For anyone still waiting for a must-play game on the Wii U, Retro Studios’ “Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze” could be it. As far as 2-D platformers go, it doesn’t get much better, although the difficulty level might make it less suited to younger children than other similar games.
This time around, Donkey and his pals — Diddy, Dixie and Cranky — must reclaim Kong Island after it’s invaded by the Snomads, a group of Viking-esque arctic animals.
Even at a glance, “Tropical Freeze” is one of the more impressive-looking games on the Wii U. The high-definition graphics make the candy-colored visual style from the previous game really pop on Nintendo’s hardware.
If players slow down enough to take in the scenery, though, the level of detail can be flat-out jaw-dropping. Lush environments stretch into the background, giving a real sense of depth and scope to the stages.
The meticulous care evident in the smallest of details even extends to the “idle animations” — what the characters do if the player stands around for too long without pressing any buttons. While idle animations aren’t anything new, these could be the most elaborate — and comical — ever put into a game. In and of itself, that’s probably not a huge selling point, but it’s indicative of the thought that clearly went into each individual creative decision.
Also deserving mention is the music. After being noticeably absent on the last game, original “Donkey Kong Country” composer David Wise makes a triumphant comeback, contributing some of the most beautiful video game music you’re likely to hear.
Just like its predecessor, even seasoned gamers who grew up with the brutal 2-D side-scrollers of the 8-bit era will find a satisfying degree of difficulty, thanks in part to the sheer variety of obstacles and gameplay mechanics on display across six themed “Tropical Freeze” worlds.
The guys at Retro Studios seem to have somehow tapped into an endless wellspring of platforming ideas. While a lot of the basic stage types like mine cart levels and rocket barrel levels will feel familiar to anyone who played the wildly inventive “Donkey Kong Country Returns” on the Wii, “Tropical Freeze” sees plenty of its own innovations that keep things feeling fresh stage after stage.
In one level, for instance, players have to run from a massive sandstorm across exploding chunks of boardwalk. In another, players bounce along on top of hot air balloons in a setting inspired by the Swiss Alps.
There’s also a renewed focus on underwater levels, which feature more complex mechanics this time around, including a constantly depleting oxygen meter and new controls.
Along with a crazy degree of inventiveness evident in every level, one of the key things that sets “Donkey Kong” apart from other platformers is how it feels to play. The characters have an unmistakable sense of weight to them as they run and jump. That heaviness might take a little bit of getting used to, especially when playing as Donkey Kong, whose movements are somewhat limited on his own. But that’s where the secondary characters come in handy.
Along with Donkey — the default character for player one — “Tropical Freeze” allows players to choose from Diddy, Dixie and, for the first time in the series, Cranky Kong. Which secondary character players opt to go with (either piggybacking on Donkey or controlled by a second player in co-op mode) will have a slight impact on how the game is played since each one has unique attributes. For example, Dixie’s ponytail propeller gives her an extra bit of height in her jumps while Cranky uses his cane like a pogo stick to traverse dangerous terrain.
Choosing between single-player and two-player co-op will also affect the way the game is played.
While co-op mode definitely has its perks — especially during the multi-sectioned boss battles when every extra life counts — it can also be a little frustrating at times. Just how bad that gets will depend a lot on the two players’ ability to communicate with each other and coordinate their moves.
Luckily, extra lives are easy to come by and multiple checkpoints along the way help break up each of the normal stages into manageable pieces, offsetting a relatively steep learning curve.
Sometimes, it takes all the skill and luck you can muster — not to mention a lot of bananas and red balloons — just to get to the finish line (or barrel, in this case). The boss battles, in particular, will test your mettle as a gamer.
Because of that, it’s an extremely satisfying game to beat — and then go back and replay to collect all the hidden items. However, this might also make it less suited to some younger gamers compared to more approachable titles like “New Super Mario Bros. U.”
“Tropical Freeze” doesn’t just give a fresh coat of paint to the decades-old genre; it takes it to new heights of creativity and aesthetic design.
Platform: Wii U
ESRB rating: E for everyone
A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff Peterson is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.