Forget the fluffy characters and child-friendly aesthetic, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze might just be the hardest game you’ll play this year.
And it’s one of the most fun too, with a genuinely rewarding co-operative component alongside some fast-paced platforming action. It’s Rayman Legends with death around every corner, it’s New Super Mario Bros. with far better level design and beyond that there’s innovation in every single stage, from beginning to end, across not only small gameplay elements but art styles and mechanics.
For that, it’s one of the finest platforming games ever made, and a real treat for fans of the genre.
Viewed from a 2.5D perspective, Tropical Freeze doesn’t really differ in its most basic form from that of its predecessor, Donkey Kong Country Returns. However, it constantly innovates and shakes things up without warning – there’s no pre-determined upgrades, no character unlocks, just pure gameplay which you’ll learn quickly but master extremely slowly.
It’s a proper platforming game, with elements simply adding to the overarching formula rather than changing things up too much or overly complicating things. The most notable of upgrades come in the form of Diddy, Dixie and Cranky Kong, who either give you the ability to hover or pogo-jump in single player, or become the secondary character in co-operative play.
While its hard, most of that frustration can be channeled into “one more go” enjoyment, particularly when playing with a second player. In fact, it’s much harder when there’s two of you, as you have to be mindful of timing for both characters while remaining limited in your own abilities, not to mention that you have essentially half the number of hearts. You’ll lose two lives each time you both die, though one player respawning only costs one life.
In this regard, there are some issues with balancing. A child playing with a parent, for example, might struggle more than if they were playing alone, but it makes sense from a gaming experience to ramp up the difficulty for two players and further your frustrated enjoyment. It’s really at its best in co-op, but also at its hardest.
That’s not to say it’s easy when you’re playing on your own – you’ll likely amass lives quicker as you collect more bananas, though some points are still as hard as nails, even in the second world. It serves to make the sense of reward as you complete each level that much greater.
Level design is key in any platformer, and Tropical Freeze excels in this area. It’s the sort of game design where you don’t consciously realise how well planned out it is across the length of the game, as you’re too busy dealing with the various challenges present. Different camera angles – other than the traditional sidescrolling we’re used to – simply add to the experience, making the world feel much fuller and more three dimensional in some sections.
That lends well to the visual style, with some brilliantly rendered environments which extend far beyond the background of the stage. There’s a lot of variety here too, from jungle-based mayhem to plains and even seas. Each world has a distinct style which evolves as you play and it really makes the game feel varied, not just between worlds, but between levels too.
The same can be said for the 3D character models: every single type of animal in the game – from penguins to monkeys – is wonderfully animated, with little quirks that enhance the experience, not to mention the stunning fur effects. Even little background characters will cheer and dance as you fight against one of the brilliant multi-stage boss battles.
It’s an art direction absolutely perfected, but certain stages go out of their way to change this up even more, with striking lighting effects applied to set them apart from the rest of the game. Even in secret levels, there’s beauty to be found, and these – which can be unlocked by finding hidden exits – provide yet more innovation.
Tropical Freeze’s sound is also notable, as it offers some upbeat, nostalgic songs to push you along through the levels, as well as some great ambience in the more methodical underwater sections. Every sound blends in with the setting so well and you’ll often find yourself noticing how wonderfully polished and well-produced certain tracks are.
There are only a few shortcomings in Tropical Freeze, such as lengthy load times going into each level, but the most prominent of these issues is that there’s no GamePad screen features. Sounds will still bounce out of the built-in speaker, but the screen remains black throughout – it’s odd that they didn’t even use this to show your inventory, level completion statistics or collectable items.
It’s a shame too, since there are so many things to collect that you’ll often have to pause the game to check how many jigsaw pieces or K-O-N-G letters you have collected in a given level. Still, it’s yet another merit of the game that there’s so much to do and it really is a completionist’s dream, with lots of secret levels and time attacks to be completed beyond the initial item collection.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is another Nintendo great. It’s not just one of their best attempts at a sidescrolling platformer, but one of the most inventive, innovative, difficult yet thoroughly enjoyable games to be found in this genre.
Full of charm and hard as nails, Tropical Freeze is unmissable if you’ve ever found enjoyment in running towards the right hand side of the screen.