Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (Switch) Review

*This review originally appeared at Miketendo64.com*

When Retro Studios revealed Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze at E3 2013, it was received with a lukewarm reception. People were baffingly disappointed that the studio opted to create a second DKC title (apparently forgetting how good Donkey Kong Country Returns was), and were clamoring for the developer to return to the then-dormant Metroid franchise (apparently forgetting Retro already made three titles in that series). This immediately lead to unfair criticisms towards Tropical Freeze and, coupled with questionable marketing, a delayed launch, and the overall underperformance of the Wii U, Tropical Freeze failed to receive the mass-appreciation it truly deserved. It quickly became a cult classic for many, due to its pitch-perfect gameplay, impeccable level design, and God-tier soundtrack, but it never became the best-seller it should have been. Now, Tropical Freeze has been given a second chance on the Nintendo Switch, in hopes that it can finally find the audience it so rightfully deserves.

Although the core game is mostly unchanged from its release on the Wii U four years ago (save for some touch-ups with the graphics, and some new character animations), DKC: Tropical Freeze is more than worth another go on the Switch, as it remains one of the finest platformers ever made.

Being a follow-up to Donkey Kong Country Returns, Tropical Freeze adopts the basic blueprint of its predecessor. But while Returns was an excellent game in its own right, it often relied on falling back onto nostalgic memories of the original 1994 Donkey Kong Country on SNES. Tropical Freeze – being Retro’s second go at the series – was able to break free from the familiarity of Returns and craft an identity of its own for the series.

The story here is that a gang of vikings called the Snowmads (comprised of arctic animals like walruses and penguins) have invaded Donkey Kong Island. Doing their best Elsa impression, the Snowmads freeze the entire island and make themselves at home, banishing the Kongs in the process. But DK is not one to simply let it go, and he, along with Diddy, Dixie and good ol’ Cranky, set off on an adventure across multiple islands to take back their home from the Snowmads.

“Despite being a side-scroller, Tropical Freeze features dynamic camera angles during certain stages to change up the gameplay in unique ways.”

Of course, any semblance of plot is really just an excuse to get DK off his keister and into those platforming stages. It’s within its gameplay and level design that Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze becomes a work of art.

The level design of Tropical Freeze is among the best you’ll ever find in a platformer (or any genre, for that matter). Every stage introduces new mechanics and gameplay elements, making every last level feel fresh and original. Tropical Freeze almost epitomizes a “you know what would be awesome” mentality…as in, it’s all too easy to imagine the folks at Retro Studios exclaiming “you know what would be awesome?” right before they pitched their ideas.

There are a few shared elements between stages, namely the collectible puzzle pieces and K-O-N-G letters that are hidden within them (the puzzle pieces unlocking extras such as concept art and music, while nabbing every K-O-N-G letter in every stage of a world unlocks that world’s secret temple stage). But there’s not a level in the entire game that falls back on recycling a level concept brought up earlier in the adventure. The level design of Tropical Freeze is an utter delight the whole way through.

“That is one big-ass polar bear.”

This is also true of the game’s boss fights. Though the old tradition of one boss per world means that such encounters are limited at six, each one of them provides a clever challenge that’s full of creativity.

Player’s primarily control Donkey Kong, of course. He still runs, jumps, rolls, pounds the ground, and throws barrels. This time around, he can also pluck certain objects from the ground, as well as pick up certain enemies to throw them at others. Along the way, DK can team up with the other Kongs who, in addition to granting the player two extra hit points, come with their own special abilities.

Diddy Kong, returning from DKCR, comes equipped with a jetpack, allowing DK to hover for a short time. Meanwhile, Cranky Kong makes his long-awaited debut as a playable character, and can use his cane as a pogo stick – Scrooge McDuck style – to not only jump higher, but also to allow DK to jump across surfaces and enemies he otherwise couldn’t (such as thorny brambles or enemies with spiked viking helmets). Dixie Kong, true to form, proves to be the most useful, however. With her helicopter-like hair, Dixie Kong not only gives DK a bit more air, but also increases the height of his jumps. When playing solo, the additional Kongs more or less serve as power-ups, but they are also readily available for a second player to select in the game’s co-op mode.

On the visual front, Tropical Freeze looks better than ever, which is no small feat, considering how great it already looked on the Wii U. The graphics may technically be the same, but it all looks sleeker and smoother than it did before. And perhaps best of all, the load times have been drastically reduced in this Switch release.

Then we have that epic soundtrack. The first two installments of Donkey Kong Country remain highly regarded for their music, though the third entry’s score, while still good, fell considerably short of its predecessors. Meanwhile, Returns’ soundtrack mainly relied on remixes of the first DKC’s soundtrack, which is great and all, but didn’t exactly help in giving the game an identity of its own.

With Tropical Freeze, however, Retro Studios managed to cook up a musical score that ascends to one of the all-time greats in the medium, and more than lives up to the first two installments. It should come as no surprise that the key ingredient to the soundtrack’s roaring success is the return of original series composer David Wise, who made a triumphant return with Tropical Freeze after an extended hiatus from scoring mainstream titles. Much like the first two SNES DKC titles, the score of Tropical Freeze manages to encompass a shocking amount of variety, all while building the atmosphere of the game’s world, and turning the simple story of a bunch of apes fighting walruses into something truly epic and beautiful. As far as gaming soundtracks go, Undertale might be Tropical Freeze’s only real competition for the title of best of the decade.

While Tropical Freeze served as a vast improvement over (the admittedly great) Donkey Kong Country Returns in nearly every regard – from level design to boss fights to music – there were, unfortunately, two aspects in which Tropical Freeze merely followed suit with its predecessor, as opposed to improving it.

The first are the bonus rooms scattered throughout the levels. While these bonus stages are fun in their own right, they are all simple variants of “collect all the bananas.” It’s not a major issue, but considering the variety of bonus stages housed in the DKC games back on the SNES, you kind of wish Retro Studios could have touched up on the repetition of the bonus rooms found in Returns with their second outing. The other blemish is that Rambi the Rhinoceros is once again the only Animal Buddy present in the adventure (unless we count Squawks, who can be purchased at Funky Kong’s shop and alerts players to nearby puzzle pieces). While riding on Rambi and bowling through enemies is fun, he only shows up on a handful of occasions, leaving you wanting more out of him, as well as a return of more Animal Buddies such as Enguarde or my man Squitter (or for Retro Studios to develop some Animal Buddies of their own).

“I wonder if Funky is out looking for inter-planetary visitor dudes. Wow, I just made THAT reference.”

It also has to be said that the only major addition to the Switch release of Tropical Freeze is its new “Funky Mode,” which serves as a beginner-friendly playstyle for those who find the core game too difficult. Essentially, it’s easy mode, with Funky boasting all of the abilities of the other Kongs, as well as having more hit points and unlimited oxygen when swimming. On one hand, I can appreciate the game having an easy mode. Given its often intense difficulty, providing an easier option for beginners might give Tropical Freeze a wider audience. But on the downside, it is kind of a shame that the new playable character has to be confined to it. Having Funky as a unique character with his own abilities in the core game might have been a nice twist on this modern classic, while the easy mode could have potentially given DK the extra benefits and such, thus separating it and the new character.

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze was not only my favorite game of 2014, but also one I can confidently say was my favorite in the entire Wii U library. It’s a platformer that easily ranks among the best of them, with sheer creativity and gameplay brilliance pouring out of every level. The fact that it was initially met to such a lukewarm reception was a damn shame, and played a part in Tropical Freeze becoming quite possibly the most underrated game in Nintendo’s history.

Now, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze can safely claim to be one of the very best games on the Nintendo Switch. Sure, the lack of variety in bonus stages and Animal Buddies is still a bit of a bummer, and the fact that Funky Mode is the only prominent addition to this second release can feel a little like a missed opportunity. But make no mistake about it, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze should rank among the best games Nintendo has ever made. And hopefully this time, more people will get to realize that.

 

9

Advertisements

Dark Souls and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze Coming to Nintendo Switch!

I normally don’t like posting stuff here that feels more like news and less like my glorious opinions, but with how much I constantly gush with my love of Dark Souls and Donkey Kong Country, I just had to write on this.

Essentially, Nintendo held a “mini-Direct” earlier today, and while many Nintendo fans were predictably upset over the lack of new Metroid and Fire Emblem details, I was doing backflips of excitement and performing Captain Ginyu’s Dance of Joy. Why?

Dark Souls and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze are coming to Nintendo Switch.

When I woke up this morning and saw the news, I was like…

But then I quickly went like…

And then I was like…

 

Good heavens, it’s like Nintendo has been reading my constant tweets about the magnificence of Dark Souls and Tropical Freeze, and my desires to see them on the Switch, and decided to pull the trigger on them just to shut me up. Thanks, Nintendo!

Okay, so Dark Souls Remastered (as the 2018 edition is called) will also be on Playstation 4 and Xbox One, which is amazing. But for the first time in forever (*Cue Frozen song*) Dark Souls is on the same console as Super Mario, which is basically the best thing to have ever happened. It seems the only caveat to this news is that Tropical Freeze will now include a new super easy mode for wimps beginners. Now, unlike many elitist “hardcore” gamers, I don’t have a problem with easier difficulty settings being available for those who want/need them, but the disappointing element is that the new mode features Funky Kong as a playable character. If they were going to add a new character, why can’t he just be in the standard game, and the easier setting could be just that, an easier setting. I want to play Tropical Freeze in all its brutal glory with Funky!

But that’s probably the only time I’ll complain about Tropical Freeze. Ever. In life. Though I suppose now that my favorite Wii U game is coming to Switch, I now have a harder time justifying the Wii U’s quality (it was a great system at the time, damn it! So misunderstood!).

Oh, and on top of all that, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is getting Donkey Kong as a playable character, and Super Mario Odyssey is getting a new quasi-multiplayer mode in which players hide magic balloons, which other players can then search for. Basically, it’s the Mario version of From Software’s offline-online features, like leaving summon signs in (you guessed it) Dark Souls. Plus, this adds a whole new layer of depth to Odyssey, now that players are essentially adding their own equivalent of Mario’s usual collectibles, the sandbox style of Odyssey will never end!

Getting back on track, Dark Souls and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze are coming to Nintendo Switch this May. Praise the sun!

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is One of the Most Underrated Nintendo Games Ever

DKC: Tropical Freeze

The 2014 Wii U exclusive, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, is one of the best Nintendo games ever made. It’s a damn shame then, that it’s also one of their most unappreciated.

Back when Tropical Freeze was first revealed at E3 2013, the game received immediate backlash over the fact that Retro Studios opted to make another Donkey Kong title following 2010’s Donkey Kong Country Returns. Gamers – self-entitled lot that they are – were quick to write off the game and express their disappointment that Retro wasn’t working on Star Fox or Metroid (despite the fact that the studio had already made three Metroid titles at that point, as opposed to one in the DK series). Maybe it’s the fact that Donkey Kong Country Returns was great and the last Metroid game, Metroid: Other M, was the very definition of suck, but I know which series I wanted to see more of at that point.

I’ve come to expect the gaming community to act like a lot of childish brats though. It’s commonplace for them. What’s far worse is how it seems like many publications seemed to share that mentality, and were ready to pander to the misguided disappointment of gamers.

It’s true, Tropical Freeze got mostly great reviews when it was first released, but much like any Nintendo game that doesn’t star Mario, Link or Samus (the latter two of which I might argue don’t always deserve such profuse gushing), the game was quickly forgotten after its initial review scores were dished out.

When award season rolled around, the game was largely snubbed by virtually every publication. It won Best Platformer from GameTrailers, but that’s just about it. Even its phenomenal soundtrack (which I would say is the best video game soundtrack of at least the last five years) went unmentioned.

Simply put, I don’t get it. I know there are differences in opinions, but this is an instance where I simply don’t get it. I honestly think people’s wanting of a new Star Fox or Metroid game basically doomed Tropical Freeze from the start for many. Which is completely unfair.

Though Tropical Freeze has some minor issues (long load times, and somewhat repetitious bonus games), as a whole I think it rivals any sidescrolling platformer. It’s greatly challenging, but always fair, it looks wonderful, the aforementioned soundtrack is an all-time great, and every level boasts a level of creativity that rivals the best Mario platformers, with not a single one of them repeating their ideas. Returns was great in its own right, but Tropical Freeze stands as one of Nintendo’s best.

It baffles me to no end that I often see the game placed beneath mediocre titles like The Wonderful 101 on lists of best Wii U games. Hell, the ludicrous praise that so many people gave to Rayman Origins and Legends, which were good games in their own right, seems downright unwarranted when stacked against Tropical Freeze. Whereas Rayman’s recent titles are more about keeping momentum, there’s a lot more thinking involved when playing Tropical Freeze. I’ll take strategic and creative thinking over “run really fast” any day.

I’ve even heard some reviewers complain that Tropical Freeze is too hard, which I consider hypocritical, considering most of these same reviewers often rag on Nintendo games for being “too easy” while praising difficult indy titles like Super Meat Boy (which, while decent, feels a lot more unfair than DK ever did). You can’t cry foul that Nintendo games are too easy, and then complain when they make one that’s difficult. And why does it seem like indy games just get a free pass when it comes to difficulty?

In less than two years since its release, I’ve already beat Tropical Freeze on its standard difficulty three times, and am currently working on completing its hard mode for the second time. Every time I’ve replayed it, I’m taken back by the sheer creativity and attention to detail that went into it. I simply don’t get how the game became as ignored as it is.

I understand that not every game is going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but the fact that Tropical Freeze has so few accolades is downright head-scratching. I’d say it’s easily the best platformer since Super Mario Galaxy 2 (bettering even the fantastic Super Mario 3D World), and I’ve played few platformers that exude such a sense of love for the craft from its creators.

Not counting my own opinions, I don’t think the game was even nominated for any Game of the Year awards, and the fact that it didn’t win more awards for the platforming genre is absolutely shocking. And the absence of a mention for David Wise’s beautiful score? Deplorable.

The sad thing is, the rather lukewarm reception Tropical Freeze has received probably means we won’t be seeing a third entry in Retro’s take on Donkey Kong Country any time soon. Hell, Tropical Freeze may have even received some DLC if its praise made a bigger splash. Heaven knows I’d buy that DLC day one.

Unfortunately, I see Donkey Kong taking another extended hiatus now, and Tropical Freeze being relegated to a game almost solely appreciated by the series’ established fanbase. Hopefully its cult-like status will give it better recognition one day. But for now, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze remains one of Nintendo’s most overlooked treasures.

Because, y’know, it’s not Metroid.

Top 10 Wii U Games (So Far)

Wii U

The Wii U is a devastatingly underrated system. It’s ousted the GameCube as Nintendo’s least-selling home console of all time. Because of that, gamers all over the internet, true to their  cynical nature, see that as a reflection of the quality of the system itself (of course, they also dismissed the original Wii because it sold well, so go figure). But despite being the butt of jokes on the internet and its less-than desirable sales figures, the Wii U actually boasts a really impressive library of games.

Sure, Nintendo really needed to emphasize the console over the controller in its early marketing strategies, the Gamepad needed to be used more effectively in more games, and one can’t help but think that simply naming the console “Wii 2” could have helped boost sales by itself (because seriously, what does the “U” mean?). Despite this questionable decision-making and marketing, the Wii U has ultimately proven to be a terrific console where it counts, and that’s the games.

Yes, the Wii U had a slow first few months, but once it started picking up steam around mid-2013 it’s released some of the best games in recent years. Arguably the best part is that you can’t play them anywhere else. Though console exclusives are becoming rarer on competing hardware, they often prove to be the more definitive titles of their generations, and it’s an area in which Nintendo always excels.

Though the Wii U still has some big games on the horizon (including a new Star Fox and The Legend of Zelda), I think it’s safe to say that rumblings of Nintendo’s next console, codenamed “NX,” means that its days as a priority for Nintendo are slowing down. Sure, Nintendo has stated that they’ll still support the Wii U even after NX launches, but I think the Wii U’s underwhelming sales will make it a short-term continued support (Wii U might have a good few months and a couple of big games after NX, but I can’t imagine it would go much farther). I feel now is a good time to reflect on the many great games the Wii U has provided over the past three years, even if I may have to make a revised edition after the last waves of big games hit the console in the year ahead.

Despite Nintendo being backed into a wall in regards to the Wii U, or perhaps because of it, Nintendo has ended up creating some of the greatest lineups of games in their history for the console. It’s given us the most balanced Mario Kart, the most intricate Smash Bros. and the best version of the best 3D Zelda yet made. But which Wii U games are the best?

The following is my list of the top 10 greatest Wii U games. The ten Wii U titles that are the most fun. The 10 most definitive. The 10 games that all those people who still refuse to get a Wii U are missing out on the most. Seriously people, stop using the whole “waiting for Zelda” excuse as a crutch. Nintendo consoles are more than just a Zelda title.

One final note, I have decided not to include The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD in this countdown. Despite being one of my favorite video games, it would feel kind of cheap to list a remake here with all the original Wii U titles, even if Wind Waker HD has some of the best uses of the Gamepad.

So without further ado, the top 10 Wii U games! But first, some runners-up! Continue reading “Top 10 Wii U Games (So Far)”

Top 5 Games of 2014 (Game of the Year)

2014 was quite an interesting year for video games. Most of the hyped, high-profile titles that were “destined for greatness” ended up disappointing most. Destiny, Titanfall and Watchdogs, which were all supposed to be the year’s biggest games, quickly fizzled out upon release. But that doesn’t mean 2014 was full of duds.

Quite the opposite, actually. 2014 saw a few truly great games. Namely, fantastic sequels to greats like Dark Souls and Bayonetta shined, and 2014 turned out to be the year the Wii U truly proved its mettle, with the Big N releasing one quality title after another.

So maybe the memorable games of 2014 didn’t come in the forms everyone expected, but when they did show up, they came in full force. Here are the five games that had the biggest impact on me.

Continue reading “Top 5 Games of 2014 (Game of the Year)”

Video Game Awards 2015: Best Gameplay

From the fluidity of controls to the structure of a game’s world and/or stages, the design of a game is at the core of the entire experience. This core can be summed up in one word: Gameplay.  No matter how many technical and artistic achievements games make, it’s the gameplay that’s the heart and soul of game design.

 

Winner: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

Tropical Freeze

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is the most fun sidescroller in years. Retro Studios did a great job bringing the fun of DKC back with Donkey Kong Country Returns, but with Tropical Freeze, Retro Studios seems to have mastered the formula.

Every last one of Tropical Freeze’s stages is a delight (even at their most infuriatingly difficult). There’s just so much creativity going on. From mine cart rides through sawmills to a level themed around frozen treats, Tropical Freeze uses each idea to the fullest, and they constantly add something new to the formula. It’s so creative that even Mario would have to tip his hat in respect.

The additions of Dixie and Cranky add to the mix as well. Like Diddy, they add their own little twists to the gameplay. There’s so much variety in the gameplay and level design that there is simply never a dull moment in Tropical Freeze (except maybe those load times). Part of me is begging for Retro Studios to give DK another go, but another part of me wonders if Retro Studios can top what they’ve done here with Tropical Freeze.

Runner-up: Bayonetta 2

Video Game Awards 2015: Best Music

Kicking off my video game awards for 2015 (celebrating 2014 video games) is the “Best Music” category. Music has been an integral part of gaming since the beginning, and with all the advancements games have made over the years, music may just be more important to the medium than ever. Let’s face it, if you don’t have a game’s tunes buzzing through your head after playing them, something is definitely wrong.

Winner: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

Tropical Freeze

The Donkey Kong Country series has long been lauded for its music, which has created some of the most atmospheric and personality-filled soundtracks in gaming’s history. Tropical Freeze does not disappoint.

While Donkey Kong Country Returns was no slouch in the musical department, it relied too heavily on remixed tracks from the original DKC. But for Tropical Freeze, Retro Studios brought back original series composer David Wise to create the game’s soundtrack. The end result sits proudly alongside the series’ first two entries as one of the best gaming soundtracks.

From the chilling menace of the invading Snowmads in Homecoming Hijinx to the free-spirited fun of Windmill Hills to the anguish and intensity of Scorch ‘N’ Torch, each of Tropical Freeze’s stages are as mesmerizing for their music as they are for their gameplay.

Remixes once again return, but they are given new twists – and are used more strategically – giving us a new appreciation for them as they greatly blend with the original tracks, instead of simply relying on the nostalgia. We even get some remixes from the glorious soundtrack of DKC2 this time!

Whether it’s the lovely, ethereal remix of In a Snow-Bound Land or the heavy metal smackdown against the polar bear boss, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze’s soundtrack boasts a variety and evokes a sense of place that very few video games can match.

Runner-up: Super Smash Bros. for Wii U