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Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

Written by Sean Colleli on 2/18/2014 for WiiU  
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Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is an absolutely beautiful game. The visuals and art direction are peerless and it has one of the best soundtracks of the past decade in gaming. It offers brutal challenge and a pitch-perfect refinement of the classic DK platforming formula, while adding a few new surprises along the way. There’s just one problem: I’m having a hard time caring anymore.

Let me clarify: Tropical Freeze is not a bad game by any stretch. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s just that I, personally, find it pretty uninspiring. This is particularly disappointing coming from Retro Studios, one of my favorite developers. They have some of the top talent in the industry today and they always push the envelope, but with Tropical Freeze it feels like they’re pushing it in the wrong direction: nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. More troubling is that Nintendo seems to be pushing that same angle and to the detriment of the Wii U and their business overall.

2013 brought us some of the very best old-school Mario and Zelda experiences and now we have a new DK game for the hardest of the hardcore…and both the Wii U and 3DS fell far short of projected sales numbers. I think it’s clear at this point that Nintendo has squeezed the nostalgia cash cow completely dry, and the scary part is that they probably have no clue what to do now. As I grunted my way through Tropical Freeze this fact was reinforced over and over, and it turned what is ostensibly a bright, cheery, and challenging experience into something downright depressing.

Tropical Freeze follows the same framework and formula as 2010’s DK Country Returns on Wii. It’s a return to the classic 2D platformer style pioneered by Rare in the mid 90’s on the SNES, but with Retro Studios’ signature flare for the dramatic. Tropical Freeze begins with some jaw-dropping cutscenes as DK’s birthday is interrupted by an invasion of ice-spewing Viking animals. Working on the 480p Wii must have been painfully restrictive for Retro, because with Tropical Freeze they fully capitalize on the Wii U’s HD abilities and finally flex their full artistic talent. Sadly this just reminded me how much I want them to make a Metroid game on Wii U…but we’ll get to that point later.

In Tropical Freeze DK is joined once again by Diddy Kong, but this time cantankerous old Cranky Kong is along for the ride and Dixie Kong makes her triumphant return as well. Diddy retains his jetpack hovering ability, while Cranky can bounce on his cane to avoid spikes. Dixie can spin her ponytail to grab some extra lift, and frankly I found her the most valuable of the sidekicks. The extra boost saved my life several times and made grabbing those aggravatingly out of reach items a little easier. That said, each character has their strengths and there are some secrets you can find with one sidekick that you can’t with another, encouraging replay and experimentation with each.

Once you’ve collected enough bananas, each sidekick can also perform a special team move with DK, which transforms all enemies on the screen into helpful items: extra lived with Diddy, banana coins with Cranky and super health with Dixie.

And…that’s pretty much the extent of the new ideas in Tropical Freeze. The level design is much crazier and contributes the most to the tooth-grinding difficulty of the game, but if you played DK Country Returns a few years ago you’ve seen basically the whole skeleton on Tropical Freeze. The new game is just flashier, faster and much harder, almost unnecessarily hard, and ends up feeling like a big HD expert mode level pack for the original game, essentially the DK equivalent of New Super Luigi on steroids.

Once again, I stress that this doesn’t make Tropical Freeze a bad game in the slightest, but for me personally it’s pretty damn depressing and needlessly frustrating at that.

It’s usually not a good sign if I’m swearing at my TV by world 2, so either I’m getting older and feebler than Cranky Kong or Retro went overboard with the difficulty curve. DK Country Returns had a deviously gradual difficulty ramp, which eased me back into the challenge I remembered from the SNES days but had me smacking my forehead by the halfway point. I actually remember saying “when did this game get so hard?!” by the third rocket barrel level. In Tropical Freeze, that moment never came.

This game is annoyingly hard by the first boss fight and gets worse from there. The second world, inspired by the lofty and elegant maple treeway course from Mario Kart, is a contradiction in terms. The setting, music and theme evoke a peaceful autumn on a majestic mountain, but the first Rambi Rhino course had me ready to throw my controller through the TV. Each new world and level has something fresh to show off, but I was often desperately trying to enjoy these bright moments in spite of the game’s best efforts to grind my perseverance to dust. Tropical Freeze sabotages itself by being too difficult for its own good, its breakneck pace and crushing challenge preventing you from appreciating the beautiful art and level design.

Perhaps Nintendo thinks it’s an obligation for the series to be so damn difficult—the SNES DK trilogy ranks among the hardest mainstream platformers ever made—but there’s a difference between a hearty challenge and tedious, repetitive trial and error. That lovely autumn or winter level isn’t so lovely after you’ve pumped ten lives into it just trying to reach a checkpoint. Games shouldn’t be NES-hard just for the sake of nostalgia; the challenge should serve a purpose and be well balanced. At the same time Nostalgia should make us happy to reminisce, not remember how it actually was and think “damn, why did I waste my youth on something so frustrating and pointless?”

I hate to rag on this game just because I might not be up to the challenge anymore—after all, that’s a completely subjective judgement. But Tropical Freeze made me even more tired and fed up, at a time when I’m particularly tired of Nintendo’s nonsense and fed up with what seems like an obstinate cluelessness of their current, dire situation. Tropical Freeze is a masterful throwback, but elements within it make me shake my head and wonder if Nintendo has any creativity left.

For starters it’s yet another 2D platformer—Nintendo’s go-to genre when they’re feeling scared of leaving their comfort zone. Tropical Freeze is a vibrant, if unbalanced 2D platformer, but it’ll only take another game or two before DK Country gets as stale as the banal New Super Mario series. In tropical Freeze it feels like Retro has wrung the last molecules of innovation out of this tired, overdone genre; I’m worried that DK could get just as lifeless and obligatory as Mario’s 2D outings have.

What’s more the game strains against the confines of the sidescroller format, with snappy dynamic camera work, a vivid art style that screams to be unleashed on a fully three dimensional world, and gameplay that leaps back and forth between the foreground and background. Why not just go all the way and give us the amazing sequel to DK64 we’ve always wanted, but with Retro’s Metroid prowess replacing Rare’s obsessive-compulsive fetch quests?

The multiplayer was also a sticking point for me, again not because it’s bad but rather because it doesn’t go far enough. Tropical Freeze has a very accessible drop-in, drop-out local cooperative mode, so a friend can join anytime and take control of DK’s sidekicks. This lets them jump off of DK’s shoulders and run around on their own, using their specialized projectile attacks to stun enemies, but unfortunately you can’t take the fun online. Online multiplayer has been a prominent feature in game consoles three generations going at this point—it should be a standard bullet point in Wii U games, not something special they reserve for Mario Kart and Smash Bros.

Most telling, however, is the game’s use of the GamePad, or rather its lack of use. I appreciated that Tropical Freeze has several control options and it lets you play on the GamePad just fine, but unless you’re using off-screen play, the GamePad’s screen is completely dark. There are literally no other uses in this flagship Wii U game for the GamePad screen during normal gameplay; the GamePad is basically a big, chunky classic controller. For this reason I switched to the Classic Controller Pro or the good old Wiimote and Nunchuk early on. This is pretty troubling—it reinforces the suspicion that Nintendo still has less than a clue regarding what to do exactly with their console’s headlining feature.

I hate to be so negative but there really were a lot of things that just bugged me about this game, and they had nothing to do with Retro’s impressive development experience or the game’s production values. Retro’s art direction is impeccable as always, and it made the myriad levels a joy to stare at, if not satisfying to play through. If anything Tropical Freeze is the ultimate showcase of what a good team of artists can do with this hardware—there are no more excuses for sub-par graphics on Wii U.

It was also great to have David Wise—Rare’s original in-house composer on the SNES DK trilogy—back to score Tropical Freeze. Kenji Yamamoto does a great job as usual too, but there’s something authentic about having David Wise return for Tropical Freeze’s soundtrack. He lends his signature atmospheric style to each new environment in subtle ways that are almost imperceptible but appreciated nonetheless. I’ve always enjoyed Mr. Wise’s style of music and the evocative, strangely romantic quality he brings to games like Donkey Kong and Star Fox Adventures, and his contributions to Tropical Freeze were one of the highlights of the game for me. Here’s hoping Nintendo continues to work with him in the future.

Oddly enough, David Wise’s soundtrack is a good analogy for my experience with Tropical Freeze. It consisted of intermittent bursts of nostalgia that only served to distract me from the fact that I was repeatedly bashing my nose against a brick wall. Every time I blew up DK and his pals or sailed into a bottomless pit, Tropical Freeze lost a little bit more of its ability to distract me from how safe and ultimately backwards-looking it is. It’s a great game—too damn hard, but a great game—but it feels almost like a waste of Retro’s talents.

In 2013 Nintendo learned the hard way that nostalgia will not carry them anymore, and Tropical Freeze is sadly a great example of this. They’ve taken that style of gameplay as far as it will go and while the zenith is a glorious (and maddening) thing to behold, the cracks are starting to show. Nintendo should let Retro move on to something more ambitious, a true test of their abilities. Maybe it’s time to give them another mothballed Nintendo franchise to reinvent, like Star Fox, or better yet, challenge Retro to create a completely new IP. Last generation saw a ton of fresh ideas on other platforms—Assassin’s Creed, Mass Effect, Dead Space, even Rock Band—but almost no fresh IPs from Nintendo.

This is a new generation and Nintendo should start treating it as such. While other studios drive their best ideas from last gen into the ground with endless sequels, Nintendo could risk something actually innovative on the Wii U; it doesn’t have much left to lose at this point anyway. In any case, Retro should be at the forefront—they’ve been sharpening their teeth on 2D platformers for the last few years and it’s time for Nintendo to let them off their chain. Hopefully Tropical Freeze will be the last time, at least for a while, that Nintendo dips into that nostalgia reserve. They need to give old DK and the rest of their revered franchises a break before they get tired, trite and really do grow old.

Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is a master class in the art form of 2D platformers, but it’s way too difficult for its own good and this makes the inherent flaws and limitations of the genre all the more obvious. Tropical Freeze is probably the best side-scrolling platformer we’ll ever see from a technical standpoint. Now it’s time for Nintendo to stop making them for a while and actually do something new.

Rating: 8 Good

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About Author

I've been gaming off and on since I was about three, starting with Star Raiders on the Atari 800 computer. As a kid I played mostly on PC--Doom, Duke Nukem, Dark Forces--but enjoyed the 16-bit console wars vicariously during sleepovers and hangouts with my school friends. In 1997 GoldenEye 007 and the N64 brought me back into the console scene and I've played and owned a wide variety of platforms since, although I still have an affection for Nintendo and Sega.

I started writing for Gaming Nexus back in mid-2005, right before the 7th console generation hit. Since then I've focused mostly on the PC and Nintendo scenes but I also play regularly on Sony and Microsoft consoles. My favorite series include Metroid, Deus Ex, Zelda, Metal Gear and Far Cry. I'm also something of an amateur retro collector. I currently live in Westerville, Ohio with my wife and our cat, who sits so close to the TV I'd swear she loves Zelda more than we do. We are expecting our first child, who will receive a thorough education in the classics.

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