By Sarumarine 7 Comments
If you ever asked me where I stood on the whole Donkey Kong Country series, I'd tell you that it's one of my favorites in the grand scheme of this thing we call video games. And while I could easily place them in order of greatness, I think they're all pretty fantastic platformers with outstanding soundtracks the great controls required to thread through brambles, killer bees, and blasting barrels. Donkey Kong sure has come a long way from tossing stuff at plumbers and kidnapping women at construction sites.
And while I didn't put much time into Donkey Kong Country Returns, I spent the past week going through the latest entry of Tropical Freeze on the Wii U. Overall I had fun, barring time adjusting to the way Retro Studios does platformers, but if there's one thing I came away with is that this game's soundtrack is too good. At the risk of overhyping it, god damn the music is amazing. Thank you David Wise. Give that man a lifetime achievement award or something.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
I think my favorite first impression with Tropical Freeze is the game's new villains in the form of Viking themed Arctic animals known as the Snowmads. The Kremlins from the SNES days were a pretty distinctive bunch whether they were marauders, pirates, or going industrial. And with their schizophrenic leader King K. Rool constantly reinventing himself they were always fun to mess around with. The Snowmads might not make a strong as impression, but they have a diverse crew ranging from penguins with spiked helmets, horned owls that spit fire, and walruses armed with pufferfish polearms. The character is always appreciated, especially when the game is focused on toppling their latest campaign against the Kong Family. Special shout outs to the polar bear with an ice hammer known as the Bashmaster.
The game is also delightfully colorful. Maybe there's a worry with the subtitle of "Tropical Freeze" it might all be ice levels, but the worlds and stages have some amount of variety. Two of my favorites involve the second world mixing the themes of autumn and mountain climbing, and the fifth world that combines the jungle and a juice factory following the stages of processing fruit into delicious looking icicle treats. Maybe for that reason the final world is kind of bland considering how it finally leans into the ice/blizzard theme, but I found it okay. What's also nice is the amount of unique assets that go into some stages. I kept looking for when the game would try to reuse a giant cheese wheel, but there was a lot of effort that went into set design here.
The Retro Control Feel
Possibly the largest stumbling block, unfortunately, is adjusting to the controls and the physics of a Donkey Kong Country game made by Retro Studios. I didn't put much time into Returns, so this wasn't felt in its fullest until I played through this game. As you probably expect, Tropical Freeze is a whole different beast from the days of the SNES Country games. The sense of momentum in this game is pretty crazy compared to how the Kong characters moved before. There's a start up time to moving and some sliding to keep in mind when trying to come to a stop. Running is replaced by dash rolling, and you will need some time to build up speed to fling yourself across the stage. I don't know how many pits or instant death traps I stupidly fell right into because I expected instant speed for long jumps. Swimming is also pretty tricky and deliberate, especially for the obstacles the game asks you to navigate. Prepare yourself for world four, it's going to be rough.
Grabbing and throwing is also relegated to a different button, so you can't just hold down the run button to pick up barrels or objects. Sometimes this can feel a little finicky as I struggle to pick up barrels I plan on, and other times accidentally pick up barrels I had no intention of grabbing. Bonus points if these barrels are placed right next to vines, and you can't grab a barrel and swing on a vine at the same time. Luckily lives are plentiful in this game. And if you're really having that much trouble, you can always buy more from the shop.
The height of my frustration with Tropical Freeze involved a level known as Bopopolis that is a text case for the strange nature of getting extra height after jumping off enemies. Easily the hardest stage in the game but only because you're fighting the controls. I still haven't figured this out, but the timing window is completely different when you're shot out of a barrel as compared to when you jump on an enemy moving about in a stage. This is really, really unfortunate considering Bopopolis is the second extra level in world two. So you'll probably reach this stage and suddenly feel like Tropical Freeze is a busted mess because you can't get past the first enemy on this dumb stage because you keep bouncing off his head into a bottomless pit.
Luckily, I did finally acclimate myself to the way Tropical Freeze handles. And while it might not be as tight as say Donkey Kong Country 2, it's pretty close if you can learn the physics and the way your character goes flying off moving platforms due to momentum. Diddy, Dixie, and Cranky Kong as your partners offer up movement options. Diddy has a jetpack for hovering, Dixie uses her ponytail for some minor helicopter lift, and Cranky uses his cane Ducktails pogo style so you can bounce off spikes or other harmful items you might not otherwise pull off with DK on his own. Of course you have to get there first and I can totally understand if you're unwilling to put up with the journey.
The Tropical Freeze Soundtrack is Too Good
I have to be honest. The thing that elevates Tropical Freeze from 'okay' to 'great' in my book has a lot to do with its soundtrack. Donkey Kong Country music composer veteran David Wise returns to score the music in this game. And wow, does he completely kill it on all fronts. Not to say that every single song is incredible or memorable, but overall the quality is outstanding from start to finish. Even some of the subtle remixes of old DKC songs come out awesome, which is impressive for me because I believe the danger of orchestrating or modernizing old songs is making them sound generic without the unique punch you can get from an SNES sound chip. This is pleasantly avoided.
Everything is so good, especially the boss battles. I think my favorite theme (and favorite boss fight this year) is Punch Bowl where you slug it out with a polar bear in a juice reservoir. There's also Big Top Bop as the theme for the first boss fight with a seal. And with my love of guitar out of the way, I can mention some of the stage themes like Wing Ding, or Jammin' Jams, or Busted Bayou. There's also Horn Top Hop for a distinctly Bavarian theme. Or even some of the mine cart levels (which you'll probably hear plenty of as you try to beat them) involve Sawmill Thrill and Trunk Twister. And I guess I would be remiss if I didn't mention the Grassland Groove music for the savanna stages. It seems to be a crowd favorite.
The soundtrack is so good that it makes the in game music options pretty pathetic. They only offer up four songs for each world to listen in the menu, and it isn't even the great ones. You can't even listen to Punch Bowl in there. They might as well not even bothered.
Here's a playlist from YouTube you can browse through if you feel compelled. I think it's worth getting lost in there for awhile.
Donkey Kong Country Tough
To wrap this up, overall Tropical Freeze can be a pretty tricky game even without levels like Bopopolis making you second guess the control scheme. There's hardly a stage in this game I beat on my first try. And those mine cart levels are scary accurate to the kind of time put into the original ones back in the first DKC. I suppose this can be good or bad depending on your temperament. At the very least Tropical Freeze isn't a game you can blow through in an afternoon unless you're speedrunning it or something. Even then you have a lot to learn with enemy layouts and what kind of curveballs the game will throw you. Bosses will put up a fight and are pretty long in comparison to how quick they went in the SNES days.
But I like this game. I think if you have a Wii U and are somewhat familiar with the Donkey Kong Country series, Tropical Freeze is worth picking up. I think the experience will be much easier if you didn't put in a ton of time with the first three games. I can see that overcoming the new control scheme might be hard for some. But if you can get past that there's a good time to have here. You'll get a great soundtrack, a nice colorful journey, the opportunity to beat up penguins and walruses, and an awesome boss fight with a polar bear. Bashmaster is easily my favorite boss battle this year.
Those rocket barrel stages control like garbage though. Grrr.