Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze: The Wii U Strikes Back?
Retro aims to get Wii U off to a stellar start in 2014.
by Jared Petty JANUARY 20, 2014
Throughout my four-hour journey through the opening worlds of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, I couldn’t help but keep stopping to take in the beauty. The lush forests and windswept plains of the archipelago demanded my full attention, and often I found myself just standing still and appreciating the absence of a timer. Each stage has a distinct, unifying palette painstakingly applied with nuanced brush-strokes. Bold, warm colors dominate the mangrove forests, alpine highlands, african savannah, and deep seas that make up the first four worlds. Subtle distinctions revealed themselves everywhere I looked.
The engaging visual appeal of the environments highlights a world ripe for exploration. I was intrigued by the density of secrets hidden within the long linear levels. Puzzle pieces, collectible letters, bonus rooms, concealed coins, alternate exits, and scores of bananas were crammed into every imaginable nook and cranny. The pacing of most stages was measured enough to allow for thorough investigation, and I took advantage of it, finding ample rewards for my curiosity, including a tucked away rendering of Samus Aran’s Gunship.
Tropical Freeze’s level designers creatively integrate the artistic aesthetic into the exploratory mechanics. Descending a vine in a brilliantly shaded silhouette stage, my view of Donkey Kong was temporarily blocked by layers of jungle foliage pressed close against the foreground. For a brief moment the shadowy leaves parted and seemed to form a perfect star in the negative space around DK. I lingered in the gap, trying to decide whether the star shape appeared by coincidence or design, and as I hung there wondering, a secret unlocked. Fantastic.
Just as striking as the art is the superb David Wise soundtrack. While I heard familiar Donkey Kong Country melodies weaving in and out of the score, every theme is new and originally composed for Tropical Freeze. Several of the pieces are enchanting enough to earn a place in my iPod rotation. The music ranges from Lion King-inspired choral songs over the savannah to Teutonic horns integrated into the Germanic Autumn Heights area.
The platforming is challenging but usually fair, with only a couple of annoying cheap falls scattered through the opening levels. DK’s mobility is satisfyingly broadened by the special abilities of his extended family. Pairing up with Diddy lengthens Donkey Kong’s horizontal jumps, Dixie’s propeller adds an extra upward boost at the apex of a leap, and Cranky uses his cane to hop around like a pogo stick, negating the effect of spikes. The comparisons I’ve heard between Cranky’s movement and Scrooge McDuck’s distinctive Ducktales bounce are spot on. Funky Kong’s chain of Fly and Buy stores allowed me to exchange coins for extra lives, items, sidekicks, and the assistance of Squawks the Parrot, who zeroes in on hidden Puzzle Pieces. Rambi the Rhino also returns in select levels, though fans may be sad to hear that Enguarde the Swordfish is nowhere to be found.
I know Donkey Kong Country’s mine cart stages are a series tradition, but I really wish Retro had cut the cord in Tropical Freeze and bid them farewell. The reactionary, twitchy autoscrolling levels seem out of place alongside the excellent exploratory platforming focus of the rest of the first four worlds. The same goes for the new zipline stages, which are aesthetically different from the mine cart levels but maintain the same set of mundane endless-runner mechanics.
The two boss encounters I played through were imaginative and satisfying. The first was a relatively simple timing-based fight against a giant anthropomorphic viking seal sliding on his belly along a half-pipe. I took him out on my second try. The same could not be said for the second boss melee against a sorcerous owl, which took me half an hour to figure out. The nefarious bird unleashed seven unique attacks against me as I chased him through three arenas, each of which was laid out to significantly alter the tactics I could employ against him.
The vast number of collectibles and secret stages coupled with the inherent challenge of the platforming should keep players busy for hours. Retro has made additional allowances for replayability, including a confirmed post-game Hard Mode. I also played the offline version of Time Attack, a speedrun stage replay variant. Players will have the ability to post their best time for each Time Attack challenge to online leaderboards, allowing them to compare scores with friends and the community. The leaderboards will also keep track of which sidekicks are used to help complete these stages, an important consideration since Diddy, Dixie, and Cranky can dramatically alter the speed of DK’s progress through some stages.
Tropical Freeze shows ample evidence of a loving design process informed by the best in exploratory platforming. With the exception of the minecart areas, I enjoyed my trip through the first batch of Retro’s beautiful new islands, and I eagerly anticipate exploring the rest of the vast world’s secrets more thoroughly.
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