A little rough around the edges, but this is a superb platformer with rock-hard level design and secrets galore
Donkey Kong may not be kidnapping Mario’s princesses any more, but when it comes to 2D platforming, the rivalry between man and ape has never been stronger. For our money, DK’s deft and nimble design has always inched ahead of the red plumber in our estimation, and 2010’s Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Wii couldn’t have been greater proof that developer Retro Studios was well on its way to surpassing Nintendo’s very own New Super Mario Bros. team in scope and imagination.
Each stage is beautifully detailed and full of vibrant colours
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, the latest instalment in the DKC series, takes everything we loved about Returns and kicks it up a notch on Wii U. Not that you’ll see the titular freeze until the very end of the game, mind, as most of your time will be spent swinging and leaping your way across five thoroughly tropical-themed islands before you even get a chance to reclaim your frozen homeland from the invading Viking horde of Snowmads.
DK’s not alone on his quest, though, as he’s joined by his ever-present nephew Diddy Kong, returning SNES favourite Dixie Kong and newcomer Cranky Kong. Cranky’s clearly been taking combat lessons from DuckTales’ Scrooge McDuck, as his cane doubles up as a deadly pogo stick with a tap of the A button, letting him bounce through thorny bushes and leap higher than DK’s basic jump, while Dixie’s banana-shaped ponytail acts as a propeller to give DK a little extra lift in the air, allowing him to reach places previously out of reach with just Diddy’s jetpack.
Hard Mode really puts players to the test
These newfound abilities open up DK’s world like never before, giving each level a welcome sense of height and depth that was sorely lacking in its Wii predecessor. Hidden ledges draw your eyes upward while the return of water levels creates a whole second world under the waves, tempting you downwards to discover its treasure trove of secrets. You’ll need to find those secrets, too, if you want to see every level, as Tropical Freeze takes a leaf out of Super Mario World’s book by introducing a handful of second exits in each world.
You’ll be able to see which worlds offer additional routes from the tell-tale paths trailing off each level on the map, but for the most part they’re extremely well-hidden. You’ll learn the tell-tale signs soon enough, but none force you to make an unfair leap of faith. They will, however, often require the additional skill of one of DK’s pals, whether its Dixie Kong’s underwater propeller ponytail or Cranky Kong’s pogo stick jump, adding an extra layer of difficulty into the mix as you ferry the required Kong through each level’s ever-increasing set of hazards.
The silhouette levels remain the game’s most beautiful stages
This is great news for players hoping for a hefty challenge, but bear in mind that if there’s a square base on the level in question, you might as well forget about trying to find a secret exit as these are special “K levels” which only unlock when you’ve collected all the KONG letters in each world. Be warned, though, as these are even more extreme challenges of platforming prowess than even the endgame levels, so make sure you have a healthy supply of red life balloons at the ready before you attempt them.
The secret exits certainly help to make their respective areas feel less linear than previous DKC games, but Tropical Freeze opens them up even further by adding a dynamic camera into the mix as well. Rather than staying fixed to the horizontal plane, certain moments will see the camera rest over DK’s shoulder as he careers down a mineshaft or sits atop a lumbering rocket, or pan round him as he blasts from barrel to barrel through the undergrowth. It’s a small addition and one that’s far from ground-breaking, but the change of perspective nevertheless lends a three-dimensional feel to each level that helps revitalise familiar platforming sections by keeping players on their toes.
The dynamic camera helps keep familiar minecart levels feeling fresh
It’s the island structure that really allows Tropical Freeze to show off its creative muscles, though, as before the game is over, you’ll have bounded across alpine hills, African savannahs and gelatine grape juice rivers before the icy peak of Kong Island even comes into view. There’s a greater sense of progression as you move from one stage to another, both physically as it expands Returns’ single screen worlds across multiple different map sections, but also in how it stacks and explores its ideas. As much as we liked the quick succession of Super Mario 3D World’s throw-away concepts, they never felt like they were being taken to their most logical extremes, but thankfully Tropical Freeze’s added landscaping plays much more acutely in the levels themselves.
For instance, in Bright Savannah, you start with an all singing, all dancing Lion King-style medley introduction to the wild plains of this African themed world, but as you move closer to the final boss you’ll soon find that same land ravaged by miniature tornadoes, lightning strikes and bushfires, with each level riffing and building on everything that came before it.
Levels are longer than those in Returns and feature several checkpoints
The same goes for Sea Breeze Cove, where you must dash through kraken-infested waters as you hop from one scrap of beach to another. It plays brilliantly into the ever-changing and reactive backgrounds that made Returns so distinctive, and the result is a much more coherent and challenging style of play that’s both demanding and delightful in equal measure. Particular favourites include a mine cart level that takes place inside a saw mill where your rickety old cart suddenly transforms into a wooden canoe, and an underwater stage that relies solely on manipulating bio-luminescent fish to help light your way.
Away from the finely-crafted level design, though, is a game that’s visibly straining under the weight of the Wii U’s hardware limitations. Animated loading screens are lengthy and frequently halt altogether, and even viewing your capsule toy trophies in the extras menu takes a few seconds longer than it should for something so small. Super Mario 3D World managed to give us lengthy worlds without excessive loading times, but Tropical Freeze lacks the same level of polish. The blank GamePad screen is another unforgivable oversight, as we would have at least expected Retro to put something there, even if it was just map or inventory screen keeping track of our KONG letters and secret jigsaw pieces. Instead, it’s just black, making the GamePad fairly redundant unless you want to use it for Off-TV Play.
Co-op can be a lot of fun if players both have the same skill level
The water levels that were thankfully absent in Returns are also an absolute nightmare to control, as DK’s paddling technique has clearly grown less agile in the intervening years since the DKC games on the SNES. Some will rejoice at their return, not least because David Wise’s brilliant Aquatic Ambiance manages to sneak its way back into the excellent soundtrack, but piloting DK through the waves is much less of a joy than before, particularly since Cranky’s waving cane makes a poor substitute for missing animal buddy Enguarde whose near-invincibility made the SNES water levels relatively tolerable.
It doesn’t help that the difficulty curve takes a steep incline around the point Tropical Freeze dedicates an entire world to them either, but it was here that we started actively yearning for the ditched Super Guide, which would have completed the level for us if we were finding it too difficult. Instead, it’s been replaced by a special Kong Pow move, which obliterates all enemies onscreen and leaves behind a few collectibles in their place. It’s a nice nod to beginners, but we rarely felt the need to use it.
Activating Kong Pow will destroy any enemies left onscreen
Bosses also fall into the tired three-hit formula and the lack of variation in the treasure room challenges becomes equally repetitive when you’ve seen the same room ten times in a single world. However, the biggest thing Tropical Freeze fails to improve from its predecessor is its co-op mode. This is something that even Nintendo’s Super Mario 3D World didn’t manage to crack, but when the camera constantly follows whoever’s in front, the player left behind inevitably falls into a tedious pattern of being zapped to safety or being used a mere cannon fodder for your ever-decreasing life bank. Moreover, some levels such as the minecart and rocket barrel levels render the second player completely useless, as they simply sit behind player one with nothing to do, which rather saps the fun out of playing together.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze has its flaws, then, but while there’s certainly room for improvement, it’s still the perfect successor to Donkey Kong Country Returns where it counts. Retro Studios has truly let its imagination fly in crafting DK’s new tropical abodes and you’ll lose hours trying to uncover every last secret. There may be a few matted patches in DK’s new lush fur coat that we can’t quite ignore, but Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a fine specimen of its genre and definitely deserves a place in any Wii U owner’s library.