Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze Review: Always Trust a Tie-Wearing Ape

by David Sanchez March 3, 2014 @ 9:12 pm

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I don’t say this often because it’s not something I genuinely feel when I play many games these days, but I sincerely hope that Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is some four-year-old kid’s first game. Super Mario Bros. was my first game when I was four, and that experience really had a great impact on me as far as video games are concerned. As such, I can’t stress enough just how jovial and wonderful Tropical Freeze is — so much so that it’s totally deserving of being younger game players’ first foray into the world of video games.

Unavoidable similarities to 2010’s Donkey Kong Country Returns notwithstanding (it’s a direct sequel in the most obvious sense), Tropical Freeze manages to deliver a standout platforming adventure that arguably outshines that of its predecessor. From a gameplay perspective, not much has changed. That said, the little additions and minor refinements come together to create an even more impressive package, making this quite possibly the Kongs’ most versatile jungle romp yet.

Tropical Freeze may be a Nintendo platformer, but it’s definitely not a Mario game. In his quest to stop the Viking-like Snomads, Donkey Kong controls vastly different from Nintendo’s resident plumber — he’s bulky, slippery, and heavy. Don’t take this to mean that the controls are unwieldy. Quite the contrary — guiding DK feels tight and responsive, and even though there’s a slight learning curve, once you get a feel for the tie-wearing ape’s movements, you should have no trouble at all leaping across pitfalls, swinging from vines, and bouncing off rafts.

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This time around, Retro Studios has included swimming gameplay in Tropical Freeze. These sequences aren’t the focus of the game, but they’re interspersed ever so methodically to provide you with just the right dose of underwater adventuring to keep you satisfied. Early on, you can jump into the water and collect bananas, snag coins, or find puzzle pieces in levels consisting largely of land-based platforming. Eventually, however, you enter the lovely marine depths of the island environment and engage in stages that take place entirely below the surface.

In addition to his trusty sidekick Diddy Kong, DK’s got backup from the charming Dixie Kong and cantankerous Cranky Kong. If you’re playing on your own, you’re relegated to selecting DK, with the others acting as enhancement characters. Aside from giving you two extra hit points, they each have their own skills for you to make use of. Diddy uses his jetpack to glide for short distances. Dixie spins her hair like a propeller to lift you into the air. And Cranky does an excellent Scrooge McDuck impression by utilizing his cane (read: crooked wooden branch) as a pogo stick.

If you’re playing with another person in two-player co-op, DK is still forced on the first player. The second player, however, can pick from the remaining three, though this player can’t select DK. It’s disappointing that you can’t just pick whichever character you want whether you’re playing single-player or co-op modes, because DK, Diddy, Dixie, and Cranky all offer something unique. It would’ve been great to have the opportunity to select any character at the start of each stage (or at the very least when you load up your save), but sadly, that’s not the case.

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The co-op mode is surprisingly enjoyable and doesn’t suffer from the same flaws as the New Super Mario Bros. games. Perhaps it’s because only two people can play Tropical Freeze at once, or maybe this game just does co-op better than Mario, but frustration at the hands of incompetence (and purposeful sabotaging) hardly comes into play. It’s still easy to dash through a level while you’re partner trails behind while engaging in a bit of exploration, though. Thankfully, you’re not penalized for that, and after a few seconds, the Kong left behind is warped next to his or her buddy.

Whether you’re playing alone or with someone else, Tropical Freeze is a pretty challenging game. Returns was one of the tougher platformers of its console generation, and DK’s latest outing is no slouch. Aside from the various spikes, enemies, and traps you’re bound to encounter along the way, massive environmental hazards also task you with always playing to the best of your abilities. Platforms topple over seconds after you’ve stepped on them, bridges collapse as you ride Rambi the Rhino over them, and the floor beneath your hairy, oversized monkey feet literally crumbles without warning.

Even after you’ve gotten to the end of Tropical Freeze, there are plenty of reasons to invest more time into this already lengthy game. Collectible letters that spell out “KONG” are hidden within each stage, as are several intricately placed puzzle pieces. You can also discover Mario-esque secret exits that lead to even more levels. Then there are the time trials, which challenge you to clear each level within a set amount of time to collect gold medals.

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In the past, Donkey Kong games have been known for pushing graphical boundaries on Nintendo platforms. Tropical Freeze puts pretty much all of its predecessors to shame, delivering what is easily the best-looking Donkey Kong game thus far. From the sun-drenched tropical stages to the Limbo-esque silhouette-style levels, everything in the game drips with utter charm, style, and artistry. Then there’s the Kongs’ fur, which looks especially detailed and, well, furry.

Returning to the series for the first time in several years is composer David Wise, whose work on the original Donkey Kong Country is especially noteworthy. The music of Tropical Freeze is absolutely remarkable, offering both entirely new tunes and remixed classics. The game does a great job of dishing out unbridled nostalgia while simultaneously providing a modern-sounding soundtrack filled with exciting and lively beats.

Tropical Freeze is challenging but fair and totally satisfying. It’s gorgeous to witness and magnificent to listen to. You can enjoy it alone or in the company of another player. It all comes together to create a great platformer that won’t soon be forgotten. It’s not the best game in the genre of all time, especially since it’s so similar to its predecessor. Even then, Tropical Freeze is an unforgettable adventure that was made to be played and enjoyed wholeheartedly, whether you’re a longtime game player enjoying co-op with a buddy or girlfriend, or a four-year-old kid playing his very first game.

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