Review: Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze (Wii U)
Developer: Retro Studios
Platform: Wii U
Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, a 3D platformer released the Wii U in February 2014, is a direct sequel to 2010’s Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Wii. Retro Studios gained some notoriety after the announcement that the developer would be working on the next DK, which many consider one of Nintendo’s “B” franchises. Though DK does not attract a fanbase as ravenous as the Metroid franchise, it is encouraging to see that Nintendo has committed itself to publishing something for the majority of its intellectual properties on the Wii U.
As I have said in my review of Rayman Legends, the plot of a platformer is generally perfunctory. Donkey Kong is celebrating his birthday with Diddy, Dixie, and Cranky as a balloon escapes out of the window. The camera trails it out into the sea where an armada approaches the island. Aboard one of the vessels, a dark ominous figure calls for a giant enchanted horn and blows into it, summoning a magical ice dragon that initiates the arctic assault with a single snowflake that interrupts DK’s candle-blowing by descending upon and extinguishing the flame. DK naturally becomes enraged, but the entire crew is blown away as the dragon freezes the entire island. Of course, the object of the game is to defeat the invaders, the Snowmads.
Cartoon Violence. A baboon boss that splits into three is defeated by jumping on its colorful, exposed rear as its head is stuck in the ground.
This may be stating the obvious to veterans of the DK franchise, but for younger or newer gamers, the titular “Returns” alludes to the three Donkey Kong Country games on the SNES. DK returns to the mechanics of rolling through enemies as a form of attack; returns to the palm-sweating difficulty of the 16-bit era; returns to playing as furries from the 80’s and 90’s. For all the gaudiness in the gaming industry, DKCTF keeps it simple by allowing players to dispatch enemies with a good old fashioned jump-n-bounce on the noggin.
Most power-ups can be acquired from Funky Kong shops between worlds, activated before entering a stage. Within stages themselves, they are manifested through DK’s sidekicks, Diddy, Dixie, and Cranky Kong, with each augmenting DK with an extra ability. Diddy reprises the brief “float” animation from DKCR; Cranky Kong uses his cane as a pogo stick like Scrooge McDuck, allowing DK to bounce on spikes without damage and defeat enemies that DK could not on his own; Dixie Kong twirls her hair helicopter-style for a small double-jump. Cranky has his uses for those interested in completing the time attack stages because his bounce does not cause DK to lose momentum, unlike Diddy and Dixie’s abilities. Unfortunately, there is no practical use for Diddy that Dixie can’t do better since she also floats slightly before her slight ascent. Each Kong also provides DK a super tag-team move that transforms all enemies on the screen into items: banana coins for Cranky, 1-up balloons for Diddy, and golden hearts for Dixie. The hearts created through the latter character fill DK’s health meter beyond the standard of four hearts up to eight. Combined with her double-jump, her heart generation inadvertently highlights the inadequacies of the other characters, resulting in a stale paring of almost always Dixie and DK unless players are willing to sacrifice efficiency for aesthetics.
The tradition of the collect-a-thon persists here. 100 bananas grants players a 1-up in addition to single red balloons. One can find the letters K-O-N-G in every stage alongside puzzle pieces for unlocking extras like art and music.
If all of this sounds routine, that is because DKCTF is just that. Far too often in my reviews and write-ups of platform games, I almost always devote a section to my ennui, particularly for the earlier sections of Rayman Origins or New Super Mario Bros Wii U. That is not exactly the case with DKCTF, which is actually more difficult than its predecessor, DKCR. However, I still found myself rushing through the game just to finish it, unmoved by alternate and secret paths or the significantly augmented difficulty offered through the levels unlocked by surreptitiously completing the K-O-N-G puzzles. There is no new core gameplay mechanic to be seen here. Retro simply applied a polished sheen on the formula Nintendo established on the SNES and revived on the Wii.
That “polished sheen” is some high-grade stuff. One of the most ruinous critiques of NSMBWU is that Nintendo “mailed in” the majority of its backgrounds, and the music was rehashed and generic. No such slanderous things concerning DKCTF can be said in earnest. High definition does the game’s body good, illustrating the subtle animations of the Kongs and Snowmads with that familiar Nintendo vibrancy. Did that walking bush just roundhouse kick me when I died? Yes, yes it did. Behold as DK beats on the gong in the foreground, causing the volcano in the background to erupt and establishing the pace and theme of the next setpiece! Especially touching are the animation differences between the sidekick Kongs at the beginning and end of stages as well as before boss fights.
Forays into African savannas, railed sawmills and topical seas would not sustain their allure as they do if it were not for the legendary David Wise‘s compositions. When I first heard the gossip concerning the quality of the soundtrack, I determined them hyperbolic, though I did look forward to potential eargasms. The music is as good the rumors claim, and almost makes DCKTF worth a purchase just for a listen alongside the themed stages. “Canopy Chaos” sells the pleasantries of DK’s adventures with its skylarking harmonica, an instrument which makes a makes a down-home repartee “Windmill Hills.” Meanwhile, “Busted Bayou” gets funky with its flirtatious flute and groovy guitar, with latter instrument forsaking all this friendliness by rocking hard alongside some organs in “Big Top Bob.” There are a few dynamic songs, too, such as “Irate Eight,” changing depending on if DK is on land, underwater, or pursued by a boss-like creature. Wise’s surname rings true; he appeals to fans by inserting song mixes from the tracks within previous games for added delight. “Irate eight (Tension)” demonstrates this with ease—who would fail to recognize its homage to “Lockjaw’s Saga” from DKC2? Simply sublime!
DKCTF is a quality game that was released to both capitalize on the sleeper-success that was DKCR on the Wii and fill a gap in the Wii U’s release schedule. While I cannot cite any glaring flaws in the game, the parts of the game that excite me most are more cosmetic than substantiative. Nevertheless, I do recommend this latest entry in the Donkey Kong franchise for fans of DK and platform games in general—just know that this isn’t the next Mario Galaxy.
+ Donkey Kong in HD
+ Balanced challenge
+ Stellar soundtrack
- Contributes little in the evolution of the franchise
- No real reason to use anyone besides Dixie
- Snowmads are simply reskinned Kremlings