If I were Donkey Kong, I'd be f***ing pissed. Back in the 1980s, DK was just a simple construction monkey, trying to save a woman who wandered onto the job site without a hard hat. Some plumber tries to climb up and take credit, and now we’re here. Fast forward two decades and the big ape is still thanklessly cleaning up a mess, debuting his new game on a struggling home console from Nintendo, ditching some of that machine’s features along the way. Retro Studios of the beloved Metroid Prime trilogy brought Nintendo’s jungle king back on Wii and 3DS, but new enemies and a totally new adventure await.
If there's a bridge between Wii U with GamePad and another version of the console without the touch-enabled second screen, DK is building it. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is as pure a gaming product as anything Nintendo has put out in the past 10 years, combining hardcore 2D platforming with gorgeous HD visuals, cooperative play, and an astounding amount of hidden and unlockable goodies for dedicated chimps. Hopefully, DK can build over the GamePad so someone else can cut the ribbon on the bridge to a Wii U without one.
In its return to Donkey Kong Country, Retro Studios reestablished a few core tenets of DK design, but thankfully not prerendered sprites. Retro brought back blasting barrels, mine cart rides, and familiar faces like Diddy Kong and Funky Kong. Funky's item shop returns filled with goodies to get you through particularly challenging levels, but running, jumping, ground-pounding, swinging, and cart-riding all feel as satisfying as ever. Donkey Kong can pair up with Dixie and Cranky Kong too.
No matter whom you're playing with, it can take a little time getting a grasp of the height, float, and distance of every jump. Each secondary Kong has a different added maneuver to aid single-player DK's. Dixie gives a little vertical boost with her ponytail spin, Diddy gives a brief hover with his rocket-barrel jetpack, and Cranky gives a spectacular bounce after landing on his cane. Occasionally, the game gives you a specific Kong barrel to traverse a section that plays to that Kong’s strengths, like upward arcs of bananas immediately following a Dixie barrel.
These levels are really satisfying, because lots of visual clues point out where to go and how to progress safely. Playing with a different Kong to explore makes things harder, but the hunt for bonus rooms and level warps still satisfies. Some might lament Tropical Freeze’s difficulty and enemy placement, but Retro has ensured that this sequel was not without new depths.
More often than not, snooping or slow and purposeful play will lead to bonus rooms with extra lives and bananas, one of the K-O-N-G letters throughout each level, or even backdoor exits allowing you to open new paths on the world map. Donkey Kong and company can ramp up speed as you charge through levels, but Retro has made sure you won't be able to barrel through blind. Enemies have pixel perfect placement to trip the monkeys in their campaign against the viking Snowmads who ruin DK's party to hilariously banana-slip our way into a new adventure.
You don't need much of a premise when the monkey mechanics feel so satisfying, especially given great on-screen feedback for every jump and ground-pound. Donkey Kong's locomotion often blasts him through brick walls, the jungle canopy shakes with every ook-ook chest-pound, and enemies stick out their tongues and roll over when you crack them on the head or toss them into each other. DK's jungle world is bright, vibrant, and screaming for a Saturday morning cartoon.
As for Donkey Kong Country's signature bonus rooms and hidden stages, Tropical Freeze climbs the trunk and shakes every branch to pile on gameplay-extending collectibles and secret exits into bonus levels. Nintendo had a very long list of surprises we couldn't talk about in our pre-release review, but it's stupid to assign this game a score and not mention the hidden stages in every world, the bonus worlds, and how drastically cooperative play changes the formula.
In co-op, the first monkey will always be Donkey Kong. Unless DK’s partner hops on his back, he’ll oftentimes be without helpful secondary jump mechanics. The game gets more challenging, but each player can float back on-screen in a bubble so long as their partner is still safe. Donkey Kong’s boss battles often get far more challenging too, but I don’t mean to imply you won’t want to snap a Wiimote in two when playing by yourself.
Locomotion levels have gotten huge additions in impressive 3D, even if the gameplay remains on a mostly 2D plane. Whether I was hunting every corner or rolling through to set an amazing time (before the leaderboards opened worldwide), I could not put down the controller and played for hours due in no small part to David Wise’s classic but enthusiastic soundtrack.
The original DKC composer was missing from the Kong’s return, but Wise matches the transitive on-screen settings with entertaining music. From deep reef waters to burning savannas, from canopy top antics to big boss battles, Nintendo continues to do HD graphics better than anyone else, at least compared to such an early stage in development last generation. The over-reliance on platforming gameplay aside, I’m excited to see bigger, more mature adventures on Wii U. With or without the GamePad.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze does not use the GamePad screen at all. It uses the GamePad controls and you can play on the GamePad screen while someone else uses the TV, so long as you select that option from the main menu. The game also supports the Wii U pro controller and the Wii remote with Nunchuk, but there’s no real use for the touchscreen. If Donkey Kong is the game bundled with a Pro Controller and a Wii U console later this year, side by side with Super Smash Bros and Mario Kart 8, you have every reason to buy.
DK is building the bridge to a Wii U without GamePad. Despite some frustrations, Tropical Freeze offers the joy of success, knowing you mastered mechanics to overcome a challenge. There’s no Super Guide or magic monkey fairy to whisk you away to the end of the level, but there are replays from the best players around the world, thanks to extensive leaderboard support.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze barrels some monkeys, blasts them into some trouble, but ultimately provides an archipelago of satisfying hardcore gameplay for Wii U. Nintendo didn’t want us to talk about bonus levels and bonus worlds and more hidden goodies, but finding and playing these hidden levels is too good not to add to the report card. Nintendo fans have helped the company through thick and thin, but Tropical Freeze is a love letter to them.
Code provided by publisher. Exclusive to Wii U.