A few of my friends have told me that I’m foolish for owning a Wii U console.
“It’s for kids”
…..they would proudly proclaim, trying to pass off Mario and Donkey Kong as relics of our youth. Yet, I can just sit back and laugh when I think about just how challenging some of Nintendo’s recent lineup has been. Nothing sits higher atop that list than Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze.
To put things into some perspective for you, I’ve been playing video games since I was six years old. As I approach thirty-two this year, I can only say that I’ve grown up with video games. I recall getting Donkey Kong Country for my twelfth birthday, and subsequently being humbled over the next few months. And while I’ve only spent five days with Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, I can tell you that I’m starting to get those same feelings all over again.
Nintendo’s spin on all things Donkey Kong have always come down to two things: grabbing collectibles and staying alive. In this game, these goals are not always in concert. Oftentimes, you’ll find yourself taking risks, which include jumping across bottomless pits, timing jumps between rope swings differently, or using enemies as small trampolines as you risk your neck for that bunch of bananas. When you pull off these difficult maneuvers (not because of the game controls, mind you), you get a momentarily sense of pride. When you fail, you’ll be frustrated.
I’m not going to compare this to Dark Souls in terms of sheer frustration, but it’s definitely an honorable mention. The levels start off simple at first. Cheery music and vibrant colors await Donkey Kong and company as the adventure begins. Simple mechanics, such as using Diddy Kong’s rocket barrel to pass over small ravines, seems trivial. Although there is an occasional letter (the letters K, O, N and G are scattered across each level) that might require a bit of patience, there is no sense of urgency. Enemies approach nice and easy, allowing for easy dispatching.
But before you know it, the game begins to increase in intensity. No longer will you have the time to think; you’ll begin to act on pure instinct. Mine cart levels are a great example of this mechanic in action, as you are thrown wildly in 2D (and occasionally 3D), careening down long hills and broken rails, requiring perfect jumping mechanics, wondering what’s coming next. Oh, and you’ll fail at this, a lot. While nothing in this game ever feels cheap, later stages make you feel like you’re reacting to the level as opposed to traversing it. It sets the stage for some tense moments, which make the victory at the end of each level all the greater.
Level design aside, the controls work very well. Donkey Kong walks, leaps, runs, climbs, and rolls with ease. The controls feel slightly spongy at times, but I attribute this to the sheer amount of fluid action one will partake to complete the adventure. Unlike Mario games where precision jumping on a small Question block is standard, instead Donkey Kong relies on more momentum based movements. In many instances, I found myself running and jumping off screen before I really knew what to expect. This is a somewhat atypical design that really lends itself well to the series: start running and hold on tight.
In addition to overall controls, each of Donkey Kong’s pals handle slightly differently too, thanks in part to their special movement sets. Diddy can use the aforementioned rocket barrel, Dixie uses her hair as a helicopter for momentary hovering, and Cranky uses his cane as a pogo-stick. Each of their abilities will be used across the various islands you traverse at one time or another. It should be noted that their movement speed feels slightly faster than Donkey Kong’s. In some levels, especially the ones where I was being chased by something, I found them to be welcome additions to the team.
Visually, the game is very aesthetically pleasing. At times you’ll feel right at home in the dense, tropical forests and jungles. Swimming adds a new element. Temple exploration, mine cart racing, and some other surprises await you as well. Frame rate didn’t dip once for me, even as events on screen (both in the foreground and background) started to compile quickly. It’s a real feat that Nintendo can make such a wonderfully colorful game run without a single stutter. Speaking of other nice features, the loading times on the game are relatively short.
Another staple of the Donkey Kong series is all of the hidden goodies scattered around. Besides the aforementioned K-O-N-G and bananas scattered throughout each map, there are plenty of hidden routes to find. I stumbled across a few of them just by throwing random barrels at rock formations, only to uncover a secret area that contained some unexpected treasure. One ups and level shortcuts are abundant if you know the right place to look. They aren’t always obvious, either!
I couldn’t help but close out my review of this game with a few words about the Gamepad. Its functionality is entirely optional. But, unlike other Nintendo games, the Gamepad in this title actually turns off when not in use (a prompt at the beginning of each session will ask where you’d like the display to go – TV or Gamepad, but not both!). This is a much welcomed feature. I personally saw almost double battery life via not having the screen on. It’s disappointing that the second screen couldn’t be used for anything, though. I’m not entirely sure what information I’d expect the Gamepad to display during such a fluid platforming title, but Nintendo not utilizing their own hardware seems a bit odd to me.
– High replayability thanks to leaderboards which track essential stats.
– Donkey Kong and company handle very well.
– Amazing graphical detail, smooth frame rates, and overall fun level design.
– Difficulty spikes randomly may be too hard for some to overcome.
– GamePad is not utilized at all. Why wouldn’t you utilize your system’s most unique feature?