For me, the release of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a reason to celebrate. No, not because it gives me a reason to turn on my WiiU for the first time in months. It’s because the original Donkey Kong Country has a special place in my heart. Besides being a really fun game, the inventive 1994 side-scrolling platformer was also the first game I ever got from a publisher to review, and doing so made me realize I could have a career as a video game reviewer, a career that continues, twenty years later.
But while the second and third games in this series — 1995’s Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest and 1996’s Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble — were just as addictive and engaging, the series’ previous attempt at a comeback, 2010’s Donkey Kong Country Returns, just didn’t grab me the same way. Which is another reason, for me, the release of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a cause for celebration: because it’s the true return for this series that I’ve been waiting on for nearly twenty years.
For those unfamiliar with this series, the Donkey Kong Country games are 2D side-scrolling platforms in which you, as the titular gorilla, have to run an creatively-sadistic obstacle course. Though its controls are fairly simple, these games end up being quite complex in how you have to run and jump at just the right time, often in rapid succession. Timing really is everything.
But the real kicker is that the game has more secret stuff than a spy who’s into kinky sex, and finding it all is half the fun. Not only are there tons of things to collect, many of which are hidden or only accessible if you do something cool or take a leap of faith, but there are also secret challenge rooms and other difficult to find areas.
Not surprisingly, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze doesn’t stray much from the basic formula. You still have to hop on an enemy’s back to send them flying, still have to jump in barrels that shoot you into other barrels, and still get to swing on vines, grab bananas, and do other things that perpetuate common gorilla stereotypes.
Which isn’t to say that Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze doesn’t have anything new to off. For starters, some of the platforms and other wooden objects aren’t well made, and will thus splinter and break beneath D.K.’s weight, with some just drop a bit before coming to a rest, while other will send him falling to his doom.
You also earn what can best be described as a sort of smart bomb that takes out any enemies that are on screen when you set it off. Even cooler, it doesn’t just get them out of your way, it also leaves special rewards — such as an extra life balloon — in their place.
Ironically, though, the biggest addition to Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is also the most useless: high definition graphics. As the first Donkey Kong Country game to be released on a system with HD graphics, the vivid cartoony visuals look better here than they ever have before. But, as is so often the case with great graphics, it doesn’t impact the gameplay at all. Sure, they pull a couple visual tricks here and there — like how it sort of goes a little 3D-ish when the mine cart track swings around the trunk of a big tree — but never when you’re actually in control and could have to react to this switcharoo.
This, sadly, isn’t the only problem with Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, though it is indicative of their insignificance. While the game works best when played alone — co-op often devolved into shouting matches of “no, don’t do that” — you’re never really on your own since Donkey usually has a pal along for the ride. Which is helpful since, if you get hurt while a duo, you just lose your companion. In addition, they also give D.K. a bit of a lift, be it from Diddy’s jetpack or Dixie’s freakishly-strong ponytail.
The same could also be said for when you have Cranky Kong, who uses his cane to spring you upwards…except that using his skill requires such precise timing that he’s usually more trouble than he’s worth.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze also has a unique version of a problem that, in its normal form, is so prevalent that I just copy and paste this same paragraph into almost every review I write: the instructional icons that tell you when to use certain buttons to do something for the first time, or in special situations, are so small that they’re hard to see. Especially since they don’t use colors to distinguish the Y and X buttons from the B and A ones.
Which isn’t just an oversight, it’s also rather odd since it’s the controls that really make this series great. As with the earlier models — and yes, even Returns — Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze features taut, responsive controls that make it easy to jump off a cliff onto the back of a bad guy, bouncing off them and onto a swinging vine from which you leap off of onto a moving platform. Well, if you time it right.
So, how does Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze stack up compared to the other games in this series? Well, for starters, it is a noticeable improvement over Donkey Kong Country Returns, largely because it’s way less exasperating. That’s not to say this is easy, or any less challenging, but it does have a certain intangible quality that makes you feel like, if you keep trying, you will eventually make it. It’s a vibe Donkey Kong Country Returns didn’t have; playing it, there were times in where I felt that, no matter how hard I tried, I would never, ever beat some of those levels. And while I sometimes did by the skin of my teeth, or sheer dumb luck, it ultimately just made that game more frustrating than fun.
That said, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze isn’t as good as the original threesome, especially the first one. As much fun as it may be, it’s not as inventive or as effortlessly addicting.
But that’s not to say it isn’t more fun than a barrel of monkeys who have jetpacks or unusually strong ponytails. Even after all these years, there’s still something immensely satisfying about bouncing off the backs of three enemies in a row. Or riding a rhino down a branch, over a pit, and into a breakable stone wall. Or when you really get some speed going in a mine cart and leap it into a secret section of the track.
So while Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze may not be better than the original three, it comes really, really close. And if that’s not cause for celebration, I don’t know what is.