Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (Wii U) Review

I want you to do me a favor. Yes, you reading this. Now that Super Smash Bros. is out and you’ll most likely finally be picking up a Wii U, you will soon be in a position to play one of the finest platformers ever created. After you’ve had your initial fill of smashing, go out and pick up Donkey Kong Country:Tropical Freeze. I haven’t heard many people talking about this game, and right now it seems destined to become a criminally overlooked gem for the struggling console. Tropical Freeze is marvelous; a beautiful, rich experience full of detail and some of the most lushly-realized environments I’ve ever seen in a platformer. It’s a joy to play and just to look at and especially to listen to. To think that I was so disappointed by this game’s initial announcement back at E3 2013. I’d like to go back in time and punch my stupid Donkey Kong-bemoaning face into the ground. Tropical Freeze is truly special and one of the most wonderful gaming experiences I’ve ever had.

                I enjoyed Donkey Kong Country Returns a lot, especially after I replayed it last year and gave it my full attention. It’s a brilliant platformer, but it didn’t quite speak to me on a deeply personal level. It mainly channeled the spirit of the original Donkey Kong Country for Super Nintendo, another great game but not my personal favorite. No, my favorite DK game (and one of my favorite games period) is the first SNES sequel to that game, Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong-Quest. Tropical Freeze evokes the magic of DKC2 and has provided me with what feels like the true successor to that SNES gem all these years later. Part of the reason I love DKC2 so much in relation to the first DKC is because it felt so much more lively and adventurous and has much more memorable and vibrant environments. I feel that DKC2 has more personality than its predecessor as well as an atmosphere and a feeling that speaks to me more. Tropical Freeze follows this trend with environments that feel more creative and new than the ones in Returns and it appeals to me much more as a result.

                Besides just how damn great the game feels to play, I think there are three things that immediately grab me about Tropical Freeze: the narrative, the environments, and the music.  That narrative is simple but is executed to near-perfection here. The Kong family’s island is conquered by the invading Snowmads, a group of Viking-like arctic animals that bring to mind the Kremlings in all the right ways and have way more personality than the Tikis from Returns (who, for the record, I actually liked). DK Island is literally frozen over courtesy of a giant magical horn (because that’s just how the Snowmads do things I guess) and the four Kongs (Donkey, Diddy, Dixie and Cranky) are blown far out into the far reaches of the neighboring seas. The game’s first level is set up brilliantly: DK lands in a wrecked plane suspended in the tangled branches of a massive mangrove forest. After busting out of the plane, he and his buddies’ adventure begins. I love the way that the frozen DK Island can be seen as a tiny speck far in the background right at the beginning of the first level: this wonderfully communicates a clear goal (get back to your island and take it back) while the distance of the island communicates what a grand adventure awaits. Something I’ve always loved about the DKC games is that the Kongs are never on some selfless quest to save the whole world just for the sake of it, but rather their quest is usually a personal one, with the familial bonds shared between the Kongs often a highlight. In Tropical Freeze, DK and pals are not trying to save the world, but their world, so to speak. One might say I’m spending too much time focusing on the narrative of a Donkey Kong platformer, in which cartoonish apes collect bananas and fight fish-throwing walruses, but everything is just executed so well in TF and the opening and ending cinematics are both gorgeously rendered and so very fitting for their situations and the feelings that they aim to evoke.

The Kongs are in this together

                Something that often irks me about platformers (especially Nintendo-produced platformers) is how they often rely on all the same old environment tropes and stale themes that the Super Mario Bros. series established back in the NES days (particularly in Super Mario Bros. 3), with the worst offender these days of the “grass world,desert world, water world, etc.” pattern being the Mario series itself. Tropical Freeze forgoes the Nintendo trend of copying Mario for some of the richest, most well-fleshed-out and beautiful environments I’ve ever had the pleasure of journeying through in a platformer. Each of the game’s six different islands is alive with its own atmosphere, feeling, and wildlife and each one feels like a game in themselves. The themes here are naturalistic and based on real-world natural biomes (for the most part), and fit Donkey Kong’s world supremely well while also being more creative and lively than your typical themed worlds. This is Retro Studios, so it goes without saying that Tropical Freeze boasts beautiful visuals and art design and incredible detail and depth when it comes to the environments. But saying it this way doesn’t do Retro’s first HD work justice. Small animals in the far background of levels are animated, backgrounds stretch way into the distance and are fully-modeled and detailed with imposing cave-sprinkled mountains, tropical islands, and deep caverns full of torchlight and castles. In just about every level, I want to jump into the background and explore, and each background feels like the world of an entire adventure game in itself. It’s marvelous. Each level in the game is like a new present on Christmas morning, with each new loading screen prior to a level filling me with giddy anticipation for what new sights and experiences awaited. A forgotten mangrove forest in the middle of the ocean full of wrecked planes, submarines and ships is one hell of a memorable opening world, and by the game’s second world, a majestic autumn-time wonderland themed after parts of western and central Europe, I was already in love. If the game had ended there, it would have been enough. Then the first level of the third world had me almost tearing up with its beauty and inventiveness.

                The level designs themselves are fantastic. The minecart levels, despite there being an unfortunately small number of them, are the best in the series. Levels feature unique new designs and themes as well as ones inspired by DKC 1, 2 and 3, although not in a pandering way, but in one that builds and expands on those old ideas (the entire second world in particular and my personal favorite, Autumn Heights, feels in large part like a homage to Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble, which I was surprised by given that game’s relative lack of popularity). I plan on making a separate post here listing out some of my favorite levels in the game, so I’ll save the details for later, but for now some of my favorite levels (besides the sublime savannah level I mentioned earlier) include a thrilling log-plume ride through a sawmill during a thunderstorm, a harrowing romp through a scorched wilderness set on fire, and a beautiful Limbo-esque silhouetted climb up an avalanche. 

Tropical Freeze's worlds and levels are superbly designed and rich with beauty
                Besides the original DKC trilogy, Tropical Freeze notably takes inspiration from many great platformers throughout the years such as the Super Mario series, DuckTales, the Sonic the Hedgehog series, and Rayman Origins. Some might call it “ripping off” in some areas, especially when it comes to elements like the way Cranky Kong uses his cane to bounce around a la Scrooge McDuck, but the game uses these ideas in conjunction with its own to create something special with its own unique feel. Actually, Tropical Freeze feels somewhat like a conglomeration of ideas from all the best platformers throughout history mixed with its own original ideas. The result is simply a supremely well-designed game that is absolutely joyous to play and experience. And then there’s that soundtrack…

                That David Wise soundtrack. As one of the composers of DKC1 and DKC3 and the sole composer for the absolutely stellar soundtrack to Donkey Kong Country 2, this was perhaps the element of Tropical Freeze that I was looking forward to the most. Very rarely are my expectations exceeded like they have been with the phenomenal work Wise has done for this game. Perhaps it wouldn’t be right to say he has surpassed DKC2’s score, but he’s certainly equaled it in terms of magic and wonder (only losing out in terms of nostalgia, but that will come with time). Donkey Kong Country Returns, which Wise did not compose for, had mostly straightforward updates of classic tunes from DKC1 that were designed to evoke nostalgia, but for Tropical Freeze Wise chose to compose mainly entirely new tracks, while using remixes and new compositions of old favorites sparingly and often in more creative ways, like hiding samples from classic songs in new tunes. I’m all for this choice, as the overly familiar OST of Returns was just a bit boring to me (as great as those classic songs are). There are only a few straight updates here, a beautiful update to Aquatic Ambiance being one of them, while the rest are all original pieces. The only update to a classic that I really wanted was Stickerbush Symphony, my personal favorite DKC2 track (and I’m sure many others’ as well) and…well, Retro kind of screwed up here. Retro, I love you, but I just have to ask: why didn’t you put the Stickerbush remix with the bramble level you created? Both a Stickerbush Symphony remix and a bramble-themed level are here, but bafflingly are not put together. The remix of Stickerbush Symphony is nice, although in truth I didn’t even recognize it at first; it’s more of a different take on the song like the Super Smash Bros. Brawl remix (although more faithful in feeling than that one) than a straightforward orchestrated update of the original, which is kind of what I was hoping for in this case, but really any version of this song is great, especially a new version from the original composer himself. The really odd thing though is that the remix of SS is used as filler music for the beginning and ending of one rocket barrel stage that has different music for most of the level. Maybe this is some kind of purposeful troll on Retro’s part or simply an oversight. While I know I’m asking for fan-service here, including both a return of the bramble level theme and a Stickerbush remix in the game is already fan-service so why aren’t they paired together? It’s a nitpick, but as such a huge fan of the original bramble levels and music in DKC2, it’s something that stood out to me and was a bit disappointing. But enough of that. I really can’t praise David Wise’s work on this soundtrack enough. The man is a beautiful human being and instead of failing to really describe how much I love this music, just have a listen to Mangrove Cove, Windmill Hills, and Amiss Abyss. Those are three songs that I love, but I have many other favorites. There’s really not a single track that isn’t stellar in its own way.

                You may have noticed that I haven’t really said anything bad about this game (besides the Stickerbush nitpick); in fact, this review has been almost entirely glowing praise so far, hasn’t it? Well, that’s because I really love this game, if you can’t tell, and I really don’t have much bad to say about it. I do have a few issues though, and one of them has to do with the controls. Now, unlike in DKC Returns, Tropical Freeze gives multiple control options, so if you don’t like shaking a stick to roll, now you can use buttons! I thought this would be a great thing, but then I realized that I actually found the Wii remote and nunchuk to be the most comfortable out of all the control schemes, and it was also the one I was used to from Returns, and I even realized that I actually like the motion stuff! Well, kind of. I actually think that the kinetic and active nature of wildly air-drumming with the Wii-chuk combo lends itself well to DK’s ground-pound move as well to pummeling bosses in the face after one of the game’s terrific boss fights. I even like giving the Wii remote one quick shake to do a roll. It just feels good. I enjoyed this in Returns as well and across both games, there were only a few rare occurrences where the motion control led to a screw-up (such as when I want to ground-pound, but haven’t let go of the control stick yet and accidently go rolling off a platform and into a pit, but this is more an issue with two actions being mapped to the same control input than motion control). However, there are a few areas where the motion control seems to fail me. I found dashing with Rambi the rhinoceros, which is required frequently in the levels that involve him, to be an awkward exercise. Shaking the Wii-chuk in short bursts is all well and good, but it gets tiring constantly flailing one’s means of controlling a game for a long period while dashing, while also remembering to press buttons on the instruments of said flailing, make precise jumps, and avoid obstacles. Also, this might not even be an issue with the motion control, but Rambi’s momentum seems incredibly wonky, especially when dashing and jumping, which led to many deaths. All this makes the Rambi levels (which are very few and far between) some of my least favorite in the game, which is a shame because they’re otherwise very thrilling, well-designed, and should by all accounts be some of the funnest levels. I also feel that a precisely-timed Wiimote shake being one’s only means of attacking underwater (sans Cranky Kong’s cane swipe) isn’t ideal and felt a bit janky to me.

                Speaking of swimming, what a great and convenient segue to lead into my only big complaint with Tropical Freeze, and even this one is ultimately trifling when it comes to the experience as a whole. As someone who has always actually enjoyed water-based levels in platformers and the atmosphere that they bring, and with the DKC series being known for its memorable and wondrous water levels, I was actually thrilled that they were bringing back swimming in Tropical Freeze, and had missed it in Returns. Swimming in Tropical Freeze feels fluid and fun, the game’s fully underwater levels are mostly well-designed and backed by beautiful music of course, and in short bursts (such as the levels that involve pools of water but where it’s not the focus), the swimming overall works great. Unfortunately, one irritating design choice puts a serious damper on the levels that take place almost entirely underwater and I’m sure by now you can guess what it is: yep, the air meter. In the classic DKCs, just like in Super Mario games, Donkey Kong and his friends could hold their breath forever, but now Retro decided to go all realistic on us and add a tiny air meter that rapidly empties, leading to a group of apes that is even more water-phobic than Sonic the Hedgehog. What’s worse, in the depths of the abyss, the only way to refill air, which again one must do constantly, is by using air bubbles also similar to Sonic games, and those air bubbles are annoyingly spread fairly thin in some of these levels. Put bluntly, there’s just nothing good about the air meter. One of the central charms of the water levels in classic DKC games, especially the first one, is their peaceful, calming nature. The water levels in Tropical Freeze are beautiful and I want to take my time and explore them and enjoy that sweet, sweet David Wise soundtrack, but I have trouble doing this when every ten seconds or so the annoying air meter starts beeping and completely shatters my immersion. This design mechanic is in stark contrast to the serene music and atmosphere of these levels. Similar to the timer in Super Mario 3D World, the air meter adds nothing to the experience and takes away so much. It might add a minimal amount of challenge, but it mostly just adds irritation and wastes the player’s time when they have to rush backwards in a level to find the last air source that they passed, or otherwise hamper their enjoyment of a level by forcing them to rush forwards through it. Even if one argued that the air meter adds a paltry amount of added challenge and a touch of realism, the sacrifice in atmosphere and enjoyment in these levels just isn’t worth either of these things. The air meter just feels really out of place and I wish it’d never made it into the final game.

I love this level; I just wish I didn't have to worry about that tiny blue bar in the upper left corner
                But in the grand scheme of the experience, my complaints with controls and the air meter are ultimately trivial. Even though I feel as though the developers chiefly had the Wii remote and nunchuk in mind when designing the game, several other controller options are available and you might like them better than I. I simply wish that the moves delegated to motion control could have been mapped to either the C-button on the nunchuk or the Z-trigger on the Wii remote as both of these buttons are used for the same action (grabbing) and thus one of them could have easily been used for the actions that require shaking (with the other one still being for grabbing). Perhaps ground-pounding could still have been mapped to shaking the Wii-chuk, and rolling, dashing with Rambi, and the swimming attack could have been delegated to one of these two buttons. This easily possible set-up would create the ideal control scheme for the game in my opinion. As for swimming, there’s only a handful of fully underwater levels in the game and all of them are contained in the same world, so their grievances were quickly forgotten when I was hopping and bopping back on dry land again. Not only this, but upon revisiting the underwater levels, I found that once I was familiar with their layouts, the air meter mechanic became more manageable (but still annoying) and I was able to enjoy them more. The levels of course should be enjoyable on one’s first run-through and this in no way pardons the air meter, but it’s worth mentioning.

                Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a stellar experience. Not only is it a fantastic adventure in its own right, but it subtly improves on just about everything from its predecessor, Donkey Kong Country Returns. The additions of Dixie Kong and Cranky Kong alongside the returning Diddy Kong are great and all of these partners for Donkey Kong bring useful and fun abilities to the table in the single-player mode (to say nothing of the added variety that they bring to the co-operative multiplayer mode, which I have not tried myself, either in Returns or in Tropical Freeze); having secret exits hidden in levels Super Mario Bros.-style is way more exciting than simply buying a key in a shop to unlock a bonus level (not to mention, spoiler alert, TF has a slightly more substantial secret world than just one level like Returns had); the already mentioned several different control options; and to my utter surprise, no Super Guide. I had to look this up while writing this review to make sure, but sure enough, Tropical Freeze completely nixes the crutch that Nintendo has usually been adamant about putting in most of their modern platformers. Now let me clarify, I actually don’t have much of an issue with the concept of Super Guide itself. While I do think even having the option takes away from the experience a bit and I always prefer just old-fashioned good game design to unsubtle hand-holding elements, I respect the fact that there’s an option for less-skilled players to skip a level that they are frustrated with or learn how to conquer it, especially in a challenging game like Tropical Freeze. What I don’t like, as someone who never touches the Super Guide, is that obnoxious, horrible, immensely nerve-grating, beeping, flag-waving pig from Returns that would appear at a checkpoint after just a small number of deaths and every single subsequent time that I screwed up, reminding me that, “HEY! YOU CAN USE THE SUPER GUIDE!!!”. “THANKS, PIG! I KNOW! AND I DON’T WANT TO! NOT NOW, AND NOT EVER!!!” This was especially awful on the incredibly challenging bonus levels in Returns. Seeing and listening to that pig over and over and over again tripled the frustration, at least. All I ask for when it comes to Super Guide is an option to stop it from ever appearing at all, but I’ll also accept just not having it in the game period (although that pig still hangs around at checkpoints and peeks around corners to give the occasional button prompt, but as long as it's not waving a flag in my face, I'm cool with it).

Tropical Freeze has, what I feel, is the perfect challenge level for a platformer like this. It feels very fair, and with the exception of the fully underwater levels, was never frustrating for me. My failures were almost always my own fault, and cheap deaths were rare during my playthrough. There were a few trial and error situations in the normal levels, but not many, and less than in Returns from what I remember. I didn’t find the difficulty in Returns to be as harrowing as some, but it did certainly get very brutal at times (and thanks to that pig, quite frustrating). I found Tropical Freeze to be much more manageable, while also still providing plenty of challenge. The hidden temple levels from Returns return in Tropical Freeze, and while they are still a great challenge and involve a few more moments of trial and error than standard levels, are far more manageable than the ones in Returns and far less frustrating. Also, mine-cart and rocket barrel levels are no longer a one-hit kill scenario in Tropical Freeze like they were in Returns, giving the player two hits this time before they go down, and this too is a smart improvement (and there’s always the unlockable hard mode if you still want that unforgiving challenge). And even though there is no Super Guide, there is still plenty of help in Funky Kong’s shop if players need it; for just a few banana coins (which are plentifully available in each level), players can purchase a heart that adds an extra hit-point, a balloon that will rescue them from a pit, and much more. One can even collect figurines of every friend and foe in the game (but I just have to ask: what the heck is up with Funky Kong’s “voice” in this game?). If one aims for all the game’s collectibles (which are worth it just for the thrill of the hunt and also to see the game’s gorgeous concept artwork, which contains a lot of unused ideas that I would have loved to have seen in the game; perhaps they’ll influence a sequel?), there’s a lot of trial and error in Tropical Freeze, but this mainly comes from going for all of the game’s well-hidden puzzle pieces (as opposed to the collectible K-O-N-G letters, which are often easier to nab). Finding and acquiring everything certainly takes patience and while I don’t mind this kind of thing, I respect that others don’t have that kind of patience. The reason I don’t mind is because I was thrilled to have an excuse to go back and replay levels over and over again thanks to their excellent design and music, and just how damn wonderful the game feels to play. The game is really as difficult as one makes it: if you just want to get to the end of the game, it’s a very fair challenge; if you want to collect all of the K-O-N-G letters to see all of the hidden levels, it’s difficult but very manageable; and finally if you want to go for all of the puzzles pieces to unlock hidden artwork, it will take time, but it’s a rewarding journey (and Squawks the parrot is there to help you out if you need their help as an item that can be purchased in the shop). A level’s K-O-N-G letters have to all be grabbed in one go and are usually easy to spot but sometimes tricky to acquire (and then make it back in one piece), whereas the puzzle pieces can be acquired one by one and are usually more well-hidden. I think that this duel system of collectibles is genius. And even beyond these main collectibles, Tropical Freeze is a game that rewards the player at every corner. Pulling an object out of the ground here and doing a ground-pound there, grabbing every banana clustered together in a certain part of a level, investigating a suspicious piece of scenery…players are almost always rewarded for their curiosity with a banana coin, an extra life, a puzzle piece, or something else.

I’ll say it once again, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is marvelous. There’s just not much more to be said now than if you’re in a position to play it (that is, if you own a Wii U), you should play it, especially if you’re a fan of platformers. Tropical Freeze evokes the magic of Donkey Kong Country 2 while also being entirely its own experience and creating its own brand of wonder. Donkey Kong Country Returns is a fantastic game but it felt like it was largely concerned with paying homage to the first DKC game. Tropical Freeze feels more like its own, original game and similarly to DKC2, it branches out into creative new worlds and feels like a real adventure as DK and friends travel to places beyond DK Island. The only thing that seems to be missing is the other animal buddies besides just Rambi, and while I’ll admit that leaving them out does take away a big aspect of the old DKC trilogy’s identity, when the platforming is this well-constructed, I just find it easy to overlook this. The Retro Studios DKC games are simply a different beast, and when they’re as damn good as they are, that’s totally fine with me. Retro, I’m sorry I was ever disappointed by you in any way. If you choose to make a third DKC game, or if you are already working on it, I will eagerly anticipate it when it’s announced.

But seriously, that David Wise soundtrack though.

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