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Review: Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is a Retro game in every sense

By Chris Schilling on Monday 17th Feb 2014 at 1:00 PM UTC

Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is the Uncharted of side-scrolling platform games. That's not because it can boast at least one ex-Naughty Dog staffer among its artists, but because the two games are equally committed to placing their heroes in the gravest peril with alarming regularity. Both, too, share a similar appetite for destruction and hair's-breadth escapes. You've heard of the spectacle shooter, now it's time to give a big, gorilla-sized hand for the spectacle platformer.

Of course, Donkey Kong Country has historically pushed the graphical envelope - it's been part of the series' DNA since the very first game, way back in 1994 - but here it finally has the hardware to bring its grand visual designs to fruition. Vibrantly colourful and enriched by environmental detail and some dazzling animation, it's a stunner even when the levels aren't disintegrating before your eyes.

Like a slightly hairier Nathan Drake, you can rarely stay still for very long: the ground frequently crumbles and cracks beneath your simian toes, while platforms shift, pivot and fall on a regular basis. Where Drake would cling desperately to collapsing scenery with his fingertips, your job is to leap to solid ground before it slides off the screen. Either way, you're seemingly constantly engaged in a battle against Mother Nature that she's determined you're going to lose.

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It's full of blockbuster bluster, its chaotic sequences revealing you as the calm eye amid a howling storm - in one stage, that's literally the case, as you dodge debris whipped up by sudden whirlwinds. It's all sound and fury, each noisy set-piece playing out like the climactic action set-piece of a brilliant family film - rated PG for frequent moderate peril.

Almost every sound effect, meanwhile, evokes the onomatopoeic text in superhero comic books: WHAM! CRASH! SLAM! POW! BOP! OOF! Tropical Freeze's peers invite you to marvel at their protagonist's acrobatics; here, as Donkey Kong barrels his way through the mayhem, you'll be moved instead to admire his survival instinct. Even perfect runs feel like breathless, panicked scrambles for safety, with last-minute rolls, swings and leaps carrying you through obstacle courses where one wrong move usually means disaster.

There is, of course, a narrative excuse for all this chaos. The game begins with DK preparing to celebrate his birthday by blowing out the lone candle on his cake. A rush of cold air promptly extinguishes the flame, heralding the arrival of the Snowmads, an invading army of penguins, walruses, and even hamsters, who may look cute and cuddly but prove to be every bit as merciless as their Viking headgear suggests. Their towering leader blows a large Alpine horn, conjuring an enormous ice dragon that circles DK's island, creating a storm that blows him and his family away. Your objective, then, is simply to hop back across five islands and retake his freshly frozen home: an ape icescape, if you will.

"Even perfect runs feel like breathless, panicked scrambles for safety"

The slippery surfaces that comprise much of the final world are actually among the least interesting of the game's settings - with the silhouetted squall of Cliffside Slide a notable exception. It's elsewhere that Retro's environment designers and artists really earn their corn, from the gorgeous African plains of Grassland Groove to the oversized leaves lazily drifting earthward on the island of Autumn Heights. It's perhaps even a little toopretty in places, its distractingly busy backdrops drawing your eye away from the action unfolding in front of them.

Tropical Freeze's worlds aren't content to settle on a single unifying theme, either. While each is ostensibly focused on a certain archetype - jungle, ice, water - it uses these ideas as jumping-off points, with a restless desire to mix things up. World 2, for example, takes you from a rhino-powered gallop across terra firma to a place beyond the alpines; indeed, you'll end up bouncing off hot-air balloons as you climb above the clouds. Along the way you'll dart through a crumbling cavern and find yourself inside a giant horn, its low-register parps creating updrafts that carry you to the top.

World 3 is even more varied: after tornadoes and fires you'll pilot a barrel rocket over moonlit waters patrolled by grinning leviathans before a series of keg-powered flights of a very different kind, as you cannon past swinging explosives while the camera moves from its regular spot for a better view of the action. Then, ahead of an awkward boss encounter, Bramble Scramble takes you through a stage choked by living vines that squirm and writhe ominously as dandelion platforms somehow wriggle upwards through the thorny tangle.

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The music refuses to stay in one place for long, shifting tack depending on where you are and what's going on. In some cases it's a simple switch of instrumentation, in others a complete change of theme: one underwater sequence segues from gently ethereal to dark and tense.

Original Donkey Kong Country composer David Wise represents the game's most delightful throwback, his layered score flitting effortlessly between the dreamlike and the strident.Sunnier stages sway along to African chants and bouncing rhythms, while thumping percussion adds further drama to boss battles and set-pieces.

Talking of bosses, they're a powerful bunch, testing you with evolving attack patterns, changing the pace and approach of their offensives to keep you on your toes throughout. They'll steadily eat into your supply of lives, but you'll rarely, if ever, get a game over. Indeed, there's a very real possibility you'll end up with 99 red balloons: Tropical Freeze is much more generous with top-ups than its predecessor, while elsewhere Retro removes some of the frustration from vehicle sections by allowing an extra hit before you die.

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The reported absence of a super guide feature caused some to surmise we might be in for an easier ride, but happily that isn't the case- the surfeit of lives allows Retro to leave the difficulty as was. It still occasionally tips over into frustration:there are moments where you're keeping an eye on what's ahead without noticing that the ground beneath your feet isn't as solid as it first looked, while you'll die at the hands of hazards, enemies and sudden platform movements you couldn't reasonably have anticipated without foreknowledge. A successful run is as much a test of memory as reflex.

You can, however, tilt the balance a little more in your favour, in a way that's entirely optional - and, as such, is arguably preferable to the shame-provoking golden blocks that arrive after repeated failures in recent Mario games. Funky Kong sets up shop in each world, doling out a range of power-ups in return for coins, assuming you can put up with his questionable cut-offs and tiresome surfer-dude shtick.

Among his wares is Squawks the parrot, who alerts you to the presence of nearby jigsaw pieces and green balloons that rescue you from the first pitfall you bounce into; clumsier players might wish to fill all three inventory slots with this one. Banana juice makes you temporarily invincible from the point at which you'd first take damage, while a bonus heart gives you a useful extra buffer, handy for the occasions where you need to keep a partner alive to pass a difficult section or reach a secret exit.

As before Diddy's twin-barrel jetpack gives you extra airtime, while Dixie Kong's ponytail whirls to boost you up a little further, the equivalent of a Yoshi flutter jump. Cranky, the Scrooge McDuck of the piece, uses his cane as a surrogate pogo stick, allowing you to bounce safely across pits studded with spikes or thorns.

"You'll die at the hands of hazards you couldn't reasonably have anticipated. A successful run is as much a test of memory as reflex."

All three have additional abilities in water - Dixie has a smooth stroke that makes it easier to swim quickly and fluidly while retaining fine control, while Diddy's pack gives you a quick burst of bubbles to power you past swirling currents. Cranky, meanwhile, swipes his cane angrily to take out nearby enemies and obstacles, every bit the old duffer raging at the world.

The older Kong's visible crankiness is indicative of the quality of animation as a whole. There's a tangible weight and heft to both DK's movements and the powerful forces of nature pulling the levels apart. Often, it's you prompting the destruction: DK rips handles from the ground to send platforms crashing into position, and hauls up sinking ships, straining visibly as the prow creeps above sea level. Despite all the debris, the particles and the lush fur effects, the action maintains a consistently smooth frame-rate, with no obvious dips.

If we find ourselves irresistibly drawn back to how Tropical Freeze looks, that's because it's ultimately how it differentiates itself. Beyond its undeniable visual personality there's little else it contributes to its genre: it's a rock-solid, slickly constructed traditional platformer, but little more. To some, that's hardly a complaint - few developers, after all, are still making games like this - but in the wake of a certain Wii U game released just a couple of months back, it's hard not to compare the two and find Tropical Freeze come up slightly wanting.

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Variety in settings doesn't always translate to variety in action, and while it's satisfying to unearth those secret exits, its stages allow for little meaningful self-expression. As much as camera trickery might try to disguise it, for the majority of the time you're following a prescribed route from left to right. You could argue it's a good fit for the irresistible forward momentum of its avatar, but underwater stages aside, there are few real changes of pace: you're on the go all the time, and towards the end the constant tumult eventually becomes wearying.

All that said, repeat visits to these levels in Time Attack mode demonstrate just how well put-together they are. Here, you can upload record-breaking runs - even if it's just your own personal best you've beaten - to leaderboards, as well as downloading replays of attempts from the players at the top of the table. It's a pleasingly swift process, and besides the joy of watching platforming masters at work, it also offers a valuable glimpse at the path of least resistance through each stage. Of course, pulling it off is quite different from simply seeing it in action, but making it through within the strict gold medal times is a rare thrill indeed.

Tropical Freeze is old-fashioned, then, but it's exquisitely fashioned, too; as long as you're not expecting a genre-shaking masterpiece, you'll find plenty to enjoy. For all its visual dazzle, it is determinedly old-school in its approach, and audiences seeking a challenge to match that of its predecessors in particular will appreciate that isn't necessarily a criticism. Retro by name and by nature, Tropical Freeze may not be another Mario, but it's very ape, and very nice.

The verdict

Conventional mechanics presented with contemporary flash: Tropical Freeze expertly blends spectacle, set-pieces and classic platforming.

  • Might be Wii U's best-looking game
  • Wonderful David Wise soundtrack
  • Challenging in all the right ways...
  • ...but occasionally the wrong ones
  • Still quite conservative in its design
8
Format
Nintendo Wii U
Developer
Retro Studios
Publisher
Nintendo
Genre
Platformer

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