I was nearly taken aback by Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze’s delightfully vivid color palette (see above) and swanky, whimsical tone. “What is this!?” I spat. “A Donkey Kong Country game should bring about some sense of scope. It should promote tension, isolation, even fear! After all, these apes are completely alone on their Isla—!”
And that’s when it hit me: they’re not on their Island. In fact, when Tropical Freeze begins, the Kong family is nowhere near their Island.
Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze isn’t about working your way through the curiosities nestled in the nooks and K. Rannies of DK Island. It won’t ask you to save a captive Kong from crocodilian evil doers, either. No, instead, it’s all about making your way home. The juxtaposition of arctic-born “Snowmads” and rain-forest raised Kongs on environments like burning savannahs and Bavarian mountains would surely lack synergy if every aspect of the game did not devote itself entirely to this worldview. However, the one element that I believe holds together all of the seemingly fragile aesthetic choices of Tropical Freeze is the music that accompanies Donkey Kong’s latest (and likely Cranky Kong’s last) adventure, written by returning composer David Wise, who has been with the series since its conception on the Super Nintendo.
A thick air of tension hung around DK Island in the original Donkey Kong Country for Super Nintendo. Its soundtrack was beautifully simple, often incorporating natural elements like dripping water or echoes to keep you firmly rooted in the reality of its grungy world. The music of Diddy’s Kong Quest set a distinctively sinister and mysterious tone for Crocodile Isle, home of the Kremlings, while Double Trouble was…well, Canada. Sure, Brother’s Bear wasn’t exactly a masterpiece, but it still managed to make substantial contributions to the overall feeling of the world it belonged too (I reiterate: Canada).
That’s especially true when you compare it side by side with, say, Stilt Village, one of the game’s earliest stages. Still, in Double Trouble, the awe inspiring scope of the Northern Kremisphere is conveyed through a partnership between exploration and music that only a few games manage to foster.
Tropical Freeze is one of them, and it helped save the game from feeling thematically inconsistent.
The beauty of a David Wise composition is itsinnate ability to seamlessly stitch together your senses. What you see and feel is eerily embodied in his melodies. What makes an Enchanted Riverbank so enchanting? David Wise (…and Eveline Fischer Novakovic). What makes a Fear Factory so fearful? David Wise. What makes Scorch ‘N’ Torch so…Scorch ‘N’ Torch-y?! David. Wise. The man is the master of his trade.
Though I was hesitant to accept the seemingly out-of-place Kenyan choir ushering in the game’s vast Bright Savannah area (which seemed, at first, to be a dress-rehearsal for the first scene of Disney’s The Lion King), the theme of the game dawned on me, and It wasn’t long before I realized that everything the bloom-lighting touched was Wise’s kingdom. The music is so good that the trees dance.
The essence of Autumn Heights’ visual theme is so perfectly captured by its accompanying score that at any moment, I was expecting Donkey Kong to whip out a pint of his favorite dunkelweizen and start a game of hammerschlagen with Cranky and company (which might actually be a more interesting and challenging alternative to the game’s strictly traditional “collect the bananas” bonus stages).
Donkey Kong Country Returns was a blast, but in several ways, it felt unbearably close to its source material. It tried to draw in new fans with its contemporary presentation and newfound lightheartedness, but at the same time endeavored to accommodate the Old Guard by offering Kenji Yamamoto’s take on classic Donkey Kong Country tunes (which are phenomenal, by the way).
DKCR had an identity crisis—it was trying desperately to be something new by firmly embracing its legacy. The Tiki-Tak Tribe couldn’t hold a candle to the Kremlings, though, who were at the very least biologically complimentary (reptiles vs. mammals) antagonists, and wound up feeling oddly out-of-place even for a game chalk-full of palm tree covered beaches and other tropical motifs. The music simply told us what the title did: that Donkey Kong Country had indeed returned.
Tropical Freeze almost suffered the same fate.
The startup screen greets you with an island choir singing Donkey Kong’s name, the title screen proper prefaces your adventure with a beach-themed tune suitable for any tropical vacation, and the very first stage in the Lost Mangrove area uses saxophones about as liberally as Super Mario 3D World or Paper Mario: Sticker Star (both of which, by the way, have outstanding soundtracks). At first, the game seems disparagingly focused on emphasizing the “tropical” part of “Tropical Freeze,” and then you get to Big Top Bob, the first boss of Tropical Freeze.
Hark! Do my ears deceive me? Is that the electric guitar from Double Trouble’s Nuts and Bolts and Rockface Rumble?! The Bright Savannah area showcases the range of Wise’s talent. He makes use of several instruments you just don’t hear in modern video game music, from accordions to jaw harps to didgeridoos (DIGERIDOOS!) and wood flutes. Not every track is a masterpiece, but they all work together to create a consistent, believable world that the aesthetic style sometimes works against.
All said and done, Wise almost single-handedly sets the tone for the entirety of Tropical Freeze. Getting him to come back and compose (mostly) original arrangements for the game’s soundtrack is exactly what the Donkey Kong Country successor needed to keep itself together.
Tropical Freeze brought to mind a new variant of an age old question: what came first, the music, or the stage? I’ll save that one for next time. Look out for more coverage of the game on Siliconera.