[5 March 2014]
Normally when writing about video games it isn’t necessary to flash any “gamer credentials” to show that I’m good at video games. Often times the ideas surrounding and inhabiting a game are disconnected from the technical skills required to play, but in order to review Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, I’m going to need to display some street cred. I’m a pretty good gamer. I’ve beaten Dark Souls and Super Meat Boy multiple times and don’t consider them hard games. I’ve beaten The Binding of Isaac so often that a “mom kill” isn’t an achievement. If I’m given an option, I usually choose the “hard” difficulty in a game to make things interesting. Regular games like Super Mario 3D World, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, Half-Life 2, and Pikmin 3 are cakewalks for me. I’m not the greatest gamer, but I have the technical skills required to play any game and assess its difficulty.
That said, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a very hard game, so difficult that it reminds me of Battletoads(though it’s not that difficult). A lot of reviews of Dark Souls say that it hearkens back to “old school” video games, and I’m here to tell you that Tropical Freeze is as “old school” as it gets, while also being beautiful, engaging, and exciting to play.
The game is ruthlessly difficult. Over the course of playing its six worlds(I didn’t get to any of the bonus stages), I died well over a hundred times with some particular checkpoints being ones that I visited over a dozen times. While it can be discouraging to die so often, I actually never got bored with the levels that I was dying on, a testament to the game’s great and engaging gameplay. As Tropical Freeze progresses, it becomes more and more difficult, and each section is topped off by a boss battle, which are far and away the best part of the game.
Every boss is unique and requires vastly different strategies to beat. None are easy, making every victory that much more satisfying. The bosses are very inventive even by Nintendo’s standards and are always a pleasure to play. The final boss of the game took me almost an hour to beat, and when I finally got the last hit on him, it was one of the most satisfying gaming experiences that I’ve had in quite some time. To me, this is the real definition of “old school” gaming, satisfaction arising out of the frustration of play.
Many have criticized Nintendo since perhaps the release of Mortal Kombat for their commitment to kid-friendly games and say that their games don’t appeal to “hardcore” gamers, only “casuals,” but any play through of Tropical Freeze will help destroy this notion. The game is so difficult that at times my wife(who works in childcare) would be watching me play and ask, “This is supposed to be for kids?,” admiring its difficulty. The fact of the matter is that while Tropical Freeze may be “kid-friendly” it is not just a “kid’s game.” It is difficult and frustrating and therefore incredibly satisfying, and I would recommend it to any “hardcore” gamer who thinks Nintendo’s games are just for kids.
Tropical Freeze is also a gorgeous game. Much was made last year of reports that Nintendo had struggled in the transition to making HD games for the Wii U, but here the graphics are top notch. While the Wii U is a lot less powerful than the PS4 or Xbox One, Nintendo once again shows that through graphical tricks and great aesthetics their games will look better than those of their competitions’ despite inferior technology. The cutscenes match any PS4 and Xbox One game, and this game’s six worlds are lush and filled with beauty. The game doesn’t have too many “stop to smell the roses” moments, but when it does, I was honestly blown away with how good it looked.
In this respect Tropical Freeze is akin to its forerunner, Super Nintendo’s Donkey Kong Country, a late game in the console’s life cycle, which was faced with the stiff competition of the Playstation’s significantly better graphics. By using depth of field visual tricks and a great aesthetic, the game blew consumers out of the water and became an instant best seller, helping hold fans over for the release of the Nintendo 64 a few years later.
I doubt many people are going to play Tropical Freeze for its great graphics and lush aesthetic, though, but rather for its gameplay, which is mostly first-rate. The game is very similar to other Donkey Kong Country games in the way that Donkey Kong and his companions explore their environment, moving from left to right while fighting off enemies. These levels, while fun, can sometimes feel a little uninspired and don’t bring much new to the genre, but where the game really shines is in its variety.
Tropical Freeze is at its best when it begins to experiment, and Retro Studios experiments quite a bit in this game. While in every “world” there are a handful of basic platforming levels, at least half of the levels introduce new mechanics or explore mechanics introduced in previous worlds. One recurring set piece are its mine cart levels, levels in which DK is stuck in a mine cart on tracks and must time his ducks and jumps very carefully. These “on the rail” experiences offer a great change of pace from the basic platforming found in other levels.
Other unique levels include rockets reminiscent of Flappy Bird, Rhino Levels in which the player is practically invincible but less mobile, and underwater levels. There are plenty of these levels to go around and often times I had more fun with these stages than the plain vanilla ones. As you can tell, most of these changes just effect the way that DK moves through his world, but my favorite unique levels actually just have to do with the way that they look. Usually at some point in a “world,” there is a level that just features DK and his companion’s silhouettes. While this may initially seem fairly dull, it is actually strikingly beautiful. The few colors that Retro Studios allows into these levels (such as DK’s tie) stick out in an amazing way. While it is just a graphical trick and the silhouette stages are just regular levels, it really helps break any visual monotony in the game and breathes in a whole ton of life.
The 2D Platformer genre and the nostalgia that comes with it has been beaten to death the past few years. Whether it be the New Super Mario Bros series, Bit Trip Runner, Super Meat Boy, Braid, Limbo, or Spelunky, it seems nearly every developer wants a shot at the genre. Indie developers are extremely fond of the genre because it is easier to program and is inexpensive enough for their less than stellar budgets. Yet, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a welcome addition to the crowded genre and stands head and shoulders above its competition with its difficult “old school” gameplay, innovative levels, and beautiful graphics.