When the Wii U was announced, most Nintendo fans had one question on their minds: what is Retro Studios going to make for it? With rumours of a Star Fox / Metroid crossover running rampant, it would be almost impossible to satiate the hunger Nintendo fans were feeling. No-one disliked Donkey Kong Country Returns (Retro's last game, which released for the Wii in 2010) - it reviewed well and has secured over six million worldwide sales - but no-one expected the announcement of a sequel, either.
The unveiling of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze gave us a look at how crisp the DKC series could look in HD, and soon enough even heartbroken Nintendo fans started warming to the idea. So now it’s available, is it the system selling sequel we’ve been waiting for?
The first thing you’ll notice when turning on Tropical Freeze isn’t the sharp HD graphics, surround sound, or the excitement of things to come; it's how long it takes to load. Sure, the Wii U has had a lot of grief over load times in the past, but there’s something about Tropical Freeze that makes getting into a game feel like it takes just that little bit longer. Maybe it’s the 30 - 40 second load time at the beginning, or maybe it’s that you’ll need to hit the A button 10 times before being able to play. It’s definitely noticeable, regardless of the explanation.
Speaking of load times, there’s a little theme song for the loading screens that plays at the start and end of each stage. It took me a few hours, and some heavy googling, but I eventually figured it out - it's the intro to 90s hit Pure Shores by All Saints…… and no, I’m not proud that I had that tune stored away in my brain.
Thankfully, the load times are the only aspect of Tropical Freeze that feels like a step backwards. Instead, a lot of the game rubs up against the nostalgic part of my brain that remembers early 90s platformers with great fondness. There are moments of Amiga exclusive Fire & Ice, Cool Spot, James Pond 2: RoboCod, Zool, etc. It feels exactly like what you would want from a retro platformer, and mixes in everything you love from the DKC series.
What that means, however, is a lot of trial and error. Inching forward at a slow pace, figuring out how to avoid that thing that killed you only to die from something else right afterwards. Some levels flow a bit nicer than others, and you may even find yourself completing a world without dying, but levels like that are few and far between. You’ll likely die in the very first stage, you won’t get all of the collectibles on your first try, and you will go back just to find out where the entrances to the secret stages are. No number of lives lost will stop you.
The only point where frustration got the better of me was during the boss fights. They’re your stock standard encounters: a set pattern that you need to figure out and take advantage of. The only problem is they’re hard and can see you eating into those precious lives you’ve been stockpiling. There are two things that should never mix in platformers: water levels and boss fights - they come together as one pure moment of frustration in Tropical Freeze.
There’s plenty of variation to be found, from the gameplay itself through to the stages you’ll be venturing through. The six worlds are incredibly unique, and range from the aforementioned water level to the dry and burning hot African tundra - the game wouldn’t be Donkey Kong Country without a return to the jungle levels we know and love, too. While the variation is great, the intro (and title) mislead me into thinking there would be a few more “winter” themed worlds, instead of relegating them to only the final section.
As always, it’s the gameplay that shines. There’s something truly satisfying about the mechanics in the DKC series. The throwing of barrels/explosives, the bouncing and double jumping off enemy's heads, the climbing of ropes and grass walls, and - of course - the minecart stages. The on-rail sections make a triumphant return as you bounce from rail to rail, and in one amazing stage have your mine cart replaced with a small carved boat. All these things and the rocket-fueled barrel stages (think Flappy Bird but actually good) really set this series apart from other platformers.
Both Cranky and Dixie Kong return after quite a lengthy absence, joining Donkey and Diddy as playable characters. In singleplayer mode, the extra Kongs really only serve a couple of purposes. One, they instantly give you an extra two hearts to burn through before losing a life, and two, they each have their own jump ability. While Diddy helps Donkey Kong hover with his jetpacks, Dixie uses her pigtails for a Yoshi style flutter-kick, and Cranky uses his cane like a pogo stick to get some extra height and bounce through spikes unharmed.
While Tropical Freeze is a great addition to the series, and having some new variation in singleplayer is much needed, the game really isn’t as fun without someone else playing alongside you. There’s no online matchmaking, so you’ll need someone on the same couch, but it's definitely more enjoyable with two. There’s none of that "knocking other players off platforms" malarky that the New Super Mario Bros games are known for, and there are moments where one person will need to simply give up controls and trust their partner.
It really is more fun with two.