Version tested Wii U
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze will inspire a range of reactions. Fortunately it's not exactly a wide range of reactions, so we can probably just run through them one by one.
Let's start with those of you who haven't played Donkey Kong Country since the days of the Super Nintendo. I think you will like Tropical Freeze, although you probably won't be blown away by it. Donkey Kong handles really well in these long, generously appointed 2D platform level obstacle courses. He's slower and heavier than Mario, of course, with a lolloping jump, but that's part of his charm, and he still has that forward roll move he can use to clatter enemies or combine with his jump to reach more distant platforms and barrels.
While other developers have sought to reinvent the platform game over the years, Retro Studios seems happy just reinventing platforms. The modern games have all the usual flavours - moving ones, bouncy ones, disintegrating ones - but there are also platforms that undulate as you move over them, and rocky ones that you have to cling onto as they break free and dangle off cliff faces and change orientation. As you venture forth, enemies trundle towards you, sometimes hop around and often throw things that need to be squashed or avoided, all of which makes navigating the platforms more complicated, but the gravest threat you face is the bottomless pit, because every level is stuffed with them.
Other familiar elements have been tweaked as well. There are secrets galore, but as well as bonus rooms and K-O-N-G letters, the modern games add puzzle pieces and small gold coins that you can spend on power-ups. Squawks the parrot is one such perk, sitting in the corner of the screen and piping up when you get near to a puzzle piece. Others include balloons that save you from your first tumble off the bottom of the screen.
"While other developers have sought to reinvent the platform game over the years, Retro Studios seems happy just reinventing platforms."
These games are as tough as you remember them, too. Tropical Freeze starts off gently, allowing you to gather so many extra lives over its early levels that you feel invincible, but after a couple of its six islands your total starts to fall, especially if you devote yourself to the acrobatics required to locate each level's secrets. At one point halfway through the game I had around 65 spare lives; by the end credits I was down to a dozen.
DKC Tropical Freeze will be familiar in lots of ways, then, but if there's room in your life for an old-school 2D platform game with a rock-hard final third, you'll get a lot out of this. Like a craftsman endlessly seeking the perfect table, Retro Studios has spent a long time considering all the different ways of teasing you with platforms, ropes and angry animals, and the result is an enjoyable game, albeit one a little lacking in ambition.
If you have been keeping up with the Kongses, though, and played through DKC Returns on the Wii, then you're going to see things a bit differently. Or rather you're not, because DKC Tropical Freeze is an extremely straightforward sequel.
OK, it's the first game in the series to appear in high definition, and that means that when the camera breaks free of its moorings and follows DK's mine cart down a sheer drop into a dark cavern, it's a glorious rush. When he bounces through a fish market where his penguin enemies are sorting today's catch, it's charming. When he raps the haunches of his rhino friend Rambi as they race in the path of a wall of lava, the animation is beautiful.
But while the level designs are strictly speaking new, the vast majority of the game is not, from innocuous superficial details down to the deepest mechanics. Clouds still rush towards the camera when you load your save game, bananas fan out from a DK logo whenever you skip a cut-scene, and a surprising amount of level furniture is recycled, from tumbling totems and bulbous plants that cough up bananas to pirate sky-ships and any of dozens of other examples. Wider level concepts are direct lifts, too. We expected more mine cart and rocket barrel levels, of course (the latter now oh so poignant as Flappy Bird slips away from us), but the silhouette level idea is a copy-and-paste job too.
Swimming levels! These are new for the Wii years, at least, and actually rather good. The infuriating collision detection and enemy design of the Super Nintendo swimming levels is obviously long gone, but Retro has also developed tight new controls and come up with some nice gimmicks, so these watery diversions stick in the memory for the right reasons.
You can also find Dixie and Cranky Kong in barrels now, as well as Diddy Kong, giving you a range of helpful companions. Dixie's ponytail is similar to Diddy's jetpack, but it gives you a lift at the end, while Cranky's pogo-stick cane brings you down to earth faster and sends you higher. The gameplay implications are subtle, though, just as they are for the other new feature, Kong-POW, which lets you wipe the screen of enemies when it's powered up. You don't see your friends enough on the last few islands, anyway, where getting knocked back to a checkpoint is often a double blow because you won't see a DD/DK/CK barrel again unless you have a perk queued up.
The likelihood, then, is that people who played DKC Returns will find Tropical Freeze a little uninspiring. It's a superior game - it looks nicer, it's easier to control on the GamePad than it was on the Wiimote, and there's slightly more to do - but like a lot of Nintendo's recent sequels, that doesn't feel like quite enough. The craftsman has turned in a damn fine table, for sure, but the chances are you already have a table.
So who does that leave? Well, if you played DKC Returns and just want more of the same, you will love this. Buy it now. And I suppose there will be people who haven't gone near Donkey Kong Country since the SNES and were after a smart new take on it rather than a dependable sequel instalment. I'm afraid there's nothing for you here.
And then there's me. I've played Nintendo games all my life, and while I enjoyed DKC Tropical Freeze, I can't help feeling saddened by it at the same time. DKC is becoming another Nintendo series where quality grows and importance shrinks with each faithful new instalment. Not all Nintendo's franchises have fallen into this pattern, but games like Tropical Freeze make me wonder whether they all eventually will, turning up to be damned by praise that appears fainter with every passing chapter.
7 / 10