The oxymoronic nature of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze’s subtitle works extraordinarily well as both a punny descriptor of the game’s frosty anthropomorphic Viking invasion of the Kong family’s equatorial homeland and as a summarization of the type of conservative-meets-cutting-edge gameplay that dominates the proceedings. While some of Tropical Freeze’s execution appears frozen in time, drawing on the modern-day Nintendo loyalist’s desire for nostalgia, a comparable, if not larger, portion of its allure comes from occasionally trendsetting tendencies, bucking tradition in favor of newfangled ledge-hopping mechanics. Developer Retro Studios has garnered a reputation for taking bold steps with beloved series and producing sophisticated, if sometimes controversial, results. They did it with the often polarizing Metroid Prime trilogy, and now seem to be hellbent on doing the same with Donkey Kong Country. Their 2010 DKC debut, Donkey Kong Country Returns, still stands as one of the Wii’s finest first-party side-scrollers, and the 2013 3DS version was equally excellent. Tropical Freeze, the Empire Strikes Back to DKCR’s A New Hope (planet Hoth jokes aside), is an audacious, challenging platformer that isn’t afraid of breaking new ground in an antiquated classification.
Tropical Freeze opens in the middle of Donkey Kong’s birthday (the original SNES DKC turns 20 this year), with a single ice crystal snuffing the candle on the big ape’s banana-shaped cake. A flotilla of animal Vikings (penguins, snowy owls, walruses) called the Snomads, intent to storm the jungle peninsulas, unleashes a powerful gust of wind that knocks the Kongs to distant shores. So begins a roughly 14-hour odyssey that’s filled with nearly twice as many moments of GamePad-busting agony as its predecessor. The game smartly reintroduces the sassy Dixie Kong as a playable character, whose blond helicopter-hair hover technique is ideal when grabbing those seemingly just-out-of-reach K-O-N-G letters. Elderly curmudgeon Cranky Kong, a favorite Kong clan member since his initial 1994 appearance, is finally able to take center stage, boasting a cane-bounce maneuver that clearly draws inspiration from a similar tactic Scrooge McDuck employed in the NES classic DuckTales. All the Kongs look fantastic and handle well: Their furry coats gleam and sway with the breezes and their movements feel natural in accordance with their weight and special abilities. Donkey Kong is the strongest, even without a lengthy leap, while Diddy Kong sports considerable speed and his trusty wooden jetpack for extra vaulting distance. Environments are also stunning; the franchise’s pioneering voyage into high-definition territory delivers the goods with a six-pack of diverse island locales, each a unique spin on the typical leafy savannah. From autumnal peaks and hurricane-plagued fields to dreaded water-based stages, not to mention the dastardly mine-cart passages, every level displays abundant innovation, regularly changing the flow of direction (there’s barrel cannons and secret areas galore) so that tedium never sets in.
It’s evident that a great deal of producer Kensuke Tanabe’s influence seeped its way into Tropical Freeze, his revolutionary contributions to Super Mario Bros. 2 echoed here as the Kongs have the newfound capacity to pluck items from the earth, as well as grab and lob enemies that have been temporarily stunned. The adventure’s difficulty spikes are somewhat abated when the Kong-POW meter is filled, allowing for a patented team attack that clears all foes from the vicinity. Periodic protracted boss battles are a highlight, sectional tests of will that require constant concentration and a know-how that enable players to locate their opponent’s weak spot. Funky Kong’s support shop offers a variety of useful provisions, providing buffs like momentarily invincibility, but these temptations should be avoided by players who seek a bona fide top-to-bottom evaluation of one’s ultimate mastery of the genre. During its toughest moments, Tropical Freeze is pure action-platforming ecstasy; sweaty palms and a dry mouth are a small price to pay for the amount of unadulterated satisfaction that comes when completing a particularly arduous endgame segment.
In the wake of Super Mario 3D World’s almost flawless co-op, the one component that has Tropical Freeze dropping the ball in a major way is its multiplayer. The ease of switching characters on the fly is criminally absent; the only way to do so is to cease play entirely and rejoin, which slows down an otherwise invigorating cooperative experience that has its fair share of singular rewards. Although the Wii U GamePad doesn’t receive its due of customary prods and blows akin to SM3DW, there’s more than enough ingenuity, and thoughtful nods to gaming trailblazers of old, in Tropical Freeze to forgive its lack of novelties.