Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze review

Publisher: Nintendo Developer: Retro Studios Format: Wii U Release: Out now (JP), February 21 (NA, EU)

Assuming that Mario is the gear that makes his worlds tick with clockwork precision, Donkey Kong is the proverbial spanner in the works. His arrival is the catalyst for a level to start crumbling apart, his thumping entrance enough to dislodge everything that holds these environments together. And on the rare occasions that objects don’t dismantle themselves as he approaches, DK will slam his mighty simian fists onto platforms to flip them, or roll up into a furry wrecking ball to smash through flimsy obstructions. The joy of most platformers comes from being in control, but Tropical Freeze is at its most potent when you’re out of it.

Part obstacle course, part demolition derby, the stages are a curious paradox, at once precisely crafted and wildly chaotic. And their set-pieces are, at times, expertly orchestrated. One stage sees you attempting to escape the clutches of a giant octopus while an advancing wave of ink threatens to engulf you, while another has you squeezing a rocket barrel into a narrow gap inside a giant rolling Edam. The traditional minecart stage is given an invigorating twist when DK is thrown from his ride, landing on a piece of wood shaped by buzzsaw blades into a substitute boat as you speed in and out of a rain-lashed sawmill.

These moments are choreographed with the antic style of a Jackie Chan fight sequence, Retro Studios finding a similar sweet spot where slapstick chaos and immaculate timing meet. Of course, the spectacle is reliant on you hitting your marks, and with many moving parts to consider, the cues can be easy to
miss. So busy is the action and so frequent are the distractions that occasionally you’ll perish without knowing how. You’ll need to possess preternatural reactions or be capable of clairvoyance to pass some sections first time, since platforms collapse without warning and leaps of faith find patrolling enemies waiting to spoil your landing. Tropical Freeze’s challenge is stern but reasonable for the most part, yet there are moments of frustratingly cheap design.

Scorch ’N’ Torch’s raging fires make for one of the most visually striking stages, while the hazards are a little out of the ordinary, too. Leaping between vines can be tricky when half of them are aflame.

It’s a shade tougher than its predecessor, though it’s also more forgiving. Lives are plentiful enough that most players will never see the Game Over screen, and you can equip up to three power-ups per stage, including a balloon that rescues you from a fatal fall and a banana juice potion that nullifies damage from the first hit you take. Minecarts and rocket barrels can now survive an extra collision, while each of your three partners can trigger a smart bomb, earning you extra lives, hearts or coins. Losing a partner is especially painful, though. Not only will you lose the extra air time you gain with Dixie or Diddy Kong – or the ability to safely bounce on horned enemies that comes with Cranky’s pogo-like cane – but you’ll be able to take only two shots before dying.

The lack of a Super Guide equivalent serves to highlight the difference in mentality between DK and Mario. Fail in the Mushroom Kingdom and you can call on the White Tanooki Suit to help you reach the next stage. If you’re struggling here, you’ll simply have to persevere. Two very different kinds of aesthetic pleasure are your impetus to do so. There’s the satisfaction of a smooth, flowing run, where you emerge from these disintegrating gauntlets without so much as a strand of DK’s exquisitely modelled fur out of place. It’s not so much the joy of watching a graceful gymnast in action, but the knife-edge tension of witnessing a stuntman performing death-defying feats. Beyond that, there’s the simple desire to see what visual treats are in store. Retro has always been one of Nintendo’s most technically capable partners and this is a handsome game indeed, its environments alive with colour and detail even as its stages progress with the mechanical rigidity of a theme-park ride. A rhythmic safari level sees platforms dance and sway to the beat of David Wise’s excellent soundtrack, while a swim through abyssal ruins sees translucent tendrils draped across the screen and arcane mechanisms illuminating the darkness as DK corkscrews past. The camera, too, is unusually restless: it’s a side-scroller no longer by the time barrels are firing you into the screen, and one minecart ride offers a selection of rails to jump between from a top-down view.

Collect all the KONG letters on every stage in a world and you’ll unlock K-stages, which host fierce challenges. A perfect run on World 2’s secret stage, Bopopolis, is certainly something to behold.

Some of Tropical Freeze’s simpler pleasures are dulled by familiarity. When it’s not being quite so slavish to the ideas of its 16bit antecedents, however, it sings, such as in the factory where fruit-pulping blades spit up temporary platforms, or the joyous bounce through a level comprised almost exclusively of luridly coloured jelly cubes. The Snowmads – Viking penguins, walruses and owls – are a more characterful enemy than the Kremlings, while the bosses are beautifully animated and, with one frustrating exception, offer a pleasingly firm challenge. Those who found 3D World’s later stages a test, however, may wish Tropical Freeze’s bosses still subscribed to the three-strikes rule.

There’s a tactility that was missing from Donkey Kong Country Returns, though Tropical Freeze lacks the physicality of Jungle Beat and its bongo controls, which are still a closer match for the protagonist’s abilities. EAD Tokyo captured the ape’s brute strength but also the curious grace of his movements, which carried a certain laid-back elegance when strung together. Here he’s an unstoppable force, a runaway train whose momentum can be tricky to arrest. During Tropical Freeze’s most exacting sequences, you may yearn for Mario’s reliability, but the bludgeoning force of Retro’s presentation is enough to carry a powerful, if traditional, platformer over the finish line.