I love Donkey Kong Country. I always have. Ever since the first game came out on the SNES in 1994, I have been a strong supporter of the series; I even loved Dixie Kong's Double Trouble, despite its toony aesthetic and childish main character. To this day, I still think the claymation-styled graphics look better than pretty much every game in the series that has been released since, and the soundtracks are all some of the best ever. When Donkey Kong Country Returns came out in 2010 on the Wii I was in heaven. And so it pains me to say that Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is kind of a disappointment. It's not bad - in fact I'd say overall it's pretty good - but it doesn't really live up to the expectations of the series, despite its gameplay fixes and occasional innovations.
When Donkey Kong Country Returns came out in 2010, I was blown away by just how good it was. It was longer than any of the previous games, the level design was top notch, and it evoked nostalgia while still being good in its own right. There were only a few issues with it, namely its controls, the lack of water levels or any swimming at all, and the fact that one of the new features was that Donkey Kong could blow. To Tropical Freeze's credit, it fixed each and every one of these issues. No longer must you shake a wiimote to roll; nor do you have to blow on anything for any reason; and now there are water levels! Great as these fixes are, they each come with their own fair share of related issues.
While it is wonderful that you don't have to shake your controller, the controls still have a long ways to go before they're as simple and precise as they were on the SNES. The only potential issue with the controls from the very first Donkey Kong Country game was that Y both rolled and picked items up, which could in theory overlap and result in messed up jumps, although in actuality you would never in a position where you would have to roll past a barrel, so it was never be an issue. Instead, you now press left or right and Y to roll, just Y to ground pound, and R or L to pick items up. Sounds simple enough, but it doesn't replicate the precise jumping and rolling found in the original. I went back and played all three SNES games just to be sure, and they did indeed control better in every way; movement was more fluid and rolling considerably more precise. I do not understand how, 20 years later, the controls can actually be worse.
Which brings me to my next negative point: water levels. Water levels have been the bane of many a platformer, so I was half relieved that there were no water levels in Donkey Kong Country Returns. It was a bit of a shame to not see them, since they were such an integral part of the original trilogy, but I was accepting of the decision to keep them out. Retro have included swimming and water levels in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, and unfortunately the game is poorer for it. Swimming in this game is an absolute chore. Rather than float and bob like flappy bird, like in the original trilogy, Donkey and his partners dive and curl and go in circles when they're trying to swim. This leads to the occasional situation where the player sees an obstacle and tries to avoid it, only to have Donkey sweep around in the wrong direction and get hit by whatever it was he was trying to avoid. Water levels are often a chore, but in Tropical Freeze they're also cumbersome and imprecise.
One aspect of Donkey Kong Country Returns that most divided opinion was its difficulty. Some claimed it to be too hard, others felt it was perfect. It was tough and demanding, but it was fair, even if it was a little too challenging for the average player. Tropical Freeze increases the difficulty, but I feel it does so in a cheap manner. The 2010 iteration required bits of memorization, but once you figured out the layout, it was pretty straightforward. Tropical Freeze on the other hand will kill you a dozen times over, even if you know precisely what you're doing, especially on those water levels. I didn't want to complain about the difficulty, since I was adamant the last one wasn't that hard despite the criticism it garnered from some quarters, and I love challenging platformers, but Tropical Freeze all too often feels cheap in its attempts to add difficulty.
Luckily, you have three different Kong family members to help you through the tougher spots. Each of the three helper Kongs has a special ability to grant Donkey on his travels, or can be enjoyed by the second player in the returning shared-screen co-op mode. Diddy hovers as he did before, Dixie flutters upwards in a floaty double jump, and Cranky uses his cane to pogo on enemies or treacherous terrain. I tried all three, both single player and co-op, and short of some secrets that only Cranky can get, the clear choice for your chosen helper monkey is always and will always be Dixie. Unfortunately, she's just so good that the game is not as fun without her. When playing single player, if you lose her, you might as well restart. Luckily Retro realized the importance of the helper monkey and staggered the heart reductions so that you have to be hit 3/4 times before losing them.
The first game in the series featured six worlds plus a final boss. The second had six worlds plus a secret world and a final boss world. The third had seven full worlds and a secret world. Returns had the most, with eight full worlds plus a bonus world. Tropical Freeze takes us back to the volume of the first game with six full worlds and a few bonus levels in a hidden seventh world, and about one third of the total levels are hidden behind secret paths and areas. These secret levels are great fun for more experienced DKC players, but I can image that most players will just find the hidden worlds to be a tease that simply makes the overall game much shorter.
Tropical Freeze also lacks originality of level design and world design. One world is a jungle, one is a juicy jungle, another is a Saharan jungle, and the final world is a frozen jungle. I miss the ruins and abandoned amusement parks and castles and cliffs of previous entries. The most interesting world as far as art direction goes is the Nordic region with windmills and fallen leaves. As for actual level design, the only levels that are really outstanding are found in the very last world, the namesake tropically frozen world. The level design just isn't as fresh and exciting as it was Returns, and all the levels almost blend together, with only a few outstanding ideas appearing throughout. It just feels pedestrian, like a retread of a remake.
I imagine one of the key reasons Tropical Freeze is shorter than Returns is because of how much effort has been put into the graphics and sound; it is the first Donkey Kong Country game to be on an HD console after all. If that is the case then the extra detail added to each individual strand of fur has come at the expense of more original worlds and level design. The loading times are also very lengthy and frequent. Series compositional legend, Dave Wise, returns for Tropical Freeze. Dave Wise is responsible for what is considered one of the best video game soundtracks ever composed in Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest, so expectations were high. The end result in Tropical Freeze is merely good, however. The score is good, and appropriate, but nowhere on the soundtrack will you find anything as memorable as Bramble Blast, even though there is a bramble-themed level in Tropical Freeze.
The problem with Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze isn't that it's bad, just that it's disappointing. Every time I was irritated by something I found disappointing I was also reminded why Tropical Freeze is actually a damn good game in its own right, even if I didn't particularly enjoy it. It's short, features fewer worlds and less originality, but the levels are longer on average and there are plenty of collectibles, alternate exits, and hidden areas to be found. The controls are still not as good as they were on SNES, but they are notably better than they were on the Wii. The water levels are terrible, but it's still nice to have them if only for posterity's sake. Overall, although a solidly good game, the pedigree of those behind its creation and the precedent set by previous games makes Tropical Freeze more than a little disappointing.
This review is based on a retail copy of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze for the WiiU