Tag Archives: Retro Studios

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.

 

9.5

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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 Returns 3D Review

DKCR3D

Donkey Kong Country Returns was one of the best games to grace the Wii’s library. The platforming was great, the visuals and music were pleasing to the eyes and ears, it had some of the best level design in years, and it was tough as nails. If there were any notable faults to be had, it was that the Wii version kind of shoehorned some motion-controls to certain game mechanics (rolling, ground-slapping, and the admittedly superfluous blowing mechanics), and they didn’t mesh into the rest of the game.

Luckily, that’s no longer a problem on the 3DS port, as any previously motion-controlled actions are now dictated by the X and Y buttons on the handheld (along with the appropriate directional presses on the control pad), which better translates with the rest of the gameplay.

The 3DS version of DKCR is, for the most part, a faithful recreation of the Wii original, but it does have some new features to boast of its own. The game now includes a “New Mode,” which is essentially an easy mode for those who would find the original version of the game too difficult. The levels retain their edge, but the player is given a few additional means to help them progress through the levels easier.

DKCR3DIn New Mode, Donkey Kong and Diddy both have an additional heart than in the original mode. Cranky Kong also supplies new items in his shop to give players a little boost: Green Balloons can bring DK back from a fall into a bottomless pit, DK Barrels allow Donkey Kong to summon Diddy at any time (even on levels where he normally doesn’t appear), and the Crash Guard grants a limited-use shield in the mine cart and rocket barrel stages. Additionally, DK can bring up to three of Cranky’s items into a level at a time, as opposed to the one item per level nature of the original mode.

The New Mode will certainly come recommended to those who may not have the best platforming skills, but the original mode still gets my vote as the better way to play the game.

Another new addition in this 3DS version are eight brand new secret levels that can be played in either the original or new mode of the game. These new levels keep true to the spirit of the original game and bring their own inventive challenges to the mix.

DKCR3DOne unfortunate setback of the 3DS version are the visuals. While the environments and animations are still vibrant, at times (primarily when DK is further in the background), the game can get a little blurry, which makes things a little more difficult than they need to be. The 3D effects also seem to be a little bit of a missed opportunity. DKCR had a strong emphasis on the depth of the foregrounds and backgrounds back on the Wii, but that never seems to reflect in any additional way in the 3D capabilities of the 3DS.

The minor gripes of the original remain: The bonus stages are a bit too repetitive, Rambi the rhinoceros is an underutilized gameplay element, and the music, while solid, is a bit of a disappointment given the precedent of the series. The soundtrack relies too heavily on remixes from the original Donkey Kong Country, and the remixes don’t match up to the originals.

With this said, Donkey Kong Country Returns is still one of the most fun sidescrollers in years. It has since been bettered by its successor, Tropical Freeze, but Donkey Kong Country Returns still boasts some ingenious level design, fun gameplay and a strong challenge. Donkey Kong Country Returns was one of the best games on the Wii, and despite a few elements being lost in translation in the jump to a handheld console, it can boast a similar claim for the 3DS.

 

8.5

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze Review

Tropical Freeze

Its name might bring to mind a mango-flavored iced tea, but make no mistake about it, Tropical Freeze is an inspired and challenging game that lives up to the Donkey Kong Country legacy.

Tropical Freeze begins on Donkey Kong’s birthday. As he’s about to blow out the candle on his (banana) cake, the Snomads – a gang of viking walruses, penguins and arctic owls – invade Donkey Kong’s island. The Snomads go Elsa on the place and freeze DK Island before banishing Donkey Kong and friends. But DK is not one to simply ‘let it go’ and he, along with Diddy Kong, Dixie Kong and Cranky Kong, set out to fight their way back to DK Island and kick the invaders out. It’s another simple story that’s present only when it needs to be, but at least it’s not another case of DK’s bananas getting stolen.

But story has never been DK’s strong suit. The artistry of Donkey Kong Country has always been in the game design. DKC is all about fun platforming gameplay, creative level design, high difficulty, great music and eye-popping visuals. In these regards, Tropical Freeze graduates with honors.

Retro Studio’s previous DK outing, Donkey Kong Country Returns, oozed a sense of creativity in its level design that not many platformers can match. But Tropical Freeze takes things to a whole new level. It’s often Mario who gets all the credit for Nintendo’s ability to toy with one new idea after another, but games like Tropical Freeze prove that Nintendo’s other franchises can be equally as rich in the departments of creativity.

Tropical FreezeOne minute Tropical Freeze will be throwing you into a savanna that looks like its decked out for the Broadway production of The Lion King, the next you’ll be making your way through a canyon filled with explosives, then you’ll be bouncing off cubes of jelly. Even the mine cart stages (a staple of the series) see so many new ideas added to the mix that each one of them feels fresh. The levels can get lengthy, but they’re swimming in so many imaginative ideas and details that you’ll enjoy every minute of them.

The gameplay isn’t anything radically different from its predecessors, but you probably weren’t expecting it to be. Donkey Kong still jumps, pounds and rolls his way through levels, feeling weightier than Mario but with a similar precision. Though a few additions have been made to the formula. DK can now pluck certain objects out of the ground, and even pick up some enemies and throw them at each other, Super Mario Bros. 2 style. Tropical Freeze also reintroduces swimming-based stages to the mix, after their questionable absence in Returns.

Tropical FreezeDiddy Kong can still be used as a kind of power-up to DK, using his jetpack to give DK a little more distance in the air. Joining Diddy this time around are Dixie and Cranky Kong. Dixie can twirl her ponytail like a helicopter and give DK a boost to his jumps, while Cranky bounces on his cane a la Scrooge McDuck, which allows you to not only jump higher, but also enables you to jump on otherwise dangerous surfaces (like spikes). The kongs all bring some fun to the table, but Dixie is undoubtedly the most useful.

The usual collectibles return, with every stage housing five, seven or nine puzzle pieces that unlock bonus content, and K-O-N-G letters that unlock secret stages. The collectibles will ensure dedicated players will keep coming back to revisit stages long after the game is over.

Tropical FreezeRambi the rhino reappears in a handful of stages, allowing players to break their way through environments and charge through enemies. Unfortunately, no other animal buddies have returned, nor are any new ones introduced. The kongs’ bountiful new abilities may make Animal Buddies seem a tad superfluous, but with water stages returning you can’t help but wish that Enguarde the swordfish could have made a comeback at the very least.

Additional items can be purchased at Funky Kong’s shop, which includes bonuses from additional health to temporary invisibility to Squawks the parrot, who helps locate the hidden puzzle pieces. You can even buy viewable character models just for the fun of it. They may sound like small benefits, but Funky’s items will come in handy though, because Tropical Freeze is a hard game. A very hard game.

Tropical FreezeDonkey Kong Country Returns was already a tough-as-nails platformer, but Tropical Freeze ups the ante. Tropical Freeze almost feels tailor-made for the people who claim Nintendo games have become too easy. It pulls pages from the NES playbook, with even a single miscalculation resulting in bitter defeat. It’s punishing, but not unfair. Tropical Freeze asks that its players study every inch of what’s going on on-screen,  keep on their toes and always be ready to change their strategies on the fly. It’s basically Dark Souls with a Nintendo makeover.

Visually speaking, Tropical Freeze is a beautiful game. To say it outdoes Returns is an understatement. Tropical Freeze pops thanks to the upgrade to HD from Wii U, with DK’s fur bringing to mind Sully from Monsters, Inc. Most levels are a barrage of colors and textures, though some of the most beautiful stages take on a silhouette motif. It’s not just how things look that make the visuals stand out, but the presentation as well. Oftentimes there’s as much going on in the background as there is with what’s in DK’s path. The aesthetics might not have changed since Returns, but the difference in the attention to detail is staggering.Tropical Freeze

More beautiful than the visuals is the game’s soundtrack, composed by David Wise, the man behind the soundtracks to the original DKC trilogy on the SNES. The Donkey Kong Country series is beloved for its versatile and atmospheric music, and Tropical Freeze does the series proud. It’s less reliant on remixes than Returns was, but the remixes that are here stand out more, and this time we even get some remixed tracks from the masterful soundtrack of Donkey Kong Country 2. But Tropical Freeze has an identity of its own due to its original tracks, which capture a similar sense of emotion and style as the tunes of the SNES games, but appropriately brought up to date. While most of the better game soundtracks today tend to sound more like replicated film scores, Tropical Freeze succeeds in sounding like a great, modernized video game soundtrack. It’s one of the best gaming soundtracks in years.

If there are any real notable flaws with Tropical Freeze, it’s in its inability to make any meaningful usage of the Wii U hardware itself. You can play the game on the GamePad, which is a plus, but if you’re playing the game on your television set, the screen on the Gamepad is literally pitch black, and has no usage whatsoever. Besides that, the only real things to complain about are some long load times and the lack of variety in the bonus stages (all of which are simple variants of “collect the bananas” as opposed to the wider variety of mini-games found in the DKCs of old).

All things considered, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze not only trumps its predecessor as the best sidescrolling platformer in years, it’s also one of the best games on the Wii U. It can get tough, but for those willing to embrace its challenges, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a modern showcase of classic game design at its best.

 

9.5