A rumble in the jungle

I absolutely loved Donkey Kong Country Returns when it released on the Wii more than three years ago. It was a long-awaited return to form for Nintendo’s simian supreme. I’ll admit, however, despite the success Retro pulled off with Returns, I was a bit worried when I heard their next game was a direct sequel. Unlike their previously successful resuscitation of a dormant Nintendo franchise with Metroid Prime, platformers like Donkey Kong Country don’t really have an overarching story tying all the games together. I feared that Retro had already pulled out all the stops, and that Tropical Freeze would be a clone with a new coat of paint. Sometimes when I’m wrong, I’m really wrong.

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze sees our beloved banana-hoarding ape and his family celebrating DK’s birthday when a cold wind comes blowing in from across the sea. Suddenly, Donkey Kong’s tropical paradise has become a winter wonderland. New Viking-like enemies, the Snowmads, have appeared out of nowhere to claim Donkey Kong Island for their own, and they promptly send DK and friends out to sea. The Kong Clan must now band together and work their way back across a variety of new and uncharted locales before taking on the Snowmad leader to reclaim their lost home.

Yes, it’s the same “Someone’s stolen DK’s home/horde” story as always. But, then again, Mario’s almost always rescuing a kidnapped Princess Peach, too. You don’t play a Nintendo platformer for the story. It’s simply an excuse to test your skill with a controller over the course of dozens of specially crafted stages.

It’s these stages that make it clear that Retro is just as talented as Nintendo. For one, the precision required is a notch higher than in Returns, and it’ll push you more than you might expect. By the time I got through the entire game, I’d had a great experience, but I also felt like I’d accomplished something by beating a game that was no pushover—a rare feat among modern platformers. The difficulty ramps up smoothly, and I never once felt smothered by a sudden array of collapsing platforms or other hazards. Sure, a few trial-and-error stages caused me to sacrifice some life balloons, but for the most part, the game informs about the dangers ahead and how to bypass them, leaving it up to the player to input the proper commands. For example, a lone Snowmad walks under a giant plant—and the plant then eats the Snowmad. That enemy’s clearly there to say “stay the f*** away from this thing” without you having to be the victim first.

Should any individual stage start to bring on conniptions, though, you can still find ways to overcome the challenge through purchasing items. By spending the plentiful collectible Banana Coins at Funky Kong’s shop, you can accrue more lives, additional air for the underwater segments, extra armor for mine-carts, Banana Juice for invincibility, and more. Most experienced platform players will probably only visit Funky to try their hand at the gumball machine that spits out randomized 3D character models, but it’s a nice touch to offer these options so that players of all skill levels can enjoy the adventure.

While any level can be cleared with Donkey Kong alone, the areas drastically change if he has Diddy, Dixie, or Cranky Kong on his back. Each partner offers special advantages, and they all feel different from each other. Dixie’s helicopter spin gives Donkey Kong a boosted jump, and her slow hover back to the ground affords the chance to take a little extra care when hopping from platform to platform. Diddy’s rocket barrels help DK glide across long gaps more smoothly as well, but he may prove most useful underwater, where he gives a huge speed boost. Finally, Cranky’s expertise comes in helping DK avoid taking damage from spikes with a move that makes him look like Scrooge McDuck in Capcom’s Ducktales games as he hop alongs on his cane. While you may come to rely on a favorite (mine was Dixie), in order to find all the game’s secrets, you’ll need to learn how best to all utilize their unique skillsets and switch between them when necessary.

What’s more, the variety between stages is astounding. Not content to simply offer traditional mine-cart levels, Tropical Freeze instead includes mine-cart rides that take you through a sawmill and see you racing against runaway buzzsaws. Underwater levels don’t just have you swimming in a lagoon; they have you searching for treasure to find the key to unlock the exit. This diversity continues into the “regular” levels, which see DK running through a burning savannah, leaping through a spiraling tornado, and riding a hot-air balloon through the clouds. I honestly never wanted to put my controller down just because I wanted to see what wacky situation I’d be thrown into next.

There’s also one thing I never really expected from Tropical Freeze, but I got it in spades: replayability. If you blow through the main adventure, the game’s about 12 to 15 hours long, but there’s easily enough content here for three times that. Not only do all levels include collecting all the K-O-N-G letters and five to nine puzzle pieces to unlock some awesome concept art, but they also offer time trials to unlock medals. The time-trial videos can be uploaded to a worldwide leaderboard, or you can download other players’ runs to see how they were able to get Gold in a particular level and make their speed-run tricks your own. This process is so seamless, in fact, that I hope more Nintendo games start using it. On top of all this, some stages have multiple exits to unlock branching paths, and it wouldn’t be a true Donkey Kong Country game if there weren’t some hidden worlds.

Despite my gushing, I’ve got a couple of minor gripes with Tropical Freeze. The chaos that is co-op makes playing this mode almost worthless unless you and your partner are perfectly in sync. So, even though the option’s there, this game shines most when played solo. I also wish we would’ve seen more of Donkey Kong’s animal buddies from the SNES days. The returning water levels especially screamed for Enguarde the Swordfish to return, even with the Kongs now able to defend themselves underwater.

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is, otherwise, an absolute blast to play. With stunning audio and visuals, combined with gameplay depth and variety, Tropical Freeze has easily cemented itself as one of the best platformers I’ve ever played.

Developer: Retro Studios • Publisher: Nintendo • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 02.21.14
One of the best platformers I’ve ever played, Tropical Freeze finds a way to build on the successful foundation of Donkey Kong Country Returns in new and wonderful ways.
The Good New and creative challenges throughout keep gameplay fresh.
The Bad Co-op leaves something to be desired.
The Ugly Thinking of what could have happened to Enguarde, Expresso, and the rest of DK’s SNES buddies.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a Wii U exclusive, and was reviewed using a retail copy provided by Nintendo.