Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
Just when the Kong crew sits down for a nice banana feast, a fleet of Viking animals sails up to their island and freezes everything in sight. After getting evicted, Donkey Kong and friends journey through a series of themed islands to rebuke the invaders and return to their homeland in an adventure chock full of inventive and challenging levels.
On the surface, worlds divided into categories like jungle, beach, and ice seem like they could drift into well-worn territory, but the variety is amazing. You platform across giant leaves (kept aloft by gusts of wind from Alpine Horns timed to the background music), ride mine carts through a sawmill as obstacles are carved out just ahead of you, dash through a raging forest fire with slick lighting effects, and navigate ice chunks that quickly melt in the lava below. Just like in the previous game, I yelled alternating cries of agony and relief working through particularly challenging areas. Almost everything is fair and doable with enough focus and patience; the unlockable post-game bonus stages are a little ridiculous, but that’s to be expected.
Underwater levels return from the original DKC trilogy and remain compelling despite video game swimming’s spotty reputation. I played most of the game with the d-pad, but these areas work best with the analog stick. For some reason you have to pick one or the other instead of both being active at the same time, and it’s annoying to have to dig into the menus every time I get in and out of the water.
Diddy Kong returns to ride along on DK, providing extra health and a hover jump. New partners include Dixie Kong and Cranky Kong, who offer a small jump boost and a high-flying cane stomp, respectively. Dixie and Diddy work well in tricky platforming areas, while Cranky is great for nabbing out-of-reach collectibles and traversing spikes. For an underwater stage, you may want Dixie’s speedy ponytail propeller or Cranky’s slashing cane attack. They each have a unique screen-clearing Kong Pow attack that changes enemies into helpful extra lives, bonus hearts, or banana coins. Rotating barrels allow you to choose the best Kong for the job, giving you the flexibility to compensate for whatever weakness you may have and provide the best advantage for the situation at hand.
Local co-op play is as much of a mixed bag as it was in the last installment. That extra player can be great for harvesting collectibles or taking on tough bosses, but on a tricky platforming area or rocket barrel ride, your shared stock of lives melt away that much faster. Despite the addition of the new Kong characters, the first player is still stuck controlling Donkey Kong, who has no special jumping powers. The team-up abilities wouldn’t be possible without DK, but I’d be willing to make the sacrifice if given the option.
Players accustomed to the eight core worlds of DKC Returns might be surprised that there are only six in Tropical Freeze. Even though there are fewer total levels this time around, the individual stages are longer than an average level from the previous game. In the end, I’d rather have a slightly smaller collection of Retro Studios’ best levels than one bloated up with lesser-quality stages in order to hit an arbitrary number. That finely cultivated assortment is exactly what you get with Tropical Freeze.
A few online features add a new layer to the action. Players can upload their time attack scores for every level to a global leaderboard. If you manage to score at least a bronze medal, your complete playthrough of the stage will be viewable. The best feature by far is the ability to watch amazing replays of the fastest players in the world (which are only viewable after you’ve completed the level yourself). Seeing their shortcuts and perfect maneuvers – especially in the mega hard stages – is a thing to behold.