I’ll admit to being disappointed when it was announced that Retro Studios’ WiiU game was a follow up to the brilliant Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Wii. Not because I didn’t like Returns (I just called it brilliant), but because I favor their work on the Metroid Prime Trilogy and was hoping for something more in that vein. Still, as the release date grew closer, I found myself caught up in the excitement and purchased it on Day 1. Was it worth the wait?
You are Donkey Kong. Much like the first game, you find yourself roaming varying lands collecting bananas, puzzle pieces, and KONG letters. In addition to traditional left to right platforming, you’ll also find yourself on the always treacherous minecart rails as well as steering rocket barrels through a multitude of dangers. Along for the ride this time is Diddy Kong, operating much like in DKC Returns, as well as Dixie Kong, complete with a floating ponytail twirl, and Cranky Kong, doing his best Scrooge McDuck pogo stick impersonation.
While celebrating Donkey Kong’s birthday, the Kong clan is ambushed by a group of snowy, viking like animals. Upon summoning a large Ice Dragon, Donkey Kong Island is frozen over while Donkey Kong and family, Diddy, Dixie, and Cranky, are blown far away, landing on a distant island. They immediately set out to fight their way through the invaders to ultimately reclaim Donkey Kong Island. This journey includes varying landscapes and mechanics, as well as underwater levels, which were not seen in DKC Returns. Truthfully, there isn’t much story beyond that, but then I can’t imagine anyone picks this kind of game up for the deep narrative.
If you’ve played DKC Returns, then you’ll fall right back into the play style of Tropical Freeze. The moves and gameplay are almost virtually unchanged. The biggest change to DK’s move-set is the loss of the blowing move, which really didn’t add all that much anyway. However, that all changes once you pick up a helper. Diddy Kong operates much like he did in the first title, giving you some floating time with his jetpack. Dixie and Cranky though, change things up. Dixie Kong uses her ponytail to give you a bit of a vertical lift. Cranky Kong might as well have been lifted straight from the Ducktales NES game. Using his cane as a pogo stick, Cranky can bounce on virtually any surface or enemy. Along with the bounce comes a much higher jump that can boost you to some hard to reach areas.
Retro made great use of the new characters. The game can be beaten with just DK, but to get all the puzzle pieces and KONG letters, you will need to utilize the varying powers of your cohorts. For example, one puzzle piece can only be gotten by collecting a group of rotating bananas over a thorny vine. The only way to gather them all without being injured is by using Cranky’s pogo move. Another level had a KONG letter sitting beneath a platform over a pit. In this situation, you had to roll into the pit (or jump) and then use Dixie’s ponytail twirl to rise up onto the platform, collecting the letter in the process. Fortunately, in these cases, you can buy specific character barrels from Funky Kong, allowing you to bring the needed partner into the level with you. While that part may be easy, in many cases, you must also get to the end of the level without losing said partner. It is obvious that Retro specifically made that design choice because getting them to the end is not always an easy task. Hearts will be scarce, if present at all, and enemies are placed in worst places possible, in order to throw you (think the birds in Ninja Gaiden on NES).
Also new in this entry was the presence of secret exits, leading, of course, to secret levels. Generally, the world map gives you a good idea of what level(s) has a secret exit on each island, but knowing that doesn’t mean that they are easy to find. I spent quite a bit of time hunting each one of these down. Each island has two secret levels, in some cases, the first secret level leads directly to the second, whereas in others, you must find a couple of secret exits in order to access both levels. The secret levels also come with the standard collectibles, being KONG letters and puzzle pieces.
Speaking of, just like in the first game, collecting all of the KONG letters in each level unlocks a special level in each world. These levels are no easy task by any stretch, offering the toughest challenge the game has to offer. Each level has it’s own gimmick, be it utilizing a bouncing off of enemies technique, or having to jump on platforms on a fixed track that only extend at certain points. These levels also lack checkpoints, meaning any misstep will have you repeating the level from the beginning. This can be aggravating, but these levels also operate on a trial and error basis, meaning that I typically found myself getting a bit further with every life, before finally besting the level. Upon beating the level, you will be rewarded with a marked stone. Collecting all seven (you also get one from the final boss) will open up a new world made up of three levels that are at least as difficult as the levels you must complete to open it up.
While the two new Kongs, underwater levels, and secret exits shake things up a bit, it is the boss battles that truly set Tropical Freeze apart. Each boss battle has phases. After a set number of hits, the boss will change things up in some manner, be it a stage effect or in how they are attacking. The bosses can be difficult, but never feel unfair, instead being an enormous amount of fun to battle. While I can understand some of the criticism about the length of the battles, I would much rather take part in a battle that is constantly switching up your strategy than simply repeating the same pattern on a boss until it’s dead. I think the good far outweighs the bad in this situation. All that said, I must point out the most frustrating moment of the game here. I mentioned underwater levels earlier, and while they are interesting, they suffer from, what I felt, were extremely poor controls. All too often, the Kongs just wouldn’t do what I was trying to get them to do. So, of course, the final boss of the underwater themed island takes place underwater. It was truly the only time in the game that I simply stopped playing and felt frustrated. I actually stopped playing for a few days because I had no desire to attempt the boss again. There was just no joy in it. Even now, I feel that I just lucked out in beating the boss. For a game that I generally enjoyed, that segment just felt like an incredible misstep, and is not a battle I ever intend to revisit.
I enjoyed Tropical Freeze, but I have to say that nothing about it really stands out in my mind. It just seems like an extension of DKC Returns, instead of feeling like its own game. There are some new tricks, but none that feel like they couldn’t have been done in Returns. Once you get past the newness of Cranky and Dixie being included, you might as well just be playing Returns. Now, I must say that I consider DKC Returns to be one of the best platformers I’ve ever played, so calling a game an extension of that is hardly an insult. Tropical Freeze is a great game, but you have to understand right away that there is nothing groundbreaking in it. It’s very high quality and brilliantly designed, but it’s also more of the same. It’s what Super Luigi U was to New Super Mario Brothers U, only with longer levels and a higher price point.
I wrote at the beginning of this post about the disappointment I felt when this title was announced and why. After completing Tropical Freeze, I must say that I am still let down that Retro Studios when with this title over something else. I will never question the ability of Retro to make a great game. They’ve proven themselves in five games now, all of them games that I would recommend to anyone, but I feel like they’ve limited themselves by going with this game on the WiiU. I adore side-scrollers, but I just feel that Retro could have done so much more in a game with a more open world, be it a new Metroid game or something else. In a way, Tropical Freeze is a victim of Retro’s past successes, and how phenomenal those successes turned out to be.
Now, that doesn’t mean that Tropical Freeze isn’t a great game. It truly is, and I would tell any WiiU owner to pick it up. It is a game that is overflowing with joy and fun. It may not do very much that’s new or fresh, but at the same time it doesn’t letdown its namesake. It has amazing design that challenges, but rarely frustrates (outside of that damn fish boss). This may not have been the game I would have chosen for Retro to work on, but that aside, Retro shows again with this game why Nintendo trusts them so much with some of their most treasured franchises.
Brandon Nicholson is a blogger for TMRzoo.com and the founder of Just Another Video Game Blog and covers all gaming consoles and platforms including Sony Playstation 3 and PS4, Microsoft XBOX One and XBOX 360, Nintendo Wii, Sony PSP and computer games designed for Mac OS, Microsoft Windows and Linux operating systems. Brandon provides his readers with reviews, previews, release dates and up to date gaming industry news, trailers and rumors.