A quick glance at Nintendo’s lineup suggests a glut of the old-school platformer. The Wii U enjoys the riches of New Super Mario Bros. U, its spin-off New Super Luigi Bros. U, Super Mario 3D World, and Sonic Lost World. The 3DS meanwhile has several upcoming games starring Yoshi and Kirby. Throw in third-party gems like Rayman Legends and you’ve got a donut bridge smorgasbord.
It all seems a bit much, doesn’t it? Who needs another game in a decades-old, overdone genre that simply reminds us that these characters in Super Smash Bros. actually came from other games?
The truth, of course, is more granular. A first-person shooter aficionado will be able to tell you the nuanced differences between a Call of Duty and a Battlefield; a fighting game pro may scoff at Street Fighter X Tekken in favour of Street Fighter 4.
The same can be said of action-adventure platformers, of which Nintendo has cornered the market. Every franchise has its own DNA, tickles a different itch and favours one sub-segment of the audience over another.
The latest in this barrage is Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, the sequel to Donkey Kong Country Returns by gamers’ darling Retro Studios.
The story begins with Donkey Kong celebrating his birthday with Diddy, Dixie, and Cranky. For whatever reason, he’s interrupted by an army of marauding penguins and walruses who channel X-Men’s Storm to cover all of DK Island in ice and hurl the Kong crew through the sky, landing them several districts away.
Your first shot of the island — covered in ice, blue-grey clouds swirling in the skies, raining down blizzard-strength storms — is quite the sight. It almost conjures the tonal shift that DKC 2‘s move to Crocodile Isle did back in 1995.
Surprisingly, the “tropical freeze” portion of the game doesn’t actually show up until several worlds in. In the meantime you’ll bounce through a number of neighbouring islands, passing through astonishingly beautiful vistas, subjugating the local fauna on the way towards reclaiming your rightful throne. You’re like a furry, 500-pound Daenerys Targaryen.
WINTER IS COMING
DKC: Tropical Freeze is Mega Man-hard. Like old-school, 1980s NES, throw-your-controller-at-the-wall hard. You will lose many lives. You will lose them in the same spot, over and over. Sometimes, and this might sound bad, you will tackle a challenge several times just to figure out what’s killing you in the first place.
DKC’s brand of platforming is much less forgiving than Nintendo’s other flagship series. In most Mario games, things start out easy. For most of the game you can probably cruise through without much trouble and the most difficult Golden Coins aren’t mandatory. Kirby games are known for their effervescent, forgiving nature as you bounce from one room to the next in a sort of controlled chaos.
Tropical Freeze doesn’t have time for that. From the very first level your precision, timing and patience are tested to the limit. Miss that jump by a few pixels and you’re dead. Jump on that enemy at just the wrong time and you’ll fall onto his spear instead. This game doesn’t mess around.
The upside of this is that the player enjoys an expanded arsenal of moves and abilities, so even if you’ve got a terribly narrow window of opportunity to pass the next obstacle, you never feel under-equipped to handle it. DK can jump, roll, pound the ground, climb vines, and yank items from the ground for various environmental effects.
Diddy Kong lends his rocket pack again, while Dixie uses her hair to give you a boost in the air, Yoshi-style. Cranky Kong does his best Scrooge McDuck impersonation by using his cane as a spring, giving you a higher jump and letting you bounce on top of spikes.
Tropical Freeze gives you a lot to work with, then, but it also expects a lot in the execution department. Controls seem to be mapped out to demand the utmost attention from the player. Holding onto a vine requires you to hold the R button, rather than grabbing onto it automatically as in the SNES games. Swimming levels give you a welcome amount of maneuverability, but an air meter that empties quickly means you’re always on the lookout for sparsely distributed air vents or bubbles.
Precision is the mantra instead of ease of use. Donkey Kong is a surgeon’s scalpel, as opposed to Kirby who bounces around like a Nerf ball.
Of course, this sounds absolutely terrible. Why would anyone want to put up with such demanding controls when you can bounce around grassy knolls as Super Mario?
Because of Tropical Freeze‘s levels, which have the power to charm and batter you at the same time. The “visit islands surrounding DK’s home” trope let the art designers get really crazy this time around; you’ll visit Scandinavian-like grasslands in one level and fly a rocket barrel over a landscape seemingly made entirely out of fruit (including grape juice rivers). In one case, ride the series’ trademark mine carts through a jungle covered in the flaming wrecks of cargo planes that I don’t believe for one second isn’t a weird reference to Uncharted.
The best single level that encapsulates both the beauty and rage of Tropical Freeze is probably Irate Eight. DK and Friends navigate a coral reef with Ecco the Dolphin-like grace, if it weren’t for the currents, spiked blowfish, spiked swordfish, mines, and debris made entirely out of spiky sea urchins.
Early on, a massive wall engraved with ancient symbols is pulverized by a gigantic squid with a mean expression on his sort-of face. The screen scrolls upward, dark black squid ink threatening to suffocate you if you’re not quick enough. And if you get past those harrowing segments you’ll have to deal with tentacles burrowing out of the coral reef, as his glassy eye stares at you through the terrain. It’s exciting, treacherous, and utterly punishing on the first dozen or so tries. But once you reach the end of the level – and the sweet relief of sunlight – you’ll exhale in relief, and laugh that you had faced off a world of terror, emerging triumphant.
This is to say nothing of the score, thanks in part to David Wise, the man responsible for the memorable soundtracks of the SNES DKC games. Sometimes mellow and other times intense, the music will make you want to stand up and dance on moment, and chill out on your basement sofa the next. The mix of ambiance and jazzy measures sounds like the soundtrack to Metroid Prime with a dash of Jazzpunk’s swing-dance bravado.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze isn’t a beginner’s platformer. It will wring the last drop of effort and desperation out of a player to reach the game’s end – to say nothing of the hoard of hidden puzzle pieces, secret exits, and secret levels. I’d caution against buying it as a first game for the kids’ Wii U, but given that I can’t seem to barrel through the original DKC for the Super Nintendo with the ease of my once nine-year-old self, maybe I’m underestimating our youth.
Nevertheless, this is not kids’ stuff. Its steep difficulty curve means it’s not for everyone – it doesn’t have that everyman’s quality and accessibility like a New Super Mario Bros. game. But it puts a new coat of paint on the old-school platformers that a generation of gamers lovingly gnashed over, with a far more satisfying conclusion.