I have to say that I never really liked Donkey Kong. As far as Nintendo’s vast pantheon of characters were concerned, I considered him and his games to be bottom tier. I admit that I was firmly in the minority as I can’t really recall anyone not liking Nintendo’s big dumb ape, especially since his iconic return to gaming on the Super Nintendo. Back in 1994 Nintendo and Rareware rebooted the dormant Donkey Kong brand turning DK from a single screened platformer staring Mario into Donkey Kong Country. Donkey Kong Country was a sidescoller just like the Super Mario games before it but it was a technical marvel of its time. Rareware were able to pre-render 3D sprites and textures on a Silicon Graphics super computer and transfer them over to the Super Nintendo and the result blew people away. In the same year Nintendo’s rivals SEGA and Sony were releasing new consoles that could run true polygonal 3D, Nintendo was still able to wow people with a game on a their aging 16bit system. DKC went on to become a trilogy and the first game became the second best selling title on Super Nintendo despite it being released quite late in the console’s life cycle. It’s been twenty years since then and, in my opinion, those games haven’t held up to the test of time. They’re still decent platformers but those amazing graphics are not only dated but can actually hinder gameplay; this is especially true for the Donkey Kong Land games on Game Boy. The point? I don’t have much or any nostalgic feeling for Donkey Kong. In addition to all that, I’m pretty terrible at 2D platformers and as far as mainstream platformers go, it doesn’t get much tougher than Donkey Kong. The reason why I’m stating all this is because I didn’t expect to be so surprised by Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze. It’s another 2D platformer on a system with a lot of 2D platfomers, it starred a character I didn’t really care about and it seemed, at first glance, to rely on fond memories for the original SNES trilogy. Even with all that against it, all trepidation was washed away after the first world and Tropical Freeze made me a confirmed believer.
This is a game with a simple story. Creatures from the arctic called Snowmads invade Donkey Kong Island, crash DK’s birthday party, and exile him and the rest of the “DK Crew.” Donkey Kong, enraged that his banana slamma cake has been ruined and his home destroyed, must travel across six different worlds to finally return to DK Island and retake his home from the Snowmad Walrus King “Lord Fredrik.” There’s literally no more narrative than that and It’s pretty much covered in the game’s short opening cinematic. While it may not be Shakespeare, it’s still art. The game has some of the best visuals I’ve seen on Wii U or otherwise and runs at a smooth and steady framerate. Nintendo’s new console may not be as powerful as its other “next-gen” counterparts but in the hands of the great artists at Retro Studios and Nintendo the game looks truly next-gen. The fur on the Kongs looks ridiculously real and the animation and expressions on their faces during gameplay and cinematics is incredibly well done and endearing. The character of Donkey Kong has never been more likable and, dare I say, “cute.” The worlds are similarly detailed from autumn forests bathed in red and amber to savannahs with trees dancing to the beat of a Kenyan choir, every fiber of this game oozes creativity and character. Speaking of that choir, the music in this game is absurdly good. Put together by legendary Rareware composer David Wise (Donkey Kong Country 1-3, Battletoads, Starfox Adventures), the score evokes more “Lord of the Rings” than “Lord of the Bananas” but is nevertheless woven into perfectly with the levels and the rhythm of gameplay that to play without the music may actually hinder you. No piece of music in Tropical Freeze is bad or forgettable and almost all are original tracks.
As for gameplay, the only word to accurately describe Tropical Freeze is “masterful.” This is a video game in the purest sense of the word and leverages the most innate mechanical strengths of the medium. Retro Studios have crafted a game that organically teaches the player to play and master some of the most complex 2D platforming seen in years. There is no “tutorial,” the game teaches you while you play. For example, imagine seeing a collectable puzzle piece hanging above you but it’s too high up and out of the way to get to by jumping. However, there are brambles that neatly lead up to it. This is the first time you’re introduced to clinging to and climbing up brambles and vines and the game provides a safe environment to practice and “stumble upon” that discovery. The next time you see those brambles they’ll be above a spike pit or a field of deadly enemies but this time you’ll be ready for it and you’ll know exactly what to do. It may sound like “Game Design 101” but few games in this day and age treat the player with that kind of respect. Like a school teacher that engages their students and makes learning a joy, Tropical Freeze was teaching me lessons while I was having fun. I never had to learn to “get good” before the game “got good.” That said, this game is tough but very fair. You’ll die a lot but the game is very generous with lives. It demands that you get better before you continue and once you beat a level it’s because you really did get better at it, it wasn’t just dumb luck. Going back and playing some of the levels that I had a hard time with seem like cakewalks now. Rarely will you ever feel like you should “give up.” Even in the greatest moments of frustration, Tropical Freeze kept me engaged and eager to learn, master and continue, that is the hallmark of excellent game design. This commitment to mastery also informs the time trial mode. Every single level and boss battle can be played over and over again for better completion times and replays of your best times can be uploaded online and watched by others. Watching the best players in the world is a surreal experience but also an enlightening one as you can take their techniques and apply them to break your own records.
Outside of the core single player experience, Tropical Freeze sports a two player co-op mode where the first player plays as DK and the second player can choose between Diddy Kong, Dixie Kong or Cranky Kong, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. I have to say that this mode falls somewhat short of the excellence of the single player experience. Very few of these levels seem designed for multiplayer, and the game’s difficultly demands that you and your partner not only be at a similar skill level but also in sync with each other, there’s no room to “fool around” like in recent Mario titles. That said, those that can find a skilled friend with which to play may yet may enjoy this mode. Another issue is while the other Kongs all have there unique traits, Diddy Kong will largely be ignored in favour of the beginner friendly Dixie and the more technical Cranky Kong both of which have abilities that outshine those of DK’s little buddy. Diddy Kong isn’t the only thing that’s been overlooked as the game makes no use of the Wii U’s signature gamepad for anything outside off-screen play, though I didn’t feel the game was lesser for it. These few complaints are rather small in the grand scheme and really do nothing to detract from the masterpiece this game truly is. Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is not only the best 2D platformer on Wii U, it’s the best game yet on the system. While many may think that’s not saying much, I’d like to remind those people that the Wii U is host to a fantastic 3D Mario title and one of the best Zelda titles of all time. This game, as cynical and unreceptive as I was, finally made me a Donkey Kong fan. If you own the Wii U, Tropical Freeze is a must.