My primary memories of the original Donkey Kong Country – comprising two of the SNES’ best games, and a third that I can’t help but view through rose-coloured shades – are memories of extreme frustration. I remember agonising over a single level in the original for weeks, amassing 50 lives, losing all of them, and then finally beating it, becoming a hero for my cousins sometime after when I went to their house and beat it for them too. I remember getting to the midway checkpoint on an absurd underwater level one day before school, and then not being allowed to leave the SNES on all day while I was out so that I could continue later. I won’t say whether I cried or not.
When Donkey Kong Country Returns came out in 2010 it embraced what made the SNES games so good, taking advantage both of the genre’s relative stasis and of the more powerful hardware. Tropical Freeze is a very similar game, although it’s a little less impressive a product on the Wii U.
Tropical Freeze suffers from contextualisation a bit. The simplicity of the game’s running and jumping controls don’t really fit well on the hulking Wii U gamepad (which is only used for off-screen play), and while it looks good by most standards this is still a game that very much resembles the one we already played a few years ago, upscaled enough to be impressive, if not quite stunning.
More to the point, the 2D platformer has made a bit of a return in recent times, and the Wii U is console begging for more games of every genre except platformers. After the fast paced thrills of games like Rayman Legends, the staccato pacing of Tropical Freeze, and the heavy and inelegant movement of gaming’s greatest ape through the levels, comes as a bit of a shock. That’s not to say that Tropical Freeze isn’t well designed – there are some wonderful levels and sequences throughout – but it’s well designed in the same ways these Donkey Kong Country games have always been well-designed. It’s a predictable sequel, one that pulls many of the same tricks its Wii predecessor did, and which never really carves out its own identity.
These issues ease a bit when you settle into a good groove, though. There’s definite scope for mastery and betterment (going into the speed run leaderboards and watching the replay videos of the top players is a real wake-up call), and playing with the expanded roster of back-up characters, and their assists, is great fun. While the levels encroach into hair-tearing territory pretty fast there’s plenty to be said for the satisfaction of a well-played series of rolls, jumps and grabs, and the levels often have the good grace to collapse and explode around you in exciting ways.
How much you’ll eke out of Tropical Freeze depends on what kind of player you are. Some will play through to the end and leave it at that – some still won’t even do this, because the boss fights are so drawn out that defeating them and moving on becomes a bit of a chore after the first few deaths – while others will want to 100% the game and unlock every level. There are loads of hidden items in each level, but honestly collecting them isn’t really incentivised – a game like this benefits from a constant stream of rewards, but here you’re always working towards massive goals rather than enjoying a series of rewards. Missing an irritatingly placed collectable is less of a big deal once you realise that you’re probably never going to go back for it.
Tropical Freeze, then, is a sequel that plays things a bit safe when we really wanted it to dig deep and offer up something truly new. It’s still the old Donkey Kong Country that we’ve known and loved for so long though, and for many players that’s going to be enough. We just wish it felt more like a proper sequel and less like an expansion.
James “Jickle” O’Connor is a freelance games critic, journalist and occasional editor, based in South Australia. His favourite game of all time is The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and he is absurdly, comically rubbish at most fighting games (except for Killer Instinct on the SNES, which was, incidentally, the first game he ever owned). He has huge soft spots for point and click adventure games, third-person shooters, and Deus Ex.
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