Review: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze for Wii U

Tough, love.

Since reviewing Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D for the Nintendo 3DS, one comment I’d find myself making often enough was that I thought it was a little bit too rough, and that it would be a bit more enjoyable and a bit less frustrating if it were about ten percent easier. In practice, it sounds kind of silly: After all, how does one measure challenge in such a way that it can be given a percentage? But for me, I think simply saying that if I died about ten percent less to things which felt a little cheap or a little too demanding, I’d have come away a little more satisfied and perhaps a little less frazzled.

For the most part, I think Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze for the Wii U manages to give me that ten percent, and maybe even a little more.

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I think it’s safe to say that your feelings about Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D, whatever they are, will more than likely be your feelings about Tropical Freeze. Aside from some tweaks, which I’ll get into, the experience feels largely the same, for better or for worse. More refined in some areas, yes, but largely the same. Put simply, if you didn’t like DKCR3D for some reason, then DKC:TF is probably not going to change your mind. Similarly, if you liked DKCR3D, then I expect you’ll really like Tropical Freeze.

There are some exceptions to that rule, of course. For instance, if your hang-up was that there was too much stopping and blowing on different items, you’ll be pleased to know that’s gone. Or, if you go by the original Wii version of the game, you might be pleased to know that if you don’t like motion controls, you needn’t worry about using them here. You can play using the GamePad or the Pro Controller, though the Wii Remote and Wii Remote + Nunchuk options still remain as well, complete with their motion controls. It’s the best of both worlds, and something the original might have benefited from.

Incidentally, if the Classic Controller or Classic Controller Pro are your weapons of choice, you’ll be disappointed (much as my wife was) to learn that it isn’t supported. Using the GamePad and Pro Controllers, I can’t see a particular reason for this beyond making a decision simply not to. It’s unfortunate, as some do find that option more comfortable than the others. For what it’s worth, though, I found the Pro Controller to work well enough by using the X and A buttons, which mirror the harder-to-reach traditional Y and B buttons’ functions. As an aside, Know that the control schemes for the GamePad and Pro Controller pretty much mirror the layout used on the Nintendo 3DS, which makes having played that version an asset here.

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When I played through Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D, I opted for Easy Mode, and that still provided quite the challenge (especially in some areas more than others). Tropical Freeze has no difficulty setting, and while I’d say it’s comparable if not a bit easier than DKCR3D‘s Easy Mode, it’s still by no means what one might normally consider “easy.” The stages are long and dense with content, and the boss battles are long enough to be stages in themselves, though unfortunately without the benefit of any sort of checkpoint. Lose near the end of the fight, and you’re back to square one.

One small aspect of this is that, for whatever reason, the controls remain almost uncharacteristic of Nintendo games in how they feel almost aggressive towards the player. They work, and they work well, but they also require a lot of work to be put into them. As noted in DKCR3D, the button layout is much more complicated than what was dealt with in the Super Nintendo Entertainment System trilogy from which the series originated.

The best example I can think of to demonstrate this is in Cranky Kong’s pogo jump. Many have seen it and said it’s basically mimicking the move used by Scrooge McDuck in Disney’s DuckTales, and it is. However, whereas you need only hold a button to pogo-jump repeatedly there, DKC:TF requires you to press the jump button again for every single bounce you make, resulting in a completely different feel. Again, though, the controls work well (most of the time), but are likely to throw off beginners, if not those who are used to Mario titles or even the original Donkey Kong Country trilogy.

The overall result, for those who can take it, is that every victory definitely feels like it’s been earned.

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The game features a series of peaks and valleys in terms of difficulty, and it almost feels like there are two main level designers at work. One is more of a set piece designer, assembling an impressive series of events which carry you through the levels, amazed at every new twist and turn. The other one, who comes up more seldom, feels like they’re out to “get” the player with various trickery and psyche-outs, or creating so much havoc on screen that it’s difficult to tell which parts of your surroundings (say, certain debris) is going to harm you, and which will pass by with no consequence.

You’re going to die a lot in this game, that much is guaranteed. While some of these are simply a matter of skill, other parts practically require precognition if you’re to get by unscathed. Otherwise, it’s a matter of playing along, being struck down by something you’re unfamiliar with, and then knowing well enough to avoid it next time. One instance which got me was when I came across a section of ground which looked much like the sort you pound to drop into a secret area, only to instead fall to my death. Another involved a chase which leveled part of the scenery, and just as you’re at the goal, the ground drops out from underneath you with little warning.

Put simply, when the game isn’t amazing you with its brilliant design (there is nothing quite like watching the giant saw blade chasing you down a minecart track building the obstacles in front of you), there are times when it feels like the people behind it weren’t so much out to subvert your expectations as they were to utterly betray them.

Speaking of minecarts, one particularly grating part of the game is when it switches to a more isometric perspective; rather than jumping from one track to the next vertically, you instead have to do it horizontally, and the controls for doing so (left or right on the Control Stick while pressing jump) just don’t seem to work well for quick, reflexive jumps. When coming up on a portion where I needed to jump, I’d hold the direction well beforehand and it would work, but spur-of-the-moment attempts to dodge usually met with failure. When it switched to a full-on overhead/behind view, however, it worked flawlessly. Considering how often a similar perspective seemed to screw myself and others up in Super Mario 3D World, 3/4 views seem like something Nintendo should stay away from in their platformers.

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A downside to all of this challenge for some players is that Super Kong has taken a pass on this installment. Fortunately, to the developers’ credit, they make up for it by completely packing you full of extra lives, thus allowing you to try, try again. By the end of the third island, I had maxed out my life counter, and that’s without even really trying too much, and without buying any from Funky Kong’s item shop.

Speaking of Funky’s shop, if the sheer number of lives afforded you aren’t enough to help you brute-force your way through whatever is giving you trouble, the items here should make up the difference. You can purchase them for reasonable prices and stock up, though you can only carry three into a level at a time, and you’ll have to re-equip each time you start a new one. Still, between invincibility potions, extra hearts, protection from crashes and pitfalls, there’s nearly everything you could need in order to get the job done. That also includes spare barrels with Diddy, Dixie, and Cranky Kong– handy, given there are some long stretches where you won’t find any help outside of Professor Chops’ checkpoints.

Speaking of the rest of the DK Crew, each has a special “Kong Pow” move performed when a meter is filled from the bananas you collect. Press the designated button, and all normal enemies on screen will turn into 1UP balloons (Diddy), banana coins (Cranky), or golden hearts (Dixie). Each golden heart you collect allows you an extra hit, effectively doubling your life meter to eight hearts maximum, though the effect only lasts for the area you’re in. You’ll also find the Kong Pow moves don’t work on bosses, but can affect some of their minions.

For all of the game’s challenge, you should have more than enough options to overcome them so long as you remember and choose to employ them.

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As Donkey Kong and his companions island-hop back to Donkey Kong Island, they’ll find that each island has its own unique environment, including forests, valleys of windmills, savannahs (including one stage which looks like it came right from The Lion King on Broadway), and more. The levels within tend to each be unique from one-another, and while the core experience is largely the same throughout, it never really feels repetitive. Also, as noted before, the levels tend to feel quite long, arguably making up for the fact that this game has fewer worlds on the whole than its predecessor. Given each stage’s length, though, it doesn’t tend to feel lacking, and there are still several extra stages off the beaten path, opened up by finding deviously-hidden secret exits like those featured in various Mario titles, such as Super Mario World.

One new element added to the mix this time out is the ability to swim; previously, just touching the water was basically enough for a quick, sudden death. This time, however, falling off a platform opens up a new world to explore, complete with different music playing. Those who remember swimming in the original trilogy will find that it works rather differently here; rather than tapping the jump button to paddle, you’ll simply move around with the Control Stick or Dpad, and gain boosts or attack with the other buttons. DK is a bit slow in turning around at times when you need him to, but it otherwise stands out as rather unique among swimming styles in most platformers. The only thing missing is the triumphant return of Enguarde the Swordfish.

Another new mechanic, one which replaces the blowing of the previous title, is one in which you grab various hooks placed on the ground throughout the levels, or pick up certain enemies and objects. Some liken it to Super Mario Bros. 2‘s “plucking power,” but that’s overstating it a bit, as it doesn’t come up nearly as often as that game’s core mechanic. It winds up being another case of the controls being contemptuous towards the player at times, with the occasional item pulled from a hook being thrown automatically if you don’t know to hold the button down when pulling (and virtually nothing in the game withstands being thrown, meaning if you screw up, you’ll have to retry the level to get another shot). Plus, unlike the original trilogy, if you come upon something to pick up that isn’t stuck in the ground, you can’t just hold the button to pick it up, but instead have to time the press. DK’s throwing arc is a bit tricky, too, and hitting a stationary target can be rather tricky as a result.

Still, for all its troubles, the mechanic is preferable to the constant stopping and blowing found in Donkey Kong Country Returns.

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One of the more disappointing aspects of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is the lack of true character selection. Personally, I love Donkey Kong himself, but when you’re in 2-player mode, even the biggest fan of DK would have a hard time arguing that there isn’t more fun to be had by playing as his sidekicks. This was the case in Returns, but is much more pronounced here with three different sidekicks: Diddy has his jetpack to hover, Dixie can double-jump with her long ponytail, and Cranky has the aforementioned use of his cane for whacking enemies and bouncing off things.

Nintendo has made a big deal out of being able to play as Cranky, but the simple fact of the matter is that unless you’re player 2 in a multiplayer game, it’s all but meaningless. In a single-player game, the extra characters basically act as power-ups, and unlike in multiplayer, getting hit twice means that they’re gone until you can find another barrel. Further complicating matters is that Player 1 is pretty much handicapped in a 2-player game by virtue of not being able to use any of the special jumps– that is, unless Player 2 hops on 1’s shoulders, which then effectively turns it into a single-player game (with the exception of Player 2’s ability to fire projectiles such as peanuts, bubble gum, or dentures from atop Donkey Kong).

Of course, everything is still doable with Donkey Kong, but it makes the multiplayer mode feel unbalanced and leaves one to wonder why they couldn’t give Donkey a unique ability and allow players to mix and match the Kong pair of their choosing.

One other, more positive note about multiplayer is that you can use any of the available controllers that you wish– including the GamePad, which is so often defaulted to Player 1.

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Beyond the positives and negatives of gameplay issues, one simply cannot ignore the presentation. The graphics are stunning in high definition, and the return of David Wise has ensured a killer soundtrack reminiscent of the original Super NES trilogy (with some tracks being directly remixed from said games). Simply put, the game is beautiful from top to bottom, and looks good enough to make New Super Mario Bros. U blush a little bit with how animated and alive the world feels.

Plus, it cannot be overstated how the Snowmads make for much more interesting and varied foes than the Tiki Tak Tribe. They may not be the Kremlings, but definitely fall closer to that side of the spectrum.

If there is one downside, it would be that the game tends to suffer from some rather long loading times. Not all of the time, but here and there, including when starting up the game. Even going to and from the map can take a while sometimes, and it’s difficult to ignore the stuttering/skipping of the load screen, making one wonder just how much the hardware is being pushed here.

It should probably also be mentioned that this game provides a rare instance of a Wii U game– a first-party one, at that– not making any use of the GamePad screen at all, at least beyond Off-TV Play. I’d seen it mentioned elsewhere and thought for sure that someone must have missed something, that there was some option in the instruction manual, but nope– if you’re playing off the television, then the screen simply goes dark.

This can be seen as kind of a mixed bag: On the one hand, it’s good that they didn’t jam any unnecessary functionality into the GamePad just because it’s there (though one would think they’d just mimic the bottom screen from the Nintendo 3DS game). On the other, it’s probably not the kind of thing Nintendo needs at the moment as they try to sell the controller as an essential part of the Wii U experience.

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In the end, one can’t call Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze a flawless experience– so very few are, after all– but it is nonetheless still an excellent one. It doesn’t correct some of the issues had with the previous title by going back to the Super NES roots, but instead manages to find other ways around them, keeping true to the overall new experience Retro is trying to provide by leaving their footprint on the series. For every plus, there’s a minus, but in this case, the pluses seem to hold greater weight; it’s like a bizarre balancing act which somehow winds up in favor of the good.

I would say that between this and its predecessor, this is undoubtedly the superior game. As noted before, though, I don’t think it’s going to change your mind if you didn’t enjoy the first one except for but a handful of reasons, but if you enjoyed Returns, then Tropical Freeze is a must-have. And if you’re new to the series, this makes a fine place to begin your journey through Kong country.

With all of that said, I feel like I not only got the ten percent I was looking for with Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D, but a whole lot more as well.

dkctfboxartDonkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze will be released for the Wii U on February 21st, 2014 at a price of $54.99.

A review copy was provided by Nintendo of Canada.


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David Oxford

David Oxford is a freelance writer of many varied interests. If you're interested in hiring him, please drop him a line at david.oxford (at) nyteworks.net.