Dixie, mine carts, and underwater levels composed by David Wise? Yeah, it's all here.
Despite being delayed to February, what I saw yesterday of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze was already a highly polished game that takes everything that the first did right and improves upon it. From mechanics, art, music, and level design. Tropical Freeze is both familiar and new.
One of the primary weaknesses in Donkey Kong Country Returns was the lack of original music. David Wise (composer of the original DKC series) is back, and it's auditorily apparent. Each level emits environmental, yet thematic movements, which greatly enhance the platforming experience.
Rather than taking place on Donkey Kong Island, the expelled Kong clan travels from island to island, with each one representing a different type of environment (tropical, fiery savannah, ice, etc.). What was particularly cool is that though it's a fully 2D game, levels are built across different layers similar to Toki Tori 2, so areas you see in the background, you're likely to play later, either in the current level, or a future one. It seems there's both an easy and hard mode, like DKCR3D, so hopefully it's more accessible to everyone, without sacrificing the challenge of the original.
I played through a variety of hand-picked levels, starting with one from the frozen-over Donkey Kong Island, which you make it back to near the end of the game. Here, the level was was full of slippery falling and tilting platforms. Moving from ice to fire, I next played through a smoldering savannah. Grass, vines, and even enemies were set ablaze. Some areas would only flare up after walking on them. A supply of water-filled plants could put out the fires.
The big draw from Donkey Kong Country Returns was the dynamically reacting levels. They're back in a big way in Tropical Freeze, and you can play them fast or slow -- but not too much of either. There's a constant tension regarding the proper speed to take a level to survive, but find all its secrets. I played through level dispersed across hot-air balloons, which could be played either way, but playing co-op was best.
The mine cart level I tried was a neat surprise -- part-way through, the level shifted to a behind-the-back view. Though some of the other levels have similar transition views, here, I actually had to jump left and right from track to track to survive. And the rocket barrel level was another finely crafted experience, beginning simply, but increasing in absurdity as underground rats moved blocks of cheese in your path. Here, the lighting effects also played a big role, with certain areas only lighting up as you approached them.
And finally, I played a water level, which was a sight to behold, combining the silhouette effects made famous by the first game with soft lighting effects. Though these are often dreaded in platformers, Retro did a very fine job with the underwater mechanics. Underwater, you can move around, sliding in arcing patterns, which felt very slick and fluid, even if it took a bit of getting used to to stop plowing into electric jellyfish. But surprise -- you need air to survive in this game, which is replenished through strategically placed bubbles. I suggest not ignoring them.
I also had a chance to play as and with Dixie Kong, who, though similar to Diddy, is definitely the most flexible Kong (thus far revealed) to play. She can ground pound with her hair. She can attack with a pirouette-like hair spin. She fires jellybeans from her pop-gun. And best of all, if you hold down the jump button, she gains an extra boost, much like Yoshi. Underwater, her hair turns into a cavitation device, allowing you to speed through certain areas.
While the blowing mechanic is no more, there are still a ridiculous number of hidden items. Effectively replacing the blowing, you can now roll through grass, which shreds it to reveal a prize. In many places, collecting all the bananas makes an item appear -- if it's in a circular pattern, it's a good hint that it will generate something, though sometimes the hidden item is a single banana. The bonus stages are pretty well-hidden, and sometimes require taking items or enemies to open up the secrets.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze doesn't greatly deviate from Returns, but it does improve upon it in many meaningful ways. Just from what I was able to see, it felt as though the delay of Tropical Freeze was more of a strategic one, as the game already looks amazing. But if that extra time allows for even more tuning, I very much look forward to seeing the final result.