Review: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

Originally published on on Feb. 17, 2014.

+ Addictive challenge | Clever, varied level design | Outstanding soundtrack

- Levels based on trial-and-error | Anticlimactic ending

When Nintendo announced Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze as a follow-up to Retro Studios’ Donkey Kong Country Returns at last year’s E3, some fans felt bummed that it wasn’t the developer’s glorious return to the Metroid Prime series.

I think they’ll be singing a different tune once they start playing the game.

There’s no monkey business behind it; the game’s style and feel are largely the same as its 2010 predecessor. You’re still ground-pounding, rolling, shooting out of barrels and collecting bananas and coins. Nevertheless, there are a number of improvements that are readily apparent in this Wii U sequel, and Cranky Kong’s celebrated reveal is only a small slice of the proverbial banana.

I’d like to preface this by saying that I had finished Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D only weeks before I got my hands on Tropical Freeze. DKCR3D was a game that made me curse about as much as Dark Souls.

Thankfully, there was less of that with this sequel. Like its predecessor, Tropical Freeze can be really tough, but it’s done so in a strangely addictive and enjoyable way. Nevertheless, prepare to die a lot more than you ever had in the original SNES trilogy.

Though most of my deaths stemmed from the Returns-esque mine cart and rocket barrel levels, their difficulty seems to be slightly scaled back in Tropical Freeze, which still isn’t saying too much. Getting hit once no longer results in instant death. You get two hits this time, and you’re going to need them.

The reliance on trial-and-error from Returns is still present, especially when it comes to collecting all the puzzle pieces and KONG letters hidden throughout the game’s six worlds. You don’t get a very big window for snatching these precious items, so expect to revisit levels a number of times if you fancy yourself a completionist.

Borrowing a page from the 3DS version of Returns, the game has an item shop managed by the stuck-in-the-90s Funky Kong, which allows you to spend coins on lives, extra hearts and other power-ups that help during some of the game’s more difficult levels.

As per tradition, a second player can tag along with a Wii Remote and optional Nunchuk or the Wii U Pro Controller to control DK’s three different partners. Diddy and his jetpack ability make their return, while Dixie comes back from a nearly two decade-long hiatus with her helicopter hair spin and Cranky, who makes his hyped-up gameplay debut with a DuckTales-inspired cane jump.

Unless you’re playing in co-op mode, these characters play second fiddle to DK, clinging onto his back and utilizing their own specific moves. Every Kong feels useful in someway, although I found myself using Dixie and Cranky far more often than Donkey’s nephew.

Each Kong can also perform a super move entitled “KONG POW” once they have enough bananas, which demolishes all enemies onscreen. While that seems like it would be a strong ability, I personally found it seldom useful.

Having the right character for a level can make a world of difference and saves some frustration when coming across certain obstacles. The player can come across DK-branded barrels that gives one the choice of who comes out of them, so you can switch characters mid-level. I wish switching between Kongs was better implemented in co-op, however, as the game will require you to drop your partner in the options menu on the world map screen and re-add them in order to choose a different character.

Also strange is the game’s insistence on making you choose between using a control scheme for the analog stick or the D-Pad, with both featuring different button layouts. Aside from displaying the game in off-TV play the GamePad’s touchscreen and other functions aren’t used in the slightest, but that’s not really a bad thing.

While the game’s levels are already incredibly diverse, you’ll still get those occasional levels that have you ride on Rambi the Rhino, who makes a comeback in this game and continues to be borderline God Mode.

Even so, I feel that there was a missed opportunity in bringing back the original trilogy’s varied batch of companion animals. The parrot, Squawks, is used as a secondary item that helps you uncover hidden puzzle pieces within levels, but no other animal makes a return. I was hoping they’d at least bring back Engarde the Swordfish.

While Returns was notably missing underwater levels, Tropical Freeze features a ton of them that can be equally creative and nerve-wracking. One swimming level has a monstrous octopus stalking and chasing you as a cloud of deadly ink starts bubbling its way toward you.

The game introduces a new set of villains called the Snomads, an army of Viking penguins, seals, walruses and owls that end up being far more interesting than the generic Tikis from Returns. The boss fights are all very enjoyable challenges, featuring clever patterns and equally awesome music.

And speaking of music, one of the most welcome comebacks and quite possibly one of the best things Nintendo could have possibly done was bring back the SNES DKC maestro himself, David Wise for the soundtrack. I can’t emphasize enough how incredible this game’s score is. Alongside Kenji Yamamoto’s work, the soundtrack enhances the game considerably. The remixes of classic SNES-era DKC music will tickle the nostalgia bone of many older players, while the new music brings in styles ranging from electronic to tribal and even a bit of ace harmonica playing. It’d be a crime for them not to release the full soundtrack in some form.

The world of Tropical Freeze is ridiculously pretty. The game marks Donkey Kong’s first foray into HD and it’s easily one of the best-looking games on the Wii U. There’s an incredible attention to detail, from a level teasing at future obstacles in the distant background to the idle animations for Donkey Kong including him whipping out a 3DS to play a myriad of games identifiable by their sounds. Levels like the third world’s savannah will make you smile with their musical and visual flair.

Tropical Freeze is noticeably brief, and its ending especially felt abrupt. I was able to beat the game in roughly 13 hours, and that was with a load of retries. Despite this, the game is chock-full of secrets that considerably boost the replay value. Levels are teeming with hidden areas, collectibles and bonus mini-games, though the latter divulged into the same repetitive banana collect-a-thon presented with a different layout. There’s also the occasional secret path that unlocks new stages within a world that keeps things interesting, and a Time Attack mode with online leaderboards to fall back on, which is especially attractive to speedrunners.

Overall, Tropical Freeze is a worthy sequel and a huge improvement over Returns. Its challenge feels fairer as far as rocket barrels aren’t concerned, its presentation is better, and perhaps most importantly, it didn’t make me rage like Returnsoften did.

So was Nintendo right to stick Retro on another Donkey Kong title instead of a Metroid one? My answer is a resounding “yes.”

(Editor’s note: A publisher’s copy of the game was provided for this review. Review copies are provided as a courtesy, and do not influence the opinions of Pixelitis.)