Two-dimensional platformers are to videogames as early charcoal cave drawings are to fine art. That is to say, there’s a profound artistry to evoking the motion of a bison with a few grey strokes in a gloomy cave, but the techniques on show have been on show since the conception of the medium.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a spectacular Cro-Magnon still-life. It’s gorgeous, well-rounded, and varied, but all of its discrete components existed in some form before many of the readers of this website came into the world.
Even the game’s title gives this impression. The juxtaposition of “tropical” and “freeze” speaks to the surreal combination of ice, lava, and grass levels that have been a staple of videogames since the 1980s.
The explanation in this case is a gang of grumpy penguins and other critters that have set upon Donkey Kong’s home and snapfrozen his idyllic island paradise. It’s up to Nintendo’s sixth-or-seventh most popular mascot – along with companions Diddy Kong, Dixie Kong and Cranky Kong – to reclaim their home.
The story is perfect for this kind of zany, colourful adventure. Dialogue is rare, and the story is told in extremely short, skippable cutscenes with an appropriate amount of surrealistic humour.
Individual islands are each partitioned into a number of levels sharing a common visual motif. The levels feel at once lush and spacious. The majority of platforms have an established reason for existing, be they leaves gradually bobbing down from a higher canopy, blocks of wood carved by a saw mill as you approach them, or the tips of a Dutch windmill’s rotating arms.
The enemy design is equally inspired. Squat red hogs launch fireballs from their snouts, and penguin grunts strut around with wonderfully disgruntled looks on their beaked faces. Kong’s animations are also excellent. He stretches into a graceful simian swan-dive before plunging into water and fluidly clambers over through vine covered environments.
This visual richness would be meaningless if it wasn’t reflected in the level design, and Tropical Freeze has an almost unmatched degree of variety in its levels. Totally stationary sections are in the minority, especially as the game progresses. The game finds any excuse it can to demolish levels as the player passes through them.
Even the underwater levels, while weak when compared to other levels in the game, control well and don’t parallel the frustrating and awkward water levels in many other platformers.
It’s a well balanced platformer. Prerequisite skills include the pattern memorisation skills needed to beat Mega Man along with the precision timing skills honed in modern platformers like Super Meat Boy or N+.
Often the method to traverse a particular segment of a level is not immediately obvious and a touch of trial and error or premeditation is needed to progress. It isn’t Braid, but there are puzzle-solving elements seamlessly integrated into the platforming gameplay.
Contrary to the charming visuals and gorgeous soundtrack, Tropical Freeze is an unforgiving game and one that requires constant engagement to succeed at. Unlike a Mario title, most platforms require precise positioning and many require precise timing.
Sequences that require both over and over again can be frustrating, but are always satisfying to complete. It’s the right kind of difficulty, never feeling unfair and remaining enjoyable for many consecutive attempts.
The boss fights deserve a special mention. Each one kicks every that is excellent about the ordinary levels up into another gear. Each boss is at once quirky, adorable, and threatening.
The challenge is greater, with most boss fights divided into a number of different sections requiring separate skills to avoid new types of attack. The satisfaction that stems from defeating them is similarly amplified.
Tropical Freeze, counter-intuitively, is a tough title to review. It has few tangible flaws, but it also does nothing new. Putting the production values aside, this is a game that could have been made in the 1990s.
It could be your game of the year, but it could also bore you to tears as its core gameplay is essentially recycled from an endless pantheon of past titles with no new additions. The same could be said for many games that employ genre conventions, but it’s especially true for any game in the incredibly well-trodden whimsical-2D-platformer genre.
If you are a fan of platformers, Tropical Freeze is a must-play. If you do not enjoy them, this game will do absolutely nothing to change your mind.