Exclusive to Nintendo Wii U
At the tail end of the 16-bit console era, Donkey Kong Country felt important. Just as Sega and Sony were pushing their new 32-bit consoles, Rare and Nintendo revived Mario’s original nemesis as a simian hero using revolutionary pre-rendered 3D sprites. At the time, it seemed unbelievable that a game as good-looking as Donkey Kong Country could be running on the good old SNES. It would be dumb to say it saved the console – the SNES was already a huge global success – but it certainly helped prolong its lifespan against a new wave of super consoles. Doubtless Nintendo hopes Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze might do the same for the rather more beleaguered Wii U.
It might, but we can’t see it happening. Developed by Retro Studios, the team behind the Metroid Prime trilogy and 2010’s Donkey Kong Country Returns, it’s another 2D platformer featuring Donkey Kong, Diddy Kong and the other members of the Kong clan, which takes an HD brush to the series’ bright, CGI cartoon visual style. It features all the classic elements of the 16-bit Donkey Kong Country games, from Kong-blasting cannon barrels to collectible bananas and rhino-back rides. It’s slick, fun and beautifully presented, and the worst thing you can say about it is that it’s always good but never that inspired.
There’s a plot, of course, but that’s as retro-classic as it comes as well. A bunch of Viking ‘Snomads’ attack the Kong family on DK’s birthday with a magical horn that puts their tropical island paradise on ice. As usual, Donkey Kong and his family can only stop the Snomad menace by journeying through a series of platforming levels, divided into several themed islands, with each climaxing in a boss battle finale.
If the structure plays safe, then the gameplay isn’t going to push things either. It’s not that Tropical Freeze is devoid of ideas, but they’re mostly ideas you’ve seen before, either in Donkey Kong Country Returns or in other 2D platformers. There are swimming sections, animal-riding sections, mine-cart sections and vine zipwires. There are standard platforms, bouncy platforms and platforms that crumble when you slap them. It’s entertaining and frequently spectacular, but if you were going to write home about a 2D platform game, this one wouldn’t give you much you wanted to write home about.
The Kongs themselves are a handy bunch. If DK finds and smashes a barrel he can release another member of the family, with each adding some new capability. Diddy Kong has a jet-pack for boosts while jumping, while Dixie Kong has a helicopter pony-tail to help you cross longer gaps. Even the ancient Cranky Kong comes in useful, with a nifty pogo-stick cane move that lets you bounce on dangerous areas or tackle enemies immune to the normal Kong’s bounce.
It’s all gorgeous to look at, combining ludicrously vibrant colours with the kind of textural detail you’d expect from a modern HD platformer. The Kongs and their foes are beautifully designed and animated with a real attention to character. The music is irresistibly jolly, and the levels themselves are slick and engaging to the nth degree. Whether you’re speeding down water-chutes and dangling from vegetation from the ceiling or ducking and diving on your way through a collapsing sawmill, it’s hard not to feel entertained. But where the recent 2D Mario and Rayman games have constantly knocked us off guard with their sheer ingenuity, Tropical Freeze keeps throwing in, well, more of what we might have expected. In fact, the only unexpected thing about the game is its difficulty.
It’s pushing things to say that this is the Dark Souls of 2D platformers, but Tropical Freeze is surprisingly challenging and just as unforgiving. Levels are packed with deadly hazards and sudden-death drops, and there’s a palpable sense of relief when you cross each checkpoint. Boss battles are lengthy, multi-stage affairs which push you to learn each attack wave and build your winning strategy. Opportunities for sudden death are rarely more than a second away. For a game that many will assume is aimed at kids, Tropical Freeze is actually quite hardcore.
In the main, it does handle this difficulty the right way. You go down knowing that you could have made it, if only you hadn’t made that one stupid error or missed your chance to strike. Only a few of the boss battles had us screaming at the screen "that’s so unfair!" What’s more, you can tip the balance in your favour. Coins collected in the levels can be spent at Funky Kong’s shop for items that dish out extra lives, an extra chance when you’re falling or limited invincibility. You can then arm these before you tackle a specific level. All the same, Tropical Freeze really isn’t for the faint-hearted. If you couldn’t hack the later stages of New Super Mario Bros. U, then you won’t hack this.
This might limit its appeal as a family game, and the same goes for the disappointing two-player co-op mode. This splits Donkey Kong and his current ape-amigo of choice, with one player handling each. Sadly, the screen struggles to keep both in view at the same time, with none of the automatic zooming of New Super Mario Bros. U, and at times it’s hard to navigate the scenery because your partner is holding you back. Compared to Trine 2, NSMBU or Rayman: Legends, it’s not exactly what you’d call a great time shared.
Donkey Kong’s latest adventure is a slick, good-looking and demanding 2D platformer that works like a trooper to keep you entertained. It’s not that imaginative, inventive, original or quirky, though, and after New Super Mario Bros U or the superb Rayman Legends it feels conservative. Masters of the genre might find it the perfect vehicle to show off their ninja skills, but Tropical Freeze is another good Wii U game at a time when it really needs more great ones.