If Tropical Freeze is your first Donkey Kong Country game, you’ll probably hate it from the start, especially if your idea of a 2D platformer is based on New Super Mario Bros. U or Rayman Legends. Enemies and obstacles are not lined up neatly along your path of destruction; they’re meant to inconvenience you and continually break your momentum. When you’re used to sprints and triple jumps, guiding Donkey Kong feels like dragging a reluctant pack mule. It seems counter- intuitive for a gorilla to be less limber than a plumber, but he is.
Persist, however, and you’ll eventually realise that what you thought was either incompetence or cruelty is actually a warning. The easy death at the start of that level, the irregular spacing of platforms in the other, are signs meant to slow you down. And once you stop trying to rush through as you might with other two-dimensional platformers, Tropical freeze reveals itself to have quite a different nature.
The lack of time limits is deliberate. When you’re not trying to race to the end in under two minutes, you’ll find yourself at the other extreme, taking your time to move through the level and wipe out enemies with care, and most of all searching behind and inside and underneath everything to find as many secrets as possible. collectables like puzzle pieces and the KonG letters that unlock extra levels are tallied at the end of each level, but even those secrets that aren’t – the Easter Eggs – are worth keeping an eye out for.
Rather than give you the start-to-finish flow you get with levels in some other platformers, Tropical Freeze encourages players to take the time to learn the lay of the land. And once your eyes are no longer busy trying to predict any upcoming annoyance that you haven’t yet memorised, you can start to appreciate the inordinate amount of effort that has gone into the background art. Although the inclusion of icy climes seems an obvious answer for something to break up the green, the designers have managed to coax plenty of variety out of both sides of the titular tropical freeze.
Increased care will also give you more time with the secondary characters who ride on Donkey’s back, since they die first when you suffer damage. Diddy and Dixie can each extend Donkey’s limited jump in their own ways, but the best is Cranky, which is more ammunition against first appearances. His pogo-stick cane gives Donkey the ability to double jump, even across a floor of spikes. After that you’ll find it even less appealing to play as solo Donkey, which is one reason to avoid co-op play: player one may be able to use the secondary characters if the second player jumps onto Donkey’s back, but the rest of the time they’re stuck with Donkey.
These secondary characters and a slower pace may help with the bulk of the platforming, but the bosses of each island remain a significant challenge. Rejecting the accustomed rule of three, these creatures assault you with at least half a dozen different attacks and absorb many more of yours before they accept defeat. Worst of all, when you die – and you will, so many times that the repetition of the accompanying tune will start to impact on your enjoyment of the otherwise inventive and varied soundtrack – you have to start from scratch. These long fights are more likely than anything else to make you give up Tropical Freeze altogether, but if you do persevere with them they make for memorable achievements.
Of course, that level of difficulty reflects the game’s roots in traditional “Nintendo hard”, which is not the only feature reminiscent of older games. The occasional 3D camera movement is restricted to things like circling around moments over which you have little to no control, and showing a mine cart section at an angle that just messes with your intuition as to which way you should push the analog stick when you need to switch tracks. The controls feel unfriendly in general. Play with a Wii Remote and you’ll have to shake every time you want to roll or do a ground pound. Even if you use the GamePad or a Pro Controller, you have to tap one button repeatedly to move at speed and hold down a trigger whenever you want to grab onto a vine, which feels just as counter-intuitive as the way those vines don’t respond to your momentum as in other games.
Little has been done to make the game feel modern. The GamePad has no additional use besides as a way to play without the TV screen. Donkey’s fur looks believably fluffy and the animations are improved, but otherwise Tropical Freeze could belong to an older generation. Innovation is limited to such additions as Dixie and Cranky (a bonus) and underwater levels (for some players, undoubtedly, a negative). The Kong POW that turns all visible enemies into items is helpful but forgettable, and the ability to pick up enemies and objects is long overdue. Presumably, however, Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze is made for those who don’t necessarily want change. The inclusion of a touted hard mode and time trials that can automatically upload footage of your attempts online suggest that Nintendo has that traditional hardcore audience in its sights. While that’s encouraging for players who fit that category, many others will be deterred. Those willing to put time into this game will be rewarded, but given that difficulty and the lack of Wii U consoles out there, how many people will?