Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (2014)

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I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore.
-Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World

 

 

FF3-NES-OnionKnight.png “The following is a guest post by the Moronic Cheese Mage.”

The commercial failure of this Retro Studios masterpiece has sparked much debate since the news that it’ll get a new lease of life on the Nintendo Switch. The much loved series had a revival with Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Wii after a decade long absence, but the follow-up has a had wonky journey despite being, arguably, the best of the lot.

The SNES trilogy is adored the world over, make no mistake, with DKC2 delivering one of the best titles for the console (as well as one of the best video game soundtracks of all time, from genius British composer David Wise). The trilogy wrapped in 1996 and was followed by a divisive N64 romp in 1999 – there was an 11 year gap after this (largely due to the end of Rare and Nintendo’s working relationship), but then in stepped one of the industry’s great unsung workers of wonder – Retro Studios.

Donkey Kong Country Returns was great fun and marked a fine return for the hairy ape dude. A sequel was planned and launched in 2014 for the Wii U: Tropical Freeze. The console was already struggling and, despite a handful of rave reviews, most gamers didn’t bother with it. This is a great gaming injustice, as I consider it one of the best games of this decade and one of the finest platformers I’ve ever come across, so it’s with much delight to know it’ll be hitting the Switch on 4th May 2018. Here’s why it’ll be worth your moolah.

Tropical Freeze!

Okay – the plot! Donkey Kong and friends are ready for an adventure and, wahey, let’s get out there and enjoy it! The plot doesn’t exist, really, for the player it’s just a chance to immediately get in and start playing the game. It’s trademark DKC stuff, so why fix what’s not broken?

Why does this one stand out from its predecessors, then? Retro Studios really ramped up the epic scale of the game – many of the levels are sprawling wonderlands of challenges brought about by sparkling imagination. Every level you complete feels like an exhaustive, epic journey. Some of the water levels are so enthralling and full on, in fact, it’s an example of total gaming immersion, where you forget you’re playing a video game (Half-Life 2 being another fine example of this phenomenon, as well as Ori and the Blind Forest… oh, did I just plug my old posts?!).

The game is exhilarating, simply put. Whether you’re plunging deep into the depths of an underwater maze, stumbling across one very angry giant octopus, or scaling a huge mountain which is collapsing around you, Retro Studios had one grand vision for Tropical Freeze and certainly didn’t hold back. Every time you start a new stage, you tense up with expectation and brace yourself for what lies ahead. It’s an impressive challenge.

The developer didn’t hold back on the difficulty, either, which is arguably one of the reasons why the game ultimately met with mixed reviews. It’s as tough as nails! This is a hardcore 2D platformer – perfect timing is required and you’ve got to be incredibly brave during some of the bonus room sections. It’s sweaty-palmed stuff, but for the large part the sense of satisfaction is rewarding rather than frustrating.

It’s a remarkably immersive 2D platformer and one which buzzes with atmosphere. It’s positively alive with personality – you feel like you’re out there in the jungle with the apes. You do get a variety of characters to choose from, too, including Donkey Kong, Diddy Kong, Dixie Kong, and Cranky Kong (WHAT?! No Kiddy Kong?!). They all have different abilities, which can make certain levels a touch easier at times (Cranky has an awesome “hopping” skill).

The consistent enjoyment factor is ensured by the variation in level design, which is frequently spectacular. The levels cover various antics such as the big ape dude flying on a rocketship (one of Retro Studio’s team created an indie game based on these – it’s called Star Ghost, with another nifty soundtrack by David Wise), to battling through tornadoes, traversing some sort of hot air balloon land, and all manner of other crazed stuff.

In fact, there’s one level early on in the game which stands out. It is, in fact, what I believe to be one of the greatest video game levels of all time. “ZOMG!” you shriek. Indeed! Well, it’s…

Grassland Groove

I’m going to repeat myself here – one of the greatest levels in modern gaming is, surely, Grassland Groove. It’s a combination of all elements of what makes video games so fantastic. I’ve included the whole level above if you want to watch it but, obviously, there are spoilers there! Avoid if you want the unique, full experience come May.

It’s a beautiful level to look at and starts off fairly normally, but shortly in there’s a musical shift and it becomes increasingly dramatic. You begin to scale bouncing giraffe head things, then mechanical obstacles gyrate around in beautiful unison and propel you all over the place, David Wise’s phenomenal soundtrack swells up in the background, the sun is setting, you can see the plains sweeping off in the background, and you realise you are the master of the Universe!

It’s quite the overwhelming experience – beautiful and thrilling, especially if you have your headphones on. Like the soft git I am, I wanted to burst into tears during the final section of the level. It’s like a celebration of life and the beauty of the natural world!

I was pretty ashamed about the whole near blubbing thing, but I checked some YouTube comments and many others gamers had the same reaction, so I’m happy to proclaim I’m not a total wuss. I’m reporting it here to get across how magical Tropical Freeze really is. It’s a stone cold masterpiece and I’d like to see this level cordoned off with armed guards standing around it 24/7 to preserve it for future generations. It’s a work of art.

Soundtrack

A huge dollop of the game’s appeal, and what elevates a level like Grassland Groove to a near spiritual experience, is the soundtrack. With the welcome return of David Wise to the latest DKC project (absent from the return title on the Wii, although his music from the SNES trilogy was used frequently), the music took an enormous leap from being merely great in Donkey Kong Country Returns, to flat out exceptional.

Frankly, you want Wise working on as many video game soundtracks as possible, as he only seems capable of delivering sheer genius. In Tropical Freeze, there’s a disparate mix of upbeat and dramatic music – whereas Donkey Kong Country 2 had the majority of main themes ramping up the drama, you do get a mix here which suits some of the less hazardous locations.

Wise also remixes some of his most famous compositions, such as Stickerbush Symphony, which make a more than welcome addition in their expanded and updated form. I mean, especially if you played the 1994 outing, then hearing an updated version of Aquatic Ambiance is pretty damn groovy. It’s just all so brilliant, right?

Where did it *Ooo Oooo Eee Eee Eee AAAA AAA AAA!!!* go wrong?

The main obstacle the game had was launching on the Wii U. Although 13 million people bought the console, Tropical Freeze shifted just over a million units worldwide. What?

When you look at the statistics, including how this is a beloved series, the first Donkey Kong Country was a huge hit. Subsequent games (despite being much better than the original) haven’t sold half as well. DKC rode in on a wave of hype and impressive graphics, but the game certainly isn’t amazing compared to its sequels. Its incredible soundtrack and landmark status make it noteworthy today, but the game remains enjoyable but flawed (in my humble opinion).

Tropical Freeze is exceptional, but the muted response from the press was alarming and certainly didn’t help its commercial prospects. I remember reading the 4/5 Metro newspaper review in England as the journalist lamented “another” 2D platformer on the Wii U. GameSpot’s 6/10 accused Retro Studios of uninspired level design.

Subjective opinions, but I can’t help but feel they didn’t give the game much of a go. It’s a difficult one and takes dedication – busy journalists working to tight deadlines and thinking of another game they’d rather be reviewing can lead to negativity developing (as one GameSpot journalist freely admitted during a different Wii U game review a year later).

The strong reviews were there, of course. IGN handed it a 9/10 (see below) and Destructoid’s Chris Carter went for the full 10/10 in a startlingly on-the-ball appraisal. But the sales didn’t come – general opinion appeared to be it was just another kids game on that games console with the rubbish graphics.

Adding to its woes, a lot of gamers simply don’t get hyped about platformers anymore, regardless of how good the game ends up being. Big open world titles, FPSs, and whatnot are the games that create a buzz and sell the most. So when you get this thing turning up on a console most people prefer mocking rather than trying out, you have a brilliant game with many moments of genius being considered as mediocre.

Happily, the game will get a well deserved reappraisal in May 2018 from a gaming press lacking the casual antipathy towards a console most of it clearly was biased against. I’m not trying to stir anything up with that statement, but a lot of publications simply liked to malign the Wii U, Nintendo, and the output during the console’s run.

It was considered inferior to the PS4 and Xbox One – not for “true gamers”, which is an idiotic statement. Anyone who plays a video game is a gamer, as they have played it. Anyway, now the Switch has been welcomed positively by the gaming community, at the very least I’m hoping this exceptional title will get some much deserved love.

 

The 8-bit Review

Visuals icon Visuals: 9/10
Uh? Oh yeah. It looks great! What more do you want? Pixels. Flowing animation… stuff. There are some unique flourishes in there which I won’t spoil, but it simply remains a vibrant game which, whilst not breaking new ground like the 1994 series opener, does its talking with its gameplay, whilst being complemented by some fancy looks.

donkey-kong-country-tropical-freeze-2018111212856_1.jpg

audio Audio: 10/10
It’s David Wise, what more do you expect? It’s pretty spectacular, measured, joyous, and thunderous all at once, but timed to absolute perfection and delivered with some serious panache.

gameplay Gameplay: 10/10
It’s just so enthralling. Taking on each stage is like a momentous life decision – you plunge on into the murky depths, or scale some precarious heights, but all the while you feel exhilarated and you don’t want the game to end. The only time it occasionally stutters is during boss battles, which can be hard work, but you won’t rage quit like a noob at any point – you’ll want to see this through to the end.

accessibility Accessibility: 7/10
There’s the initial pick up and play element, but this is one bloody difficult game. It’s quite remorseless at times. Unknowing adults handing the game to kids to take on will be surprised, as will seasoned gamers who’ve gotten out of the habit of NES/SNES era perfect button timing.

challenge Challenge: 10/10
It’s difficult. So difficult, in fact, this might have been one of the factors that scuppered its commercial success and left a succession of journalists confused. It’s an enormous game, though, and one which any keen adventurer should be ready to jump on into. Finding every secret area, trying out every character, and mastering each stage is an enormous challenge, but if you do it this is one to add to your gaming CV.

replay Replayability: 9/10
Well I’m totally stoked to have another stab – playing it in handheld mode with earphones in is, literally, going to be one of the treats of the year. However, that difficulty level may put people off… but Retro Studios added in Funky Kong as a playable character to make it all a bit easier.

funky_kong-1000x562.jpg

 Uniqueness: 8/10
It’s another 2D platformer, but one that really builds on its predecessors to deliver arguably the defining DKC series moment to date. Its level designs also deserve considerable merit due to the clever ideas and nuances at play.

 My Personal Grade: 10/10
Tropical Freeze is a bona fide forgotten classic which I hope is about to get the recognition it fully deserves (“Blah, blah, blah, he’s repeating himself…”). The Switch has already outsold the Wii U in less than 12 months since its launch, so surely more people will be tempted towards this enormously upbeat, joyous, glorious, wondrous title?

Naturally, it’s not going to be for everyone. If you despise 2D platformers then stick to whatever makes you happy – everyone is well-catered for in the modern gaming industry, even noobs! Case in point, for Tropical Freeze’s Switch edition there will be an “easy mode” where you can play as Funky Kong – he has a surfboard and this will make getting around the game a lot easier, apparently.

All I can add now is this – give it a go. Or else. What’s needed here is you stick your earphones in, play in handheld mode, let David Wise’s music wash over you, and enjoy what will, hopefully, no longer be a forgotten gem by the end of 2018. That… that is justice!

Aggregated Score: 9.1

 

The Moronic Cheese Mage is also known as Wapojif. That’s Mr. Wapojif to you. He’s a self-deprecating humorist with his head on straight. For silliness and surreal humour, definitely find your way to his blog at professionalmoron.com.

 

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22 thoughts on “Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (2014)

  1. What a game. One of the greatest 2D platformers of all-time. The pitch-perfect controls, the sublime level designs, the unforgettable soundtrack, the incredibly rewarding challenge the game offered … just amazing all-around. Great review. Definitely a game that didn’t get enough love when it came out. The re-release should at least treat more gamers to this gem.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m really pleased to see it’s been getting praise in this comments section. Seems like a lot of people who have played it thought the same as me. Hopefully the gaming press will get fully behind it this time! I certainly can’t wait to get back into it again. And yes, I’d say it is one of the greatest 2D platformers of all time.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It seems, despite the early naysayers before its release, that a lot of the gaming press has gotten behind the Switch. I do hope that it’s enough to get some journalists to rethink their take on the game. And again, that’s without me having played it myself!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for taking the time to write this up in advance of its re-release on the Switch, sir! Admittedly, I was one of many who passed on this game upon its original release. Well, I’d passed on the Wii U as well but for some reason, I subconsciously bought into the “ah it’s just another gimmicky platformer” bit. Reading this changed my mind about it and I’m now looking forward to it!

    One part that really stood out to me is the blubbing. I occasionally blub, too. A near religious experience is also something that piques my interest, as a religious person. I’m intrigued at the ways in which entertainment can reach that far and craft something like a metaphysical, unexplainable experience in us. I just wouldn’t have expected that to happen in Tropical Freeze but my goodness that level was quite beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No problem, I think because so many of the press reviews were a bit snippy about it, Tropical Freeze didn’t stand much of a chance.

      It really covers the full gamut of emotions this one but, yes, you wouldn’t really expect that much of an emotional response from a DKC game. Although some of the levels from DKC 2 are very moving, thanks to David Wise’s music. I’m not religious, although I take a keen interest in Buddhism, but Grassland Groove really just connects you with the beauty of the world around us.

      Well, I’m just really looking forward to picking it up in May again. Luckily, I have a £25 off voucher to use with it. Huzzah!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m working on an article about the responsibility writers have and sometimes forget about. Journalists and critics especially can influence the way people think about things and that ought to give us pause, not write things in a flippant manner. Obviously, it’s not all doom and solemnity of course and I have fun with English all the time, but yeah it’s a shame that people missed out on what sounds like an exceptional title simply because some journalists decided to mob think it to death.

        On the note of religiosity, some people may call themselves spiritual without saying religious. Either way, I think there’s some corner of human experience that operates at that level of depth, and when you encounter it in art, for me when I find a similarity there with some other experience I’ve had that was actually religious, it’s always fascinating to me.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It happens in film criticism a lot as well, sometimes critics jump on a bandwagon like mindless sheep, it seems, to batter something. Then over time the media text gets a reappraisal and more recognition. We’re all critics, these days, so it’s good to set some ground rules! No hyperbole, just a rational and well considered analysis. Even if it’s hairy apes, it’s worth the time.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Never had a WiiU so I’m excited to play this game on Switch (even if it’s a bit expensive). Everything I read (like this excellent review) increases my hype. I will share my opinion next May.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Great to hear! I will say be patient with it, as it is difficult. The further you get into it, though, it just becomes quite magical. Well worth the price, I believe, if you’ve not played it yet.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Yes, I absolutely hope its Switch release will make it get the recognition it deserves. Nonetheless, reaching its deserved level of acclaim would have to mean this game would be ranked among the best sidescrollers ever, so maybe that’s not happening.

    I think the pre-release complaints regarding the fact Retro was being used to make “yet another DKC game” sort of hurt the general perception of this masterpiece of platforming.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, very possibly, I was certainly miffed to hear Retro isn’t handling Metroid Prime 4. That’s slightly disconcerting.

      Still, if a few extra million people get to enjoy this then glorious. I’ll feel a bit happier. I’ll be waiting eagle eyed for the reviews in two months.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. What an amazing platformer.

    I’d originally planned to double dip, but not with the outrageous price that Nintendo is charging. $40 extra dollars for a DLC character/easy mode? The internet would eat any other company alive over that.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It certainly is amazing! I did forget to mention, “Oh yeah, if you already own it you’ll have to buy it again.” I think it’s worth it, though, especially for handheld mode and I do consider this one of the best games of this decade. Worst case scenario, fire up the old Wii U.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. No, it certainly isn’t something you should have to mention. To buy it on the Switch, you’ll obviously have to purchase it again if you’ve already purchased on the Wii U.

        I maintain that it is horribly overpriced when you can buy the game brand new on Wii U for $20, but like you said, I’ll just have to be happy with it on my Wii U.

        Great review.

        Liked by 2 people

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