By Robert Ward . March 2, 2014 . 5:00pm
Earlier this week, I gushed about David Wise’s musical arrangements in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. In the end, I feel that the music of Tropical Freeze acknowledges its legacy without letting it get in the way. Wise sneaks in some subtle nods towards his work in Donkey Kong Country and Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest, such as Twilight Terror’s easy to miss Bramble Blast remix or his soul-chilling tribute to Fear Factory near the game’s climax, without forgetting to make Tropical Freeze its own game.
Meanwhile, Retro Studios, the team responsible for just about every other aspect of the game, didn’t forget that either.
In an Iwata Asks regarding the development of Donkey Kong Country Returns, Kensuke Tanabe, the game’s producer, mentioned that just before E3 in 2010, they had only completed two of the game’s eight bosses.
“I think [because] before E3, we weren’t always all on the same page with regard to what’s fun,” Tanabe said. “After E3, however, that improved dramatically. You can say they got the knack of it.” The same can be said for Tropical Freeze—from the boss fights to the stages, everything is generally more tightly designed than its predecessor.
As I mentioned before, the Snowmads feel more imposing than the apathetic Tiki-Tak Tribe of Donkey Kong Country Returns – especially when it comes to the bosses. Mountain Top Tussle, which pits you against Skowl the Startling, the boss of the Autumn Heights area, has you jump off of the stage and into a barrel to avoid attacks. Add background music that draws on elements from Final Fantasy VII’s “One Winged Angel” and the high-stakes battle feels even more intense. Throw in some ninja baboons and an ice-dragon summoning walrus and you’ve really got something special.
More importantly, every level offers something new and creative. Rayman Legends relied on fitting eccentricities to theme their levels, featuring such things as giant Lucha Libres chasing you through walls of cake. Tropical Freeze, on the other hand, taps into all of the potential of its various natural world environments and incorporates them directly into gameplay. Each level builds off the next thematically, as well, as if each stage wasn’t disconnected by an overworld screen.
In the Bright Savannah area, Donkey Kong has to avoid lighting and dust devils in Frantic Fields, but what happens when lightning hits a patch of dry grass? You get a brush fire, which is the theme of the next level, Scorch ‘N’ Torch. One of my favorite stages is Autumn Heights’ Alpine Incline, where you begin at the base of mountain covered in shadow cast by clouds overhead. You eventually make it above the clouds, and the atmosphere completely changes. The clouds are gone, the sky is blue, and the music is considerably more upbeat. In another stage, DK enters the depth of an undersea cave and everything gradually becomes silhouetted.
The true mastery of Retro’s level design can be felt in the game’s final stages, Cliffside Slide and Dynamite Dash in particular. These stages revisited the elements that made each of Donkey Kong Country Returns’ stages so exciting and made something brand new with them. Look carefully in the background of Frozen Frenzy and you’ll see the mega squeekly from DKCR’s Crowded Cavern frozen in a block of ice. In Cliffside Slide, some of the platforms are giant fossils that decorated DKCR’s Cliff area.
I’ve talked about apes and penguins, but now, let’s talk about elephants—the one in the room, to be precise. Difficulty. Tropical Freeze is not an easy game…if you’re looking for secrets. If you want to bypass gathering puzzle pieces, which will unlock dioramas and help you access the game’s final world, you’re going to die. A lot. Even weathered platformer enthusiasts will struggle to keep up with its difficulty curb, especially in levels that ask you to man the helm of a barrel rocket once again. This difficulty made the items feel less like shortcuts to completion and more like necessary power-ups.
The bonus rounds are the single aspect of the game that don’t bother to draw on its source material and default to collecting bananas in different ways. What happened to Collect the Stars? Bash the Baddies?! There’s even concept art for a snowball-throwing mini-game that for some reason didn’t make the cut. These bonus stages leave something to be desired—with the amount of effort you put into finding these bonus rooms, they should be fun, and diverse—not another collect-a-thon.
Each stage progresses smoothly if, again, you’re not looking for secrets—which are often relentless in their frustratingly clever hiding spots. As soon as you think you’ve trained your eye to spot hidden barrels, the game will find a way to best you. Stages with secret paths, which allow you to access hidden levels, require specific Kongs to get to. Sometimes you’ll need some extra air with Dixie, other times you’ll need to survive an entire stage to jump over some spikes with Cranky–either way, you’ll be playing through some stages twice.
Tropical Freeze may not be the perfect game, but it is certainly the perfect follow up to what was an already stellar reboot of a seemingly forgotten franchise.
Food For Thought:
1. You may not control Diddy, Dixie, and Cranky directly as you might have Diddy, Dixie, or Kiddie in previous titles—but in principle, the additional Kongs have always been “power-ups.” Having an extra Kong in the older titles meant being able to take two hit instead of one. Donkey Kong’s weight let you topple larger enemies and perform a ground pound. In the same vein, Cranky lets you jump over spikes and reach high areas, Dixie lets you correct your jumps, and Diddy gives you a few extra seconds in the air. They let you extend gameplay through DK in the same way that playing with them solo would–they even give you a different advantage underwater!
2. Never underestimate the Kong-Pow. Retro didn’t just throw the one-button destroy-all move for nothing–it will be pivotal in later stages, especially the more challenging Kong Temple ones. You’ll likely be visiting the shop a lot, which means that you’ll also likely be dying a lot, which means that each one of the Kong’s three transformative powers (one turns enemies to coins, another to extra lives, and another to golden hearts that let you take more hits) will come in handy.
3. A note on perspective: the game makes use of a dynamic camera angles, and it doesn’t always work. Luckily, most of this stages use it as a “spectacle,” so there are only a few that put you in the middle of the action while the camera shifts. Furthermore, for much of the game, the camera feels much too close to DK, I would’ve liked a way to adjust it.
4. A tip for secret-finders: always enter a level with an extra heart and Squawks. Squawks will only tell you when you’re near a puzzle piece, and never specifically where it’s hidden or how it is obtained. The game is so brutal that there’s no shame in using these just to save yourself the time.
5. Let this be a lesson that no platformer should feel obligated to include a water-themed area. While DKCTF’s water themed levels can be beautiful, they were by far the most frustrating stages if only because, well, WATER PHYSICS.