Cranky Kong is a pretty dope ape as far as the Kongs and I are concerned. He’s got the“back in my day” lines that make old people funny. Plus, Cranky Kong is a bit of a classic to me because I remember going up to his house during the glory days of the original Donkey Kong Country. He’d be there making you think he’s going to share his wisdom, but he was really dissing you along the way.

So here Cranky is now in Retro Studios' second DK game, Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze for the Wii U. For the first time ever in a DK game, you actually get to play as Cranky and use him in a meaningful way, but two decades of sitting on the sidelines has led him to enter a videogame as a glorified Scrooge McDuck rip-off. And that, my friends, is why Cranky Kong himself is the best representation of exactly what Tropical Freeze is.

Cranky is old, like a lot of the ideas in the game are. He’s a straight rip-off on one hand and Retro Studios isn’t exactly against aping what other developers have done in the genre. For all the fundamentally good design ideas in this game, one simply can't ignore that they are working off the basic template that Rare set for them in the 90s. Then there's the part where he is a no-nonsense type of Kong. He doesn’t want to hear you complain as he expects you, nay demands! that you execute with some precision, which is exactly what makes Tropical Freeze such a gratifying platformer.

Listen, if you’re coming into this game hoping that Nintendo is going to breathe some fresh life into the 2D platformer or that Retro is ready to put their own stamp on the genre, then, in the late and great words of Edna Krabappel: HA! It’s simply not going to be that game, and some people will be disappointed by that. I personally get that disappointment, but at the same time, Retro does one hell of a job creating a tightly designed platformer. It's devoid of imagination or creativity, but well put together at the end of the day.

With the addition of Cranky and the return of Dixie, Retro’s take on the DK series has a pair of new mechanics to work with. Cranky, as mentioned, is more or less Scrooge McKong (No, I absolutely couldn’t resist) who uses his cane as a pogo stick, and Dixie’s hair twirl allows her to hang in the air while also getting increased elevation to her jump. Diddy brings back his jet pack, and Donkey Kong is your playable character. To get every Kong letter, get every puzzle piece, and ultimately complete the game, you’ll need to make use of each Kong’s unique talents during specific levels. To make it to the credits finish line? You can just pair up with whichever Kong you want, and that basically comes down to whichever one compliments your play style the best.

You will play through six separate Islands over the course of Tropical Freeze (and a bonus island for completitionists), all of which have their own specific theme. These themes range from stuff like a tropical jungle, a frozen environment that fits the game’s title, and what was my personal favorite, an island dedicated to the sweet delicious nectar of juice. These themes serves as more than just a backdrop for your obstacle course conquering. They are, in many ways, a direction for how your obstacles are thought out.

Sure, the game has your usual assortments of platforming obstacles: ordinary ones, moving ones, bouncy ones, spring boards, and ones that drop you to your death if you stay on them too long. It’s all connected by vines and enemies that will either wander aimlessly, jump around, or throw things at you that you either need to dodge or try to jump on for increased elevation. The theming, however, dictates what those obstacles will look like and be comprised of. On the island dedicated to juice, for instance, you'll go through a juice factory. Naturally, you will see saw blades in the background carving into melons, oranges, strawberries and the like. These pieces will become your temporary platforms, and some of them will turn into jelly to provide you with the extra pep in your jump to get to your destination. Looking at something so beautiful is enough to make one crave a Jolly Rancher.

That’s not to say the game will give you much time to enjoy your Jolly Rancher. Like Retro’s previous Donkey Kong game, and like Cranky himself, Tropical Freeze won’t sandbag too long. You will be punished routinely for making poorly timed jumps and just assuming you’re going to just hopscotch your way to the end while staying within rhythm from the start of the level to the barrel at the end.  Eventually, each platform you land on won’t provide a moment of safety and you’ll often have to think quickly to move forward. Platforms themselves will become more hazardous, and enemies create a sense of urgency. One memorable underwater level has you doing your best to avoid a giant squid that threatens to engulf the player in the oppressive darkness of his ink.

There are also vehicle segments that include classics such as the mine cart and Rambi the Rhino, as well as the return of the rocket barrel from Donkey Kong Country Returns. I could have done without the rocket barrel, but the fierce mine cart levels, on the other hand, are far more enjoyable. These run-away mine carts will speed through levels, forcing you to make timely jumps and hop from one rail to the next. One such moment puts the game in a top down view, so you can work in a more horizontal manner as you move from rail to rail. It’s one of the few moments where the game can lay claim to doing something with DK’s formula that really hasn’t been done before. Rambi provides a bit of cathartic relief and barreling through a level with him is just one giant celebration of mayhem.

Some might find that the game too often throws obstacles at you that you simply can’t respond to quick enough, turning a lot of these vehicle segments into trial and error before you finally play them enough times to figure out what you’re supposed to do. The rocket barrel levels in particular deal with this, and frankly are less satisfying for it. Retrying mine-cart levels isn’t as irritating because of the sheer speed of the vehicle. The rocket-barrel, on the other hand, does create a sense that you're going through the motions because it is so much slower.

The most interesting change in the game is how it handles boss fights; Tropical Freeze features multi-stage boss fights. While it’s still playing to the videogame rule of 3(3 segments, 3 hits each), it provides, at times, a new spice to platformer boss battles. Enemies will gradually add new movesets, and the thrill of needing to conquer them in one run can create some demanding encounters. One such fight has you dueling with an owl who at first glance is going to just throw sharp feathers and baby owls at you as projectiles. You’ll dodge them, hit one of the owls, pick him up, and throw him at the big guy.  Then he’ll start getting annoyed and bring in a storm, and you will have to dodge giant ice balls, watch out for his feathers, and be mindful of the fact that those projectiles will now come at new angles. After that, he’ll start flapping his wings and create a gust that the player will have to push against just to stay on the stage, while moving from barrel to barrel to avoid a dive bomb, crop dusting move, and finding the opening to hit a baby owl and then throw at it the boss.

The more stringent segments of Tropical Freeze might feel long in the tooth, but sans the rocket barrel segments I found them to be fulfilling all the way through. At the end of the day, basic game design still makes for a satisfying game. Tight controls, well designed levels, and balance make Tropical Freeze well worth your time as a platformer. If you need some narrative context? It’s Donkey Kong’s birthday and he’s trying to celebrate it with his family with this delicious banana birthday cake. Just before he can blow out the candle on his cake, the Viking-esque enemies of the game blow some giant horn and blow him and the Kongs away, putting DK Island into a wintery state as opposed to its tropical beauty. What more motivation do you actually need? These nobodies that the developers of the game had no desire of even trying to paint as something interesting decided to crash the birthday party of gaming’s greatest gorilla. Kicking them off Donkey Kong’s home turf is really all the motivation you should need if you’re looking for a good platformer.

It all shows that Donkey Kong is still capable of providing a worthwhile platforming experience and Retro Studios have proven they have a grasp of what exactly makes a good platforming game tick. The only constant issue is that two games into Donkey Kong’s comeback tour they’ve yet to put their own stamp on the game. Sure, in many ways they make the older games obsolete because of how dated those games (collision detection being the most noteworthy offender of the originals) have become. On the other hand, there was a time Donkey Kong was doing things differently from the rest of the platformers on the market.

Tropical Freeze by no means is a bad game, but it certainly feels like a platformer deprived of imagination or creativity. In a market that just got Rayman Legends, Super Mario 3D World, and has access to so many indie platformers, that’s like a bee without its knees or a walrus without it’s tusk, or Donkey Kong without his tie. It’s still a satisfying platformer, but it’s also just another platformer. Maybe the game will never reach the lows of Rayman Legends' Murphy levels, but it also makes no attempt to challenge the heights of Rayman’s music or stealth inspired levels either. Retro Studios may have been the guys who brought Donkey Kong back, but like the enemies of this game, Retro also forgot Donkey Kong had a birthday cake to blow out when the credits rolled. Just saying.

Final Score - 7/10

 

 

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