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2010’s Donkey Kong Country Returns for the Wii was the one of the more challenging platformers in recent memory. Retro Studios did a superb job bringing back the classic gameplay from the Super Nintendo trilogy while maintaining the top notch quality they achieved for the Metroid Prime games. When the sequel, Tropical Freeze, was announced last year, some fans weren’t thrilled with Retro working on a Donkey Kong game again for the Wii U and rather work on a different or new Nintendo IP. Others like me didn’t mind that because it gives Retro a chance to add in what was missing in Returns while keeping what made it special at the same time. As a result, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is another challenging yet satisfying sequel that Wii U owners should not miss out on.
Wanted more Kongs to play as? Well there are! Besides Donkey Kong of course and Diddy from Returns, Dixie Kong makes her first playable appearance since Donkey Kong Country 3. In addition, Tropical Freeze is also Cranky Kong’s playable debut. The mechanics revolving Kongs remain the same from Returns. Donkey Kong is still the star, but the other Kongs from DK barrels are their moments of glory assisting DK through the six worlds. Diddy maintains his hover ability from the last game, Dixie’s helicopter spin is now a double jump of sorts, and Cranky can pogo jump Scrooge McDuck style. Personally, I find Dixie to be the most useful of the three supporting Kongs, but all of them have their uses in specific levels. There is also a new screen clearing attack called the “Kong Pow” where depending on the partner Kong you’re with, you get extra coins, health, or lives from the group of enemies you defeated. Having two more characters help out Donkey Kong does deepen the core gameplay and level design, which Retro nailed it well.
The story this around for Tropical Freeze is that Donkey Kong’s birthday party gets interrupted by a group of viking penguins called the Snowmads. The leader of the group ends up blowing away the Kongs from Donkey Kong Island with his horn. The island gets frozen and it is up to the Kongs to reclaim their home from the new invaders. There are six worlds in this sequel instead of Returns’ eight, but the trade-off is that the levels and boss fights are a bit more longer. If you’re also familiar with the last game, extra levels are unlockable by finding a secret exit in certain levels instead of buying a key with coins and getting all the Kong letters in every level of a world. The addition of secret exits does make players have to work more to unlock some levels rather than stock up on coins, which is welcome change made by Retro.
Another missing element from Returns besides more Kongs to play as are underwater levels. Fortunately, they are back in a big way in Tropical Freeze. The catch from the older games is there is an air meter now and the way to stay alive is getting bubbles like Sonic the Hedgehog. A good number of the levels have swimming sections besides the inevitable water world and they are a blast to play through. At least Donkey Kong can attack underwater enemies now and the partner Kongs have their special abilities as well. Having Diddy around allows his rocket jetpacks to be used for more speed, Dixie can help you navigate through streams faster, and Cranky’s stick is useful for certain enemies DK can’t defeat regularly. The only thing that would have made underwater levels a bit better is Enguarde the Swordfish, but once again in this sequel, Rambi the Rhino is the only animal buddy playable and his levels are mostly the same as they were in Returns.
The core gameplay from the older DKC games and Returns remain intact for Tropical Freeze. Sure, there are lots of collectables to get from the Kong letters and puzzle pieces, but it feels great to play this game on the Gamepad instead of the Wiimote and Nunchuk from the last game with waggle controls. Those control options are still there if you prefer playing it that way, but you’re someone who prefers traditional controls, the Gamepad and the Pro Controller work well for this game. Speaking of the Gamepad, there is no touch screen or motion controls with it and even the gamepad screen is blank if you decide to display it on the TV. Unlike most Nintendo games, the game is not displayed on both the TV and the Gamepad, which is sometimes odd. Tropical Freeze does have Off-TV Play, but the game won’t be displayed on the TV. Kind of a weird decision of Retro made with these display options. As far of a lack of gamepad-specific controls, I don’t mind them missing, but it undersells the controller as a whole if you’re not gonna use it for unique stuff.
I mentioned earlier how the last game was one of the more difficult platformers in recent years. Tropical Freeze is no exception in terms of challenge. You will lose a lot of lives falling into pits and getting hit by random enemies, but like Returns and any modern Nintendo game, these games give you extra lives like candy if you keep collecting bananas at a constant rate. Most of your deaths will be due to trial and error being unfamiliar with a new level, but it is also fair at the same time if you didn’t execute or time your jump properly. I also see that players will be turned off by the difficulty and if you didn’t like how hard Returns was, you won’t like it in Tropical Freeze too. There were moments personally where I feel like I’m fighting with the controls, specifically rolling when I rather hand slap the ground, but that is in a minor concern in both regular and underwater levels. However, when everything clicks beating a hard level with such precision and getting a really fast time in time attack mode, it is always one of the most satisfying moments in these modern Nintendo games.
Retro has once again done an amazing job with the level design for Tropical Freeze as if each level has their own theme and personality much like the older DKC games. The setpieces of avoiding major obstacles and barrel sequences are top notch. Lots of memorable moments that I won’t spoil really make this game something special as there is lots of fanservice that fans will enjoy. Hated the mine cart and rocket barrel levels in the last game? Well they’re still in the sequel and they are not as bad now as it takes two hits to lose a life instead of one unless you’re using a item from Funky Kong’s shop to extend your health. Speaking of items, they’re pretty much the same from Returns with some new additions. Blue balloons can be bought to extend your air meter and partner barrels can be purchased so you can have a specific partner Kong from the start of the level.
Graphically, Tropical Freeze is a beautiful looking game on the Wii U. Sure, it maintains the same style as Returns, but the little details especially to the environments and characters do show. The cel-shaded looking levels are also back as well looking amazing to no surprise. However, the game does suffer from longer than normal load times. Even the loading screen shutters a bit to the point the game may crash. The music though is on a whole another level thanks to the return of the original trilogy’s composer David Wise. He has crafted easily my early pick for soundtrack of the year with masterful tracks and new remixes for familiar DKC tracks from the first two games. The music alone also makes certain levels shine to the point I would just replay levels or stop where I’m at just to listen again.
Sure it is another Nintendo game on the Wii U that doesn’t break new ground, but that doesn’t stop them from releasing superb hits like Super Mario 3D World and now Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. Retro Studios have once again made a superb sequel that included most of what was missing from the last game while maintaining the core gameplay intact with the addition of more Kongs and keeping it challenging. The level design is top notch from beginning to end with epic setpieces, easier vehicle sections, and the addition the wonderful underwater levels. However, this sequel is not perfect with longer than normal load times and not taking advantage of the Gamepad’s unique functionalities. The game plays traditionally fine with the Gamepad sticks and buttons, but I guess Retro didn’t want to make fans angry with more gimmick motion/touch screen controls. Bringing back David Wise to compose the soundtrack was another great decision because it is one of the best gaming soundtracks I heard in a while. If you don’t mind the challenge because this game can be pretty difficult for some, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is another worthy hit that is highly recommended for any Wii U owner.