Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of playing through Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D for the Nintendo 3DS. Although I had already experienced the game when it debuted on the Wii, playing it a second time through made me realize just how perfectly Retro Studios had captured the essence of the Donkey Kong Country series, creating a proper introduction to the series for new players and a ruthless (but fair) challenge for veterans.
Playing Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze at this year’s Penny Arcade Expo made me feel the same way… but for different reasons.
Unfortunately, the PAX Prime demo only had one control option available for Tropical Freeze, and that was the Wii Remote and Nunchuk. One of the things that was so nice about Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D was that, because roll was mapped onto a button instead of chaotic motion controls, it was easier to pull off more precise jumps. In a game that’s not shy about being difficult, having those solid controls is essential—which is why, I was told, that option will be made available via the Wii U GamePad in the full version of Tropical Freeze (for single player, at least).
There are some new commands in Tropical Freeze, mainly the “plucking” mechanic. This allows you to grab small handles on the ground or ones placed along climbable walls, often revealing a hidden item or occasionally unfolding a platform, draining a small body of water, and so on. It’s not necessarily revolutionary, but it certainly seems more practical than blowing the seeds off dandelions.
What really makes a Donkey Kong Country game a Donkey Kong Country game, though, is the world; the enemies, the antics, the memorable stages, and perhaps the most important in this particular iteration, the music. Have you had a chance to hear Tropical Freeze’s new music by the one and only David Wise, composer of all three of the original games’ soundtracks? Go ahead, treat yourself. As someone who begged for David Wise to come back on both Donkey Kong Country Returns Nintendo surveys, it goes without saying that his new compositions were my favorite part of the demo experience.
Donkey Kong Country Returns: Tropical Freeze has a fairly unique visual style. I noticed, walking through the levels, a considerable amount of modern technology (airplanes, assembly lines) just scattered about in the middle of the Jungle. Factories aren’t new to the series, of course, but the bright, cartoonish design gives the game a sense of newness that its predecessors didn’t have (full sized plane fuselages falling out of trees, for example, is something new to the series). In fact, this is the only concern I had walking away from the demo: each aspect of the game seems to be headed in its own direction.
For example, the track composed for the first mine cart level takes quite a bit from Donkey Kong Country 3’s Brothers Bear, but I can’t help but feel that it doesn’t quite set the mood for the stage very effectively. It’s there, and you can tell it’s David Wise, but such an upbeat song in a potentially deadly scenario felt… off. Alternatively, the theme used in the more difficult barrel maze area worked perfectly, but the wackiness of penguins shooting fish arrows, once again, took away from that characterization.
The one thing that hasn’t changed is the challenge. The gripping mechanic allows you to pick up stunned, helmeted enemies and throw them at switches or objects in your path. There are still cleverly hidden puzzle pieces in every area. There is still a stern focus on stressing the three-dimensionality of the game’s world, and reinforcing this in gameplay. It doesn’t hold your hand—it thinks that you’re a smart player, and it lets you learn from your mistakes.
When it comes right down to it, even if all of the elements of Tropical Freeze don’t blend together perfectly, it doesn’t change the fact that each one of those elements is superb on its own. There’s still so much more to be revealed about the game that it’s difficult to make any kind of solid judgment, but I can tell you one thing: I had fun playing Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze at PAX Prime.