle, or effective methods of dispatching dangerous bosses. You most definitely have to work for practically every inch of progress you make in Tropical Freeze, but with that difficulty comes a true sense of accomplishment when getting past a tense encounter.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a true Donkey Kong experience without having some of DK’s fellow Kongs to tackle the adventure with, and several classic characters make their long-awaited returns in this game. While Diddy Kong is back from Donkey Kong Country Returns – along with his jetpack to help you gain a little more horizontal space – he arrives with Cranky Kong (whose Scrooge McDuck-like cane allows you to bounce off normally painful obstacles) and fan-favorite Dixie Kong (whose helicopter-like ponytail gives your jumps a short burst of extended height and forward distance).
Your Kong pals operate more like power-ups than they do separate characters, except for in the “hard mode” of the game (yes, it’s separate) after you find all of the hidden collectibles, and beat the special unlockable temple stages, as well as the final hidden world. For most of the game, though, they help to add a couple of additional hearts, as well as their stated skills. The most useful companion is, unsurprisingly, Dixie: a little extra height and distance is a very helpful combination. Filling up a meter with a Kong partner also give you a “Kong Pow” special attack, which turns all the enemies on screen at any given time into specific pick-ups based on the other Kong you’re teamed up with at the time: life balloons for Diddy, Banana Coins for Cranky, and special yellow hearts for Dixie that add an additional hit point for each heart on your HUD (only adding to her usefulness).
Exclusive to the new Nintendo Switch version of the game is a new mode that’s designed for players looking for what, Nintendo calls, a “more relaxed” experience. I.E., it’s an easy mode. Funky Kong takes center-stage as the player character in this mode, and he can use his radical surfboard to pop into a slowly-descending hover, bounce off of normally deadly enemies and obstacles, stay underwater indefinitely without the need for an air bubble, and move with a great deal of extra speed. Playing as Funky is much easier and will undoubtedly make the game at large more accessible to younger players who want to bounce across the islands without the hair-pulling difficulty of the regular game. It’s a very solid addition to an already stellar title, opening up a nice new level of accessibility for the young Diddy or Dixie in your household.
The added horsepower of the Switch also upgrades the game’s resolution to a full 1080p when docked in front of a TV, retaining the high-performance level of 60fps for a just-as-smooth, but generally more vibrant experience.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze on the Nintendo Switch is one port from the Wii U that needed to happen, since this game was criminally overlooked when it first released. It was a bit odd to see people who never picked up a Wii U in the first-place clamoring for this title to make it to the Switch. Why didn’t they just get a Wii U in the first place if it had games they wanted to play?
Beyond the core experience, the move to Switch adds some notable upgrades, namely the ability to play the game portably, whenever and wherever you are. Tropical Freeze is the kind of game that will absolutely test even the most hardcore platform enthusiast’s mettle, but that difficulty comes with an experience that is too superbly designed to ignore.
Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it’s fast. Yes, it’s sometimes incredibly insane. Still, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze makes you remember why you love video games in the first place, and after you’re done, you’ll only be able to look back on it in fondness and remember how awesome it is. Getting there sure is tricky, but with enough perseverance, you’ll make it to the end and likely envy anyone who will get to enjoy it for the first time.