Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze Review: A Retro Return

Retro Studios proves once again they know how to make an old Nintendo franchise shine.

Retro Studios has proven it can take neglected Nintendo franchises and revitalize them. The Metroid Prime trilogy defined the series in the early and mid 2000s, and in 2010 Retro brought Donkey Kong Country to the Wii after a two decade long absence with Donkey Kong Country Returns (DKCR). Nintendo announced Retro was working on another a game for the Wii U last year. A Nintendo spokesperson toyed with fans in regards to the game’s identity. Given Retro’s track record, many speculated Retro was working on another neglected Nintendo franchise, like Star Fox or F-Zero.

Turns out that game was a follow-up to DKCR, titled Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. Many felt—myself included—another Donkey Kong was a waste of Retro’s talents. Sure, DKCR was an amazing game, but do we really need another Donkey Kong Country?

It only took a dozen levels into Tropical Freeze for me to say yes, we definitely do.

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a side-scrolling platformer resembling Rare’s SNES era Donkey Kong Country games. Like DKCR before it, Tropical Freeze mashes together the nostalgia of the SNES games with modern touches. The classic mine cart levels of old are juxtaposed with the new rocket barrel levels, and King K. Rool’s Kremling army is replaced with the Snomads, a horde of wintry animals who’ve come to take over Donkey Kong’s tropical paradise.

Donkey Kong enlists the help of three other Kongs this time around—Diddy, Dixie, and Cranky Kong. Each Kong hops on Donkey Kong’s back and gives him more health and an assist move. Dixie spins her ponytail and gives Donkey Kong a vertical boost mid-jump, while Cranky Kong uses his cane like a pogo-stick to bounce Donkey Kong off hazards. I found Dixie the most useful Kong, but you might find Diddy’s jet pack glide more helpful. No matter which Kong you enjoy most, the variety is a welcome addition over DKCR which only featured Diddy Kong.

Variety isn’t something Tropical Freeze struggles with. Retro Studios somehow manages to squeeze something new into every level, making the game hard to put down. An African savanna stage has Donkey Kong leaping from giraffe neck to giraffe neck as they sway in time to the level’s music. An underwater level sees Donkey Kong swimming through a dark ruin as electric fish light his path. And a mine cart stage soon switches gears and forces Donkey Kong to navigate a saw mill on a small piece of wood mid-way through the level.

With so many stellar stages, a few of them fall flat. The levels where Donkey Kong rides a rocket barrel walk a fine line between challenging and maddening. Underwater levels feature an outdated air meter. And some boss fights can drag on far too long. Luckily, these stages are minor bumps on the road rather than significant problems.

Levels in Tropical Freeze are long. With around three checkpoints each and a new mechanic thrown in mid-level, nearly every stage feels like a few independent levels wrapped in one. After I completed a level, I couldn’t resist the urge to move onto the next and see what else Tropical Freeze had in store for me. I’d tell myself just one more level and one more level after that until I realized it was well past a reasonable bedtime.

Many platformers rely on hard-to-reach collectibles to add difficulty for those who want a challenge, but Tropical Freeze’s levels are hard enough to get through in their own right. “KONG” letters and puzzle pieces return as collectibles, and they do make the game even more difficult. Trying to nab both adds either an ulcer-inducing difficulty or a significant challenge to overcome, depending on your outlook. Either way, they’re optional, and add a refreshing amount of exploratory reward, difficulty, and replay value.

I died often. You will too. Sometimes it frustrated me. Not because I felt the difficulty was too steep, but rather because frequent death interrupted Tropical Freeze’s superb soundtrack. David Wise was one of the original composers behind the first Donkey Kong Country games, and while he had no involvement in DKCR, he makes a return to the series in Tropical Freeze. Classics like “Stickerbrush Symphony” and “Aquatic Ambiance” make wonderful returns, and new tracks like “Alps Hill” fit right in with the remixed classics. The aforementioned “just one more level” syndrome was made worse because I kept playing to hear new songs and old favorites from two decades ago.

With Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, Retro Studios has shown once again it could take just about any beloved Nintendo property and turn it into a unique, nostalgia inducing machine of pure fun. I’d still like to see Retro tackle another Nintendo franchise other than Donkey Kong and Metroid. It has been too long since we’ve seen Fox McCloud and Captain Falcon after all, but I’m okay with that for now. If it means Retro takes us back to Kong Country once more for some excellent level design and memorable music, I wouldn’t mind waiting a bit longer to see what else the studio can do.

Final Verdict

9.5 out of 10

A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.