Nintendo is a company built on a select few genres that they’ve refined to an art form, which is partially why Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is the way it is. Big budget platform games are at their best within this stable and it translates this iteration into activity-filled stages with a rigorous challenge and tons of side content.
It may have wanted to put more care into a rugged control scheme, but even that has its own peculiar feel to it. Still, some of those treacherous parts may get the best of those wanting the colorful pastime to act more like how it looks.
Atmosphere is half the fun in this game, as far-reaching environments go off into the distance with brightly green trees, crystal blue waters and fidgeting critters shaking up the place. Half of what goes on during panels isn’t related to the direction, but it keeps the sights lively as can be regardless.
Moreover, the soft rounded themes of this adventure get backed by thumping soundtracks, exactly fitting the region. There are drums for jungles, flutes for mountains and sweeping noises to convey the waves of water levels.
Together with an array of effects like winds or snow, there is an extensive amount of detail put into making this an impulse carnival to drive players on. Camera angles even go above and beyond, offering dynamic perspective changes during sections, like getting shot out of barrels or other captured scenes.
With the stage set for a grand old time, all that’s left is an exciting selection of gameplay possibilities, which Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze connects perfectly to its aesthetics. Aside just maneuvering platform gaps and dispelling enemies on the side-scrolling plain, the game involves its background elements to the forefront action.
Many times, elements going on in the back find their way to literally throw obstacles towards Donkey Kong and a possible second Kong partner. Suddenly, a bomb may appear that requires it to be thrown away immediately, since it’s now the most pressing issue on a secluded platform.
If that wouldn’t make things hectic enough, the actual level design itself usually has instant challenges to overcome. Advancing spearmen from its icy Viking theme block off one path, while the other way has a wall impeding progress. All seems lost, until a plug on the floor appears that need to be pulled immediately to jump over the ruins in the brink of time.
This multi-faceted design is also the cornerstone of obstacles that make Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze pretty damn hard. At any point, there will be multiple incoming threats to negotiate or death will be inevitable, sometimes in a matter of seconds.
Here is where the controls seem to lose themselves in the chaos a little. While Donkey Kong and friends don’t necessarily handle badly, they do have a certain gravitas that takes a second to gain momentum. That’s a leniency that the constant impulses of this platform feature don’t allow. It’s ride of die and this simian is a slacker.
Particularly in later stages, where the pace is cranked up, this slightly slower movement can become a hindrance that leads to multiple frustrating deaths. It’s not an unfair advantage, but it will take a solid practice run to attempt mastering this strange groove.
There are some redeeming qualities, luckily, to offset this sluggish nature in a fast-moving game. Periodically, themes will alter to riding segments with Donkey straddling a rhino or pulling off a rodeo on a rocket-operated barrel. Additionally, these driving levels have their own cinematic reel, with huge events happening while the barrel tries to make its way through it, for instance.
To help out, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze has an inventory system fueled by collecting coins. In Funky Kong’s shop, it’s possible to purchase protective shields, life balloons and other items that make the recurring deaths less painful. These are activated prior to entering a level.
Not unimportantly, Donkey Kong also finds barrels containing helper monkeys during travels. These contain either Diddy Kong, Trixie Kong or Cranky Kong, each with their own play style necessary to overcome certain obstacles.
While the assistants don’t do much to alter gameplay, they do have their own use. For example, Trixie’s ponytail is too erratic to serve for good jumps, but it’s a beast as a propeller underwater. Alternatively, they’re used for a POW meter gimmick that can periodically turn enemies into items.
Rather, change comes from the open design the game offers, with multiple small branches to explore both above and below the sea. What looks like a pitfall, could actually still hold one of the game’s many secret caches, enticing that adventurous itch, to those willing to risk it all.
Puzzle pieces, letters and droves of bananas can be collected to those willing to really get the most content out of this feature, but it comes at a price. Seeing aforementioned control errors, many opportunities could be passed up, as they make an already coarse challenge even more unbearable.
As a recap to skills learned, big boss fights test the reflexes in separate arenas. Here, understanding the lay of the land is vital to overcoming patterns thrown out by the likes of a giant seal or a weathered owl.
One of the better implementations, however, is how Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze fluidly alters its direction. At any moment, a barrel can shoot the play upward, going into the clouds or sections may come crumbling, triggering a sense of urgency in a new way.
It’s a pity that this creative genius isn’t put to use on the Nintendo Wii U GamePad. Other than selecting something from a menu or using the Off-TV Play feature, the full potential of the technology isn’t even breached, let alone tapped.
There are several ways where this grand spectacle tries to keep itself refreshing, but all of it comes with the hindrance that Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze uses in its control scheme. Sure, it works in its own way, but it always reacts as if it runs on a different tempo than the rest of the action.
After reconfiguring muscle memory, however, there is an explorative platform adventure to be had with multiple facets and gorgeous scenery. It may be brutally unforgiving at times, but it’s worth it, just to witness this frenetic endeavor.
Daav has been playing games since Atari was a thing and still likes games that look old, but also new stuff. There's no allegiance to platforms or genres; anything big and small can make a good game. This gives him a ton of perspectives to write about.