Retro Studios sticks to a winning formula
By Sam Desatoff
When Nintendo decided to revive the Donkey Kong Country franchise in 2010, developer Retro Studios approached the project with a keen eye for platforming. Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Wii offered difficult-yet-rewarding gameplay coupled with a colorful art style and a well-honed sense of humor. The end result was one of the greatest platforming experiences available last generation. For the Wii U sequel, Retro adheres closely to the formula established in Returns, but kicks up the difficulty significantly.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze opens when an army of penguins uses a massive alpine horn to summon an ice storm and freeze DK Island. Donkey Kong and friends are blown away and must traverse six separate islands filled with enemies and other obstacles in order to reclaim their home. While there are fewer levels in Tropical Freeze than were in Returns, the levels themselves are longer and offer more variety. During my time with the game, I platformed through a massive tornado, scaled a mountain in the midst of an avalanche, and rode a mine cart through an active sawmill. The action on screen is frantic and can be a little distracting, but the overall effect is absolutely charming. Underwater levels also make a return to the series and are equally filled with many large-scale set piece moments.
Dixie and Cranky join Diddy and Donkey Kong this time around. With the exception of Donkey Kong, each character possesses a unique jumping ability that allows them to traverse levels in different ways – Cranky can pogo on his cane to move across spikes, Dixie’s hair can propel her higher than the other Kongs, and Diddy uses his jetpack to hover for a short time. I found myself leaning heavily on Dixie and Diddy throughout most of the game as the ability to adjust trajectory mid jump is invaluable.
My biggest complaint about the game lies with its difficulty. Tropical Freeze offers some of the most testing gameplay this side of the Dark Souls franchise. Retro has blurred the line between difficult and frustrating in a way that might discourage some. Jumps require high levels of precision and expert timing, and Retro has designed some levels to encourage trial and error. By placing horned enemies directly where your character is expected to land or moving a platform out from under your feet, memorization becomes an important method of finishing a level. Most times, this feels like the devious product of a finely-tuned gaming experience more than a device to frustrate the player. The resulting effect is two-fold: some levels become a slog and an exercise in muscle memory, but the feeling of accomplishment when you finally complete a stage is nearly unrivaled.
Luckily, controls are very tight and responsive – I recommend playing with a Wii U Pro Controller and using the directional pad – and most of my deaths felt like they were my fault, not the game’s. Retro also provides enough extra lives that finishing the game never feels impossible, and Funky Kong returns to sell additional bonuses like extra hearts and temporary invincibility to help you along. In addition, each level features more than one checkpoint which goes a long way in alleviating many frustrations.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze showcases Retro Studios’ ability to produce an extremely polished platformer. I hope they continue to develop such fine-tuned adventures, and I certainly hope the difficulty is not too discouraging, as those who stick it out will find the most rewarding platforming experience the Wii U has to offer.
Score: 9 of 10