Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze Preview

He’s the leader of the bunch, you know him well.

Just as Donkey Kong, Diddy, Trixie, and Cranky sit down to enjoy a nice banana birthday cake, a winter chill sweeps in to spoil the mood. Donkey Kong and his Country company made a successful return to modern gaming with Donkey Kong Country Returns on Wii and eventually on Nintendo 3DS, but the big ape makes his first swing on an HD console with Tropical Freeze for Wii U. Retro Studios return to continue development, hoping to explore that new power in 2D-perspective blending levels.

In Wii U's search for a footing in the marketplace, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze has a key role to play in 2014. The title kicks off what Nintendo surely hopes will be a better year for their second-screen capable console. Nintendo needs any help it can get, so it's time to call in the master as Cranky Kong marks his playable debut in a campaign against evil Norse penguins. After four hours of play time with Tropical Freeze, it’s clear that fans will get the platforming gauntlet they desire, while everyone else will have fun with this barrel full of monkeys.

Cranky’s return may have riled some fans when Nintendo America CEO Reggie Fils-Aime dropped by Geoff Keighley’s VGX, but his inclusion is significant in the way it can change both single- and multiplayer gameplay. In fact, Trixie and Diddy also have unique abilities that make meaningful differences throughout the adventure. DK will handle every single-player jump, role, and ground pound, but whichever secondary-Kong he pulls out of a barrel makes a difference in where you can go and how you get there in any given level.

Remember, Donkey Kong Country is packed to the canopy with secrets and hidden items. Every level has bonus rooms containing scores of bananas, banana coins, extra lives, and other hidden goodies. Every level has collectible K-O-N-G letters required for obtaining 100% in the game. Further, many levels in Tropical Freeze have hidden exits, meaning you could miss many full levels in your initial play through. I rushed ahead regardless of bonus rooms and hidden secrets. With only four hours to play and a nearly retail build of the game, I tried eagerly to see as much as I could.

I started the first world with DK and Diddy. Diddy’s rocket backpack offers a small period of hover-time which makes clearing gaps and landing on an enemy’s dome that much easier. Diddy and Donkey made their way through the first world without much challenge, but eventually I got to a level where a particularly tough platforming sequence forced me to change my partner up. Trixie Kong’s ponytail goes one step further than Diddy’s rocket pack by offering a vertical boost at the apex of your jump. With that boost, I could reach tall trees, hidden bonus-area entrances, and a pesky red ballon that previously floated just out of reach.

Obviously, no matter what Kong you choose, the goal is to reach the end of the level while all the staple obstacles stand in your way. DK and I dodged spiky enemies, bottomless pits, and the occasional bramble. When Rhino-pal Rambi appeared, DK and company could hop on his back and stomp all over enemies and hazards alike, but power ups like that only last for so long. Soon after, I also made my way through a mine-cart level with timed jumps and a series of perspective switches.

Wii U’s graphical power doesn’t just make Donkey Kong’s fur look good. It also allows the developers at Retro Studios to throw everything they have at 2D level design. That mine cart level didn’t just stick to a set track. I also rode in a log raft with buzz saws and more headed my way. Eventually the level twisted and contorted itself into a spring and the camera flowed with it. It was a miracle I made it through as little details frequently distracted from the action long enough to make a fatal mistake.

Donkey Kong’s habitat teems with life. Leave DK and his partner idle for long enough and he might pull out a 3DS accompanied by your favorite Nintendo franchise soundtrack. Pull a switch and a massive tree will sprout up, popping leafy platforms for the next few jumps as it goes. Some enemies move slowly, but each will impress you with distinct animations and attack patterns. I barreled through the second world with ease, but then I met one of the most challenging bosses I’ve ever played at a preview event.

Normally, game developers and publishers want to make sure critics have every skill they need before pushing them into the deep end or a big boss battle. I didn’t feel the least bit frustrated until I got to World 2’s Owl boss. While the final stage in Autumn Heights starts out on a starkly vacant Final-Destination-esque platform, it quickly proceeds further up into the atmosphere. First, the boss would throw ice balls and hatch enemies on my platform. I’d hit him with one or two of his own goons before taking the blast barrel up to the second stage.

Then, the boss blew a frosty wind to push me off the platform before hatching more enemies and shooting razor-sharp feathers my way. A few more hits and I could proceed to the third stage. Here, things just got more complicated, but with careful practice and determination, I defeated the beast and got to move on to World 3, Bright Savannah.

It’s at that point that Tropical Freeze got progressively harder to hurry through. Some of the levels used neat visual tricks, distracting me from my dogged determination to reach the end of World 4. One underwater level cast light behind DK so that only a dark silhouette and a big red tie could be seen swimming through the ocean. Diddy’s big red cap, Trixie’s ponytail, and Cranky’s beard also lit up the screen against a majestic modern rendition of Aquatic Ambiance.

Soon, I got too distracted by the level and art design and was met with what’ll surely be known as a blue screen of death for DK fans. Every death comes with sad music and a full blue screen which zooms out to reveal a snow flake while DK and company float by on one of your precious red balloons. I was the first to clear World 2’s boss, but I got to know this screen and the theme that plays with it all too well as my peers quickly lost their own store of lives against the owl.

I thought for a split second that I wouldn’t get to World 4, I wouldn’t get to see everything I could in this extended hands-on. I turned to my secret weapon. I turned to Cranky Kong and his cane. Surely he could get me through to the end. While Diddy and Trixie add to Donkey Kong’s ability to clear gaps and reach new heights, Cranky Kong’s special ability goes a long way in defeating enemies and clearing hazards that would normally put DK’s banana in a bind.

Pushing the jump button while in mid-air makes Cranky put his cane down for an invulnerable landing followed by a big bounce. Cranky can bounce on any enemy or hazard so long as you hit the jump button again before landing, which makes playing with the crotchety old Kong more like a rhythm game. You’ll have to time both impact and repeated button presses to use this ability efficiently, but getting the hang of it during my hands-on time made short work of some of the remaining challenges.

I was joined by a Nintendo developer to get a grasp of how co-op worked. While cooperative play allowed us to make it past some really dastardly sequences, I preferred single-player as in co-op first-player DK doesn't have his partner’s abilities. I’d probably also feel more comfortable posting clear times to the world leaderboard as a single-player too. With tons of collectibles, hidden levels, purchasable power ups, and four different Kongs to use, there’s plenty of replayability in Tropical Freeze to boot.

The developers at the event also revealed that a Hard Mode would unlock after you beat the game, but details on how the mode changes gameplay were scarce. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze might not excite Wii U owners in the way it seems Nintendo has leaped from one platforming star to the next, but it’ll certainly entertain fans and new gamers alike. Look out for more coverage on GameRevolution as we near DKC: Tropical Freeze’s release on February 21st.