Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

March 6, 2014

Retro Studios can be a little bit of an enigma. Though they hold one of the most consistently high rated portfolios in the industry, the window between each release is surprisingly large. You can get four titles from someone like Naughty Dog in a single generation, yet with Retro you won’t top more than two. Their games will come and then they’ll go, disappearing for a few years only to return just when you’ve forgotten about them with something new. And though I’d love to see their games drop with greater frequency, despite this never have they not been worth worth the wait.

Point of reference: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze took over three years to make, and it’s damn good.

tropical freeze 2

Similar to Metroid Prime 2: Echoes to Metroid Prime, Tropical Freeze is a direct successor to Returns, Retro’s previous game, and acts less like a reinvention of the wheel and more like a finely tuned revision what was learned from the first outing. With a new coat of paint, of course, and overall thematic direction. Tropical Freeze is a sequel in the truest sense of the word, in play and design, as well as presentation; the Kongs face a new threat, one that lovingly embodies exactly what I’m talking about when I say lessons were learned.

Returns‘ animal hypnotising Tiki tribe is nowhere to be found, Tropical Freeze instead opting for an entirely new antagonistic cast composed of Nordic themed penguins, walrus, and more, hell-bent on overthrowing the Kongs and turning DK Island into a winter wonderland. While I had no beef with the Tikis from Returns, they admittedly lacked the charming identities of the old series antagonists, the Krelmins. Here the Snowmads are an attempt to remedy this issue, and a mostly successful one too, the opposing army as a whole more personified and visually distinct. And though Tropical Freeze is light on story, and I don’t expect much different, an invading army of Snowmads overthrowing DK and co is certainly more interesting while giving stronger plausibility of the adventure than “Tikis want bananas”.

This is an example of Retro responding directly to criticism levied at Returns, and it doesn’t stop there. Waggle-to-roll is now tied to the Wii U pad’s buttons (though the Wii Remote option is still there if you’re keen!). David Wise is back on the soundtrack (more on that in a minute). Blow mechanic has been removed. Greater variation in the “silhouette” stages. And additional gameplay systems have been added to diversify and refine the platforming, like the return of swimming stages. It’s as clear that from the get-go Retro was attentive to Returns‘ critical response, even if that response was overwhelmingly positive. The little things count, and they listened, resulting in an overall more polished and refined title.

tropical freeze 1

All of this would be throwaway if Retro couldn’t maintain the quality standard consistent with their last four titles (Returns especially). That core design has to hold up. And of course it does.

It’s hard to put into words what Retro accomplished with Returns, now repeated with Tropical Freeze. Look, there’s the odd concession: animal buddies remain reduced to just Rambi, so like Returns I’d still like to see Retro explore that concept further. Adding Dixie and Cranky as buddy characters alongside Diddy is very welcome, but Dixie seems by far the most versatile, and the trio as a whole not all that well integrated into exclusive platforming challenges. Bonus levels are still rudimentary “collect all the bananas” time challenges, repeating aesthetics an design throughout the entire game. Yes, like Returns, Tropical Freeze has a few things I don’t agree with.

But it’s everything surrounding these misgivings that’s goddamn amazing, so much so that it’s borderline impossible to focus on the negative. Adopting a policy enforced in the past, and by EAD Tokyo, each and every stage in Tropical Freeze revolves around it’s own unique gameplay, visual, and audio gimmick. Each stage so distinct in platforming design and presentation that you could summarise the overall “theme” in just a few words and others would know exactly which stage you’re talking about. Retro’s understanding of Donkey Kong’s weighty momentum and rhythmic movement borderline perfectly integrated into platform and enemy positioning, a philosophy that becomes more obvious when attempting to meet speed run medal requirements, noting the uncanny synchronicity of moving platforms, dancing enemies, and swinging vines. Tropical Freeze never stretches itself too thin, and never repeats itself ad nauseam, tiny stretches of platforming challenge cohesively linked together to make up levels entire.

Levels entire that embody a quality of “visual storytelling” that I firmly believe is the best Nintendo has, and among the best in the industry. The rudimentary (if still visually pleasant) blocky level design EAD Tokyo’s Super Mario series, again evident with Super Mario 3D World, takes a distant back seat for stages that are constructed more like cohesive visual storybooks. Platforms, pits, inclines and declines; these are not simply magical floating colourful prisms, instead stylised and placed in such a way that is believable and consistent with the stage’s overall narrative theme. The quantity of little foreground and background details add a sense of liveliness only bested by the progression of the stages themselves, each designed almost like a journey, DK and crew starting at one location and by the end finding themselves in another, the escalation of stage events subtle in presentation yet boisterous in impact.

And then there’s the soundtrack. My god, the soundtrack. As noted, Retro commissioned David Wise to return to the series he helped popularise, and he delivers in spades. A little part of me was worried he might phone it in, but several hours into Tropical Freeze and all I feel is guilt for humouring such thoughts. Could this be among Wise’s best work? It’s certainly possible. Working with Retro, Wise has not only composed tracks thematically relevant to each stage’s visual and play design, but utilised modern technology to ensure the tracks themselves shift and evolve based on your progression through the level itself. Much like Rare’s classic Donkey Kong Country trilogy, Wise’s contribution alongside Retro’s outstanding visual and game design goes a long way in giving each and every single stage a distinct personality, and I guarantee that long after you’re finished you’ll still be humming tunes from the likes of Scorch ‘N’ Torch and Grassland Groove just as you once did (and probably still do) for Stickerbush Symphony.

tropical freeze 3

As it all comes together what you’re left with in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a borderline perfect platformer. In some specific areas, like the visual story telling combined with level design,it might as well be perfect. It is in many ways the same level of design refinement and production polish over Returns as, way back when, Rare’s Diddy’s Kong Quest was over the original Donkey Kong Country. Retro has been astoundingly attentive to Returns‘ reception, implementing changes and revisions where necessary, while making no sacrifices to their overall vision and expectations placed on them. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is ludicrously good, and as is easily my favourite Wii U game alongside The Wonderful 101.

I do think there’s room to improve and evolve. As said, I’d love to see Retro do more with the animal buddies, a staple of the series. And the bonus rooms really do need more work. But again, like I said at the start of this review, it’s so easy to get over these grievances and just focus on the amazing stuff that’s there.

I’m not sure what Retro’s next project will be. Similar to the move from Metroid to Donkey Kong Country I’d like it to be something totally original and fresh. Something to surprise me. But if it is a third Donkey Kong Country I won’t complain one bit, and if I have to wait just as long as I have been for every other Retro project I’m more than happy to. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is evident enough that Retro’s work is just that good.


Beautiful, intelligent platforming, visual, and audio design throughout


Unmemorable bonus stages | Room to improve the animal and buddy system

Overall Score: