Do you want a Tropical Smoothie? I've got about six worlds of them!
While many people think about the fact that Retro Studios could have been working on something else, I am glad that I got to play Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. I made this very clear in my full length preview, which I published four weeks ago, though it wasn't always this way. The game took me by surprise and directly on the moments that I least expected it.
Donkey Kong and his friends set out on a big adventure as their island is overrun by the Snowmads. Before they can save their homeland from certain doom, they will have to travel across six different worlds and rise to the top of the food chain. Donkey Kong Country Returns was always restricted to the rules and mentality of Donkey Kong Island, but Retro decided to step outside those typical boxes and I applaud them for doing so. The Snowmads are an enjoyable wacky bunch and have owls, sea lions, penguins and others in their army. The multi-stage boss fights are also quite a spectacle, as you face off against one of the generals in a battle of wits. All of them do follow the same standard format, but their attacks and movement patterns are quite something else. They prove entertaining and that makes each of them stand out in some impressive ways.
What pushes a platforming game forward are the levels and these deliver, without question. The six worlds bring stages in all kinds of different flavors and the themes are quite clear. Lost Mangroves introduces you to the game, you explore the mountains and air in Autumn Heights, the African flavor is introduced with Bright Savannah and the list goes on. Within these worlds, there is not a single level that feels the same. Good examples can be found in the Bright Savannah, where the levels are connected in visuals but not always in appearances. The first stage for example, Grassland Groove, sees you hopping on sculptured animals, while Scorch 'N' Torch asks you to use special fruit to distinguish fire.
Surprisingly enough, my favorite levels can be found in the Sea Breeze Cove, where water reigns supreme. Our beloved primate could not swim in the last Donkey Kong Country game and this has been fixed. The swimming controls are smooth and work well, which is something you could really feel in the level Current Capers in which you have to avoid spiky enemies. The Rocket Barrel and Minecart levels are very entertaining as well and my favorite can be found in the same world. In High Tide Ride, the camera will move to various perspectives and you will have to use precise movement to hop from track to track. It was one level that was really worth remembering and these moments are what make Tropical Freeze so much fun.
With all the positives, there is also some negative stuff that needs to be addressed. Like I mentioned in the preview, the Wii U GamePad is only actively being used for off-TV Play. It would have been really handy to quickly select levels on the touchscreen as walking across the maps are somewhat tiresome after a while. To make matters worse, there is also a 14 second loading screen before booting and when you exit a stage. This may not seem like much, but after playing the game for so long you are really start to notice it. This is particularly irritating when you want to leave a stage to select a certain item for your next try. Finally, I believe that the lack of animal friends is a slight downer. Rambi is in here, but he is only used in a handful of levels.
If you are willing to stick with the game, there is actually a lot that can make you come back for more. Donkey Kong comes loaded with surprises like the puzzle pieces, KONG letters and other items that you can snag along the way. It will take a while before you will be able to find them all and, to this day, I still have not discovered all the items. Every level in the game now has also online leaderboards where you can compete with your friends and others online. You will be able watch video replays of their runs and can even see how they have succeeded on a level. If you meet certain requirements later on, you can even unlock a hard mode. I don't want to give away what that exactly allows you to do, but it was surprising and spurred me to play even more. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is not a game that stops pulling the punches, but that doesn't mean that you won't have a blast while trying.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze brought a constant smile to my face, even when I died in a horrific way or had to come to terms with a difficult level. The variation goes deeper than Returns ever did and makes Retro's latest creation shine. While at a glance it may seem that this is just another platformer for the system, I feel that this is a game worth playing and exploring from beginning to end. The levels are lengthy yet very replayable, though the long loading times could have been improved. It is a bummer that the animal friends or the Wii U GamePad don't get top billing (the controller's screen is completely blank), but Tropical Freeze felt fresh the entire way through. The many secrets, the many paths and the colorful cast of characters make this game one of the Wii U's best.