Tropical Freeze was my first Donkey Kong Country game (I played Donkey Kong Land 3 on Game Boy Advance), though I’m quite familiar with the character through Smash Bros. and Mario Party, as well as the arcade original, which actually starred Cranky Kong as the villain, the original DK. Well, technically the villain was Jumpman, aka Mario, as the manual explains he abused DK, and DK took his girlfriend and smashed barrels around his house. Eventually his descendant became great friends with Mario and gang, and regularly races karts and plays soccer against them. This is the DK that stars in this game. I’m aware, however, that this is the first game to star Cranky Kong as a playable character, as he originally was just a shopkeep, though that role is filled by Funky Kong for this game. Cranky is a particularly helpful character to have on your back, as he bounces himself and DK on a pogo-cane, which makes for some good platforming fun, and can kill most enemies that even DK has trouble defeating.
After DK, Cranky, Diddy Kong and Dixie Kong have their island home commandeered by an army of “snomads”, the gang has to battle through 6 worlds chock-filled with main levels, accessing them through a map-screen ripped from every 2D Nintendo platformer since Super Mario Bros. 3. You unlock levels by making it to the end of the stage on the previous level, which is no easy task, but I’ll get to that a little later. You can unlock alternate branching paths on the map screen filled with a few (debatably superior) secret levels. You can unlock these by diverging from the beaten path within select levels and discovering a secret exit. The key to finding these is to look for the levels right before two branching paths, and while in the levels, be sure to check underwater and use your teammates’ abilities to the best of your ability.
Your teammates each have unique powers to aid DK in his quest, who are accessed through barrels throughout levels. Dixie’s is quite helpful, giving you a boost with her hair that helps make moderate gaps and reach high places. Diddy (who isn’t DK’s son) has a gliding ability through his jetpack without anything to set it apart from a generic gliding ability. He’s usually the least useful of the three, barring certain boss fights where height is an undesirable. As I explained earlier, Cranky’s ability is the most fun, and is quite satisfying to pull of properly, though I would strongly suggest against using him in co-op mode.
Things get very messy, very fast in co-op mode, since the levels were only designed for 1 player use, making it inevitable that sometimes the other player HAS to die. Unless they ride on your back through specific sequences. A situation can change depending on whether the second player is on your back when entering a “vehicle” section. For instance, when riding atop the rhino, who can smash through concrete blocks and enemies without taking damage, if the second player is on your back while hopping upon a rhino, they have no direct control of the rhino. If they get on the front, they can also control it, which is basically a death sentence. You WILL lose many lives in co-op (as well as single-player), but coins are plentiful, so you can normally bulk buy 40-50 lives at Funky’s shop. You may think this makes the game too easy, but believe me when say you”ll most likely need every one of those balloons (the lives in this game).No control.
Other vehicle sections show up throughout levels, and are generally very fun. The mine-cart stages are my favorite vehicle stages, zipping through on a mine-cart at high-speeds, though there are many instances of unavoidable trial-and-error throughout the later renditions. One mine-cart stage even takes a 3D perspective, hopping between three rails while avoiding obstacles. Then there’s the rocket-barrel stages, which are hard to control at first, but are generally a blast. I would not recommend you play the rocket-barrel stages in co-op; just go into the options menu and drop-out the second player when those pop-up. These vehicle stages offer up a serious challenge, and do wonders to break up the generally wonderful main stages.
Even after you die on the same sections again and again, it’s hard to lose your smile when the control is so fluid and precise, and the level design so packed with quirky charm through its enemies, very crisp, colorful, and detailed graphics, and appropriately amazing score by David Wise, who is returning to the series after opting out of Returns, Tropical Freeze’s predecessor. There is something so satisfying about Nintendo platformer level design, and Tropical Freeze is no slouch here. Maybe it’s because Nintendo (and Retro, the developer of Tropical Freeze) understands the need of creative level design first, integrated variety without resorting to minigames, and the need to push the player with some level of difficulty for satisfaction’s sake. Tropical Freeze follows this mantra pretty well, though there are some clunker levels. The first stages of each world are usually painfully generic, and the worlds keeps developing their character as you progress. World 3 as a whole is a clunker, with generic, unimaginative levels being the majority, with the exception of a great boss fight. Completely underwater levels are usually pretty good, but irritating because of the oxygen meter, and the discrepancy of air bubbles throughout certain levels. Keep in mind that Donkey Kong isn’t your usual platformer character, in that he has much more weight to him than Mario or Rayman. This means he can’t string together jumps and zip through the air. It requires more strategy to make many jumps that Mario and Rayman could clear with ease. The level design is able to take the clunkiness and play up its strengths rather well, resulting in very fun and satisfying gameplay.
Each level’s filled with collectibles that can unlock artwork for the game, as well as a secret 7th world for collecting every KONG letter in each stage (I haven’t unlocked the 7th world yet, though I’m working on it. I’ll update this review after I’ve finished it). You can buy a parrot from Cranky that alerts you when you’re near a puzzle piece, which are pretty well-hidden and unlock pieces of concept art. They’re normally in hidden rooms full of bananas which you have to collect before the time runs out (another great thing about the main levels is that they aren’t timed). KONG letters, which are collectible K’s, O’s, N’s, and G’s that appear in each level, are normally out in the open, but hard to reach. If you collect every KONG letter in every level, you unlock the bonus world (I’m using a guide, myself. Don’t judge me). The enemies are normally just the inhabitants of any given island you’re on, until the snomads show up and start freezing everything (or, in one case, lighting a jungle on fire). Many KONG letters require you to carefully platform across enemy heads, though if you screw up (and there isn’t a bottomless pit right under you), you can just leave the screen and they’ll be reset.The Wii U’s on fire with games like this!
Bottomless pits don’t have to be a problem, though. In single-player at least, you can bring up to three green balloons with you into any level. These balloons will save you if you happen to fall into a bottomless pit. They aren’t available in co-op, due to balancing issues. You can buy these from Funky Kong, along with red balloons for extra lives, as well as an incredibly useless new blue balloon, which will refill you oxygen meter underwater if you happen to run out of air. I’ve never found these to be much help, and I mostly just bought red balloons. You can also get one-off crash-guards for your vehicles, and one-off health upgrades, which upgrade your hearts from two to three (or four to five, if you have a teammate on your back, as they add two extra hitpoints, at which point you lose them after being hit twice). Speaking of which, you can charge up a special attack by killing enemies through the level, which involves you and your teammate clearing an entire screen of enemies. If you use Dixie when doing this, the enemies will drop golden hearts, which apply an extra hitpoint to your hearts for up to four hearts.
I mentioned above that the world 3 boss as being the highlight of the subpar world. Well, all the bosses are pretty big highlights for every world. Each world has one boss, at the very end . Defeating this boss will unlock the next world. Each of the 6 bosses is completely different from each other, and very well-designed and brutally difficult. This is one time where I’d recommend having a friend tag along, since each boss takes 9 hits (a noticeable departure from the standard three hits for a Nintendo platformer), and you only take a maximum of 5, sending you right back to the start after dying. Every three hits begins a new stage of the boss battle, usually adding in a very frantically chaotic element, or in some cases changing up the landscape and battle strategy completely. Having a friend here would be nice, since when you die, as long as your friend sticks around long enough, you can respawn in a barrel that your friend can smash, and have another go. In any case, be sure to stock up on red balloons.
You can utilize Off-TV Play when using the Gamepad, which is very neat, but during normal TV play, nothing displays on the Gamepad, most likely due to how stressful it would be for the Wii U to display the action on two separate screens. Still, it’s disappointing, because I love to plug in a pair of earphones into the Gamepad, and get more immersed in the sound while still playing on my HD screen, ala Super Mario 3D World. The Gamepad controls are the definitive way to play the game, due to the dedicated button for rolling. With the Wii remote and nunchuck configuration, aka the only option for Donkey Kong Country Returns, you have to waggle the two to roll, adding an unnecessary element of difficulty to attacking enemies or making tricky jumps. It’s still fun to use, and definitely doesn’t impact the game negatively enough for it to be unenjoyable. The sideways Wii remote configuration is my least favorite, though I have an aversion to using D-pad controls in modern platformers. It also makes swimming harder.Water levels scare the crap out of me!
Retro has knocked it out of the park with this one, adding yet another beautiful platformer to Nintendo’s infinitely expanding library, resulting in possibly the best AAA platformer you’ll play all year, and certainly the best sounding. The sound effects are great, and David Wise’s exceptional score is so fitting to every scenario; I would definitely miss it if it was gone.
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