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Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

Three Hours Chilling With The DK Crew
by Ben Reeves on Dec 20, 2013 at 12:30 PM
Platform Switch, Wii U
Publisher Nintendo
Developer Retro Studios
Rating Everyone

Viking armies of arctic creatures, known as ­Snowmads, have sailed onto DK Island’s tropical shores. Like the Old Norse seafarers, they sweep across the land, conquering its inhabitants and corrupting the soil. With a single blow from a magical horn, the leader of the Snowmads summons a monstrous ice dragon that coats the tropical forest with a blanket of snow. Caught off guard, Donkey Kong is ejected from his home and banished to a neighboring island. If he ever wants to see his birthplace again, the big ape must navigate the hazards of a small island chain.

Note: This story originally appeared in issue 249 of Game Informer.

Frozen in Time
Donkey Kong’s lineage is nearly as old as the industry itself. Originally conceived in the early ‘80s as a King Kong-like scoundrel who abducted women and pinned them to the top of construction girders, Donkey Kong was Nintendo’s biggest cash cow and one of gaming’s most iconic characters. But as Mario’s star rose, Donkey Kong took a back seat and fell out of the limelight.

In the early ‘90s, Nintendo approached a relatively obscure UK developer and asked them if they could make a game that looked better than any platformer on the market. The developer was Rare. Nintendo handed them the Donkey Kong brand and tasked the studio with making something fresh. The result was Donkey Kong Country, and even though it was released during a heyday of 2D platformers, the game stood out as a ­refreshing take on the genre. It was one of the best looking titles on the SNES, turning heads even though it released only weeks before Sony’s new PlayStation console hit Japan.

Donkey Kong Country was so successful that it spawned a series of new games and helped established Rare as one of the premier developers of the 1990s. Donkey Kong finally had his own identity again out from the shadow of Mario. He rode wild animals through mine-filled jungles and blasted out of the mouths of wooden barrels to soar over canyons.

When Retro Studios revived the series with the 2010 Wii title Donkey Kong Country Returns, the new developer held true to the design principles Rare established nearly two decades ago. With the company’s follow-up title, Tropical Freeze, Retro doesn’t shake up the formula, either. Instead, Donkey Kong’s handlers are doubling down on polish, crafting a platforming experience that will challenge fans and hopefully give Wii U owners something to brag about.

The original ape, Cranky Kong, joins the fray once again

Frosty Fun
With a name like Tropical Freeze you might expect Donkey Kong’s new game to be full of ice-capped trees and crystalized lakes, but the worlds in DK’s new adventure are more diverse than ever (see sidebar on page 66). During our three hours of hands-on time, we bounded across the tops of hot air balloons while dodging giant owls, bounced off giant squares of Jell-O to climb over bamboo fences, and swam through electrified coral reefs teeming with colorful fish.

Donkey Kong uses vines to swing over bottomless death traps, rides rollercoaster-like mine carts through dim caves, and blasts out of barrels while trees topple to the ground all around him. In all the right ways, Tropical Freeze feels like a classic Donkey Kong Country title.

However, Donkey Kong isn’t stomping on the same old enemies he’s been wrestling with for decades. In the Rare-designed Donkey Kong Country classics, Donkey Kong battled an army of crocodiles called ­Kremlings. In Returns, the DK crew battled a group of ­tribal-looking creatures called Tikis. For Tropical Freeze, Nintendo’s brutish gorilla now has an army of Nordic animals to face off against. The Snowmads are a legion of penguins, owls, rabbits, sea lions, and walruses obsessed with turning Donkey Kong’s home into a winter wonderland.

Each enemy type slowly evolves as Donkey Kong gets closer to his home. For example, Tucks (the penguin-like enemy) are a fairly standard foe that Donkey Kong encounters throughout his journey. At the beginning of the game, Donkey Kong can easily knock them out of the way by jumping on their heads or rolling into them. However, as the game progresses, Donkey Kong comes across Tucks equipped with spears and helmets that can only be attacked from behind. Later on, tucks begin equipping themselves with double- sided spears and spiked helmets, which hurt the Kongs when they jump into them. These enemy types must be stunned before they can be attacked. The Snowmads seem like an unrelenting army, so it’s fortunate that Donkey Kong has some reinforcements of his own. 

The Kong Family
Rare’s first Donkey Kong game introduced fans to Diddy Kong, Donkey Kong’s nephew and frequent sidekick. Rare originally wanted this new character to be Donkey Kong’s son and called him Donkey Kong Jr. However, Nintendo wasn’t comfortable with the changes made to the character design since his arcade appearance in the ‘80s, so Rare changed the name of the character, considering titles like Dinky Kong and Diet DK before settling on Diddy Kong.

Since Rare wanted to keep Donkey Kong Country’s screen as clean as possible, Diddy was originally envisioned as a way to visually represent the extra hit a player could take before dying. But as the series evolved, Diddy took on a larger supporting role, developing his own suite of abilities that set him apart from his uncle.

In Donkey Kong Country Returns, Retro expanded on this idea by giving Diddy Kong twin peanut popguns, which let him stun enemies. Retro also strapped a barrel jet to his back, which lets him hover in the air for a short period of time. In single-player, Diddy Kong hopped on Donkey Kong’s back and granted the gorilla the use of his tools, but in multiplayer both characters had to help each other navigate the platforming challenges (though the second player could choose to ride on Donkey Kong’s back during harder sequences). All of these tricks return for Tropical Freeze, but Donkey and Diddy are now joined by two new playable characters: Dixie Kong and one other character that Nintendo isn’t ready to talk about.

Playing solo, you always retain control of Donkey Kong, while these side characters serve to augment Donkey Kong’s abilities. Diddy and Dixie are largely the same, but they possess subtle differences that might make you choose one character over the other. For example, Dixie’s helicopter spin jump lifts her higher into the air, while Diddy’s jet pack keeps him at a constant hover to help him cover a great distance. Both are useful, but you might find that one or the other is more suited for a particular platforming challenge. Donkey Kong can switch between companions by breaking buddy barrels scattered throughout the levels. The icons on these barrels slowly rotate through his sidekick’s initials, letting DK know which companion will soon be hopping on his back.

Nintendo discusses what Retro is adding to the Donkey Kong Country formula

Donkey Kong’s companions unlock another new feature, which Retro is calling Kong Pow. As the Kongs platform through the world and collects bananas, they slowly fill up a Pow meter; once full, this meter can be used to perform a team attack that instantly kills every enemy onscreen. If Donkey Kong performs a Kong Pow with Dixie, all of these enemies are replaced with hearts, offering a quick heath refill. If Donkey Kong performs a Kong Pow with Diddy, then all of the enemies on screen are turned into balloons, offering a quick restock of extra lives.

Island Hopping With DK
Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze takes place across a chain of six diverse islands. Each world features around six to seven levels, as well as a boss stage and a bonus level that unlocks once you collect the KONG letters in each level. Here is each isle at a glance.

World 1: Lost Mangroves
Lost Mangroves is a lush tropical rainforest full of vine grabbing and zip-lining. Here Donkey Kong ­assembles his crew and learns the basics of Tropical Freeze’s platforming, but that doesn’t mean it is a cakewalk.

World 2: Autumn Heights
Autumn Heights is a Bavarian-like mountain isle full of mine carts, hot-air balloons, and giant owls. Donkey Kong will have to watch his step or end up plummeting down the sheer edges of these jagged cliff faces.

World 3: Bright Savannah
Full of tall grass and a spectrum of oranges and browns, a trip through Bright Savannah is like going on an African safari. Several of the levels have Donkey Kong dodging uncontained brush fire as well as ­spear-toting penguins.

World 4: Sea Breeze Cove
Sea Breeze Cove is a fish’s tropical paradise. Full of blue harbors and sandy inlets, this world features a lot of swimming levels. Donkey Kong must dodge electric seaweed and manage his air supply to avoid sleeping with the fishes that call this island home.

World 5: Juicy Jungle
Juicy Jungle is another tropical forest, but the trees in this jungle produce a rare fruit that is perfect for juice. As a result, this island is home to an elaborate processing plant, and Donkey Kong can bounce off the jellies this plant produces to reach new heights.

World 6: DK Island
DK Island is where Donkey Kong lays his hat, but his tree house has been frosted over by an army of ­Snowmads. Here, Donkey Kong Country Returns players will see several homages to levels from DK’s last adventure.

The Polar Plunge
Five minutes with Tropical Freeze is enough to remind players that Donkey Kong isn’t a forgiving platformer. If Mario is Nintendo’s most well-rounded and accessible platforming series, then Donkey Kong is the series that more experienced players can graduate to when looking for a rewarding challenge. Donkey Kong is just as polished as Nintendo’s other series, but its finely tuned jumps and collapsing death traps require a little bit of trial and error to master. Thankfully, that’s exactly the challenge that Donkey Kong fans crave.

A rewarding challenge isn’t the only thing that Donkey Kong fans have to look forward to when Tropical Freeze releases this February. Whether we were jumping from one track to another during an Indiana Jones-like mine cart race, trying to collect rows of floating bananas as we blasted out of exploding barrels, or stomping on the silhouettes of sea lions while a raging inferno turned a forest to ash behind us, every level in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze felt completely fresh. We’re eager to help Donkey Kong liberate his homeland this February.

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