Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD (Review)

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD
Released on the Wii, March 4, 2016, by Nintendo and Tantalus
Retail: $59.99
Wii U Game Reviews Score: 9.7/10

And now I come full circle with these reviews. When I went on a stupid, self-imposed video game-hiatus ten years ago, I managed to perfectly time its start with the release of the newest game in my favorite video game series. I kept tabs on Twilight Princess' review scores, growing more depressed with every perfect or near-perfect score.

"Are you sure you don't want to get a Wii?" my new wife asked me repeatedly.
"No. If I do, I'll play forever, and you'll divorce me," I answered moronically.
Well, with the release of Twilight Princess HD, a few years after the end of my video game hiatus, I can safely say that playing through the game will not result in a divorce. But is the game, ten years after its original creation, any good?

Oh cool, a game where some weird dwarf lady rides a giant wolf. Where are the pictures from the Zelda game?

That is from the Zelda game. As much as Twilight Princess is accused as being a throwback to 1998's The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, a very large element of Twilight Princess' gameplay is unique to Twilight Princess. Also, spoiler alert: I really love this game because it is a throwback to Ocarina of Time.

Hi, Epona. I've missed you.

Let's get the classic Zelda elements out of the way, and by classic, I mean Ocarina of Time elements. After all, Ocarina of Time, possibly the greatest video game of all time, is simply a 3D update of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, also possibly the greatest game of all time, which is a higher pixel update of The Legend of Zelda (really awesome, but not quite one of the greatest games of all time). Like those great games of the past, Twilight Princess takes place in an ancient, medieval-like fantasy land called Hyrule, and stars a wet-behind-the-ears kid named Link. The player, as Link, gradually accumulates greater skills and weapons, traveres Hyrule's varied terrain, and dives into dungeons to fight enemies, solve puzzles collect items, defeat bosses, and collect some talisman that progresses the plot of the game. Twilight Princess, unlike its immediate Zelda game predecessor, The Wind Waker, does not break the mold. The Wind Waker was a huge departure from previous games in the Zelda series, instead sending out a now cartoony, cel-shaded young Link on a nautical adventure. After Wind Waker, a return to the familiar was certainly necessary...at least for me.

There's no place like home, there's no place like home.

Thankfully, this means building on the foundation of previous Zelda games: putting Link in a larger,  more lifelike, graphically enhanced Hyrule, further evolving his abilities, and fine-tuning the games' controls,
As you can see from the above screenshot, Twilight Princess certainly presents a more lifelike, graphically enhanced vision of Hyrule than Ocarina of Time. While Twilight Princess' visuals might not compare with those of  its contemporaries on the XBox 360 and PS3, and even though the it was actually designed for the older Gamecube and not the under-powered Wii, Twilight Princess is a good-looking game. Environments are lively and vibrant, evocative and full of motion. Link, non-player characters, enemies, and the game's giant bosses are animated better than ever. The HD upgrade for the Wii U gives these ten-year old graphics a boost--the game holds up again. I really have only one complaint, and it's visible in the below screenshot.

It goes. Through walls.

Your sword goes through walls. Yep, through walls. For some reason, the collision detection between Link's sword and many non-enemy textures does not exist. Not only do the polygons for the sword go through the walls, but the classic clink sound your sword made when it hit against walls in previous Zelda games is generally absent--because the game doesn't realize you are hitting anything. And before we get to the rest of the game, I'll reiterate again--THIS IS MY ONE COMPLAINT WITH TWILIGHT PRINCESS HD.For it, I deducted .3 points from the final score. This is an inexcusable detraction from an otherwise completely immersive game.
Back to the good, i.e., everything else.
Ocarina of Time introduced a lock-on combat system ("Z-Targeting"), where the player can hit a button to zero in and circle around a chosen foe. This was one of the hugest innovations in 3D gaming, greatly simplifying an experience that in previous 3D games had not felt very natural. Wind Waker further refined that element, adding additional moves for Link to master, though I feel that that game encouraged button mashing a bit. Twilight Princess brings Zelda combat experience to the next level, encouraging and empowering the player to become even more a master swordsman that did previous games. Fights in Twilight Princess feel more epic than ever, particularly when Link has to face off with huge, armored foes later in the game.
Twilight Princess also (THANKFULLY) brings back Epona the horse as Link's main mode of long-distance transportation. Peter Jackson's original Lord of the Rings trilogy is a huge influence on Twilight Princess, as the game-makers appear to have taken those films' horseback fighting scenes as a challenge. Link races Epona along goblins riding giant boars, able to cut the monsters down with his sword or bow. These segments of the game are incredible, an adrenaline rush of speed and clanging steel. There are key story moments from the game featuring horse-mounted combat, but later on, the player can hop onto Epona, venture to certain portions of Hyrule Field, and fight boar-riders any time they please.

Yes, those are fire arrows raining down upon me. Yes, this game is awesome.

I can't speak to how these horse-riding portions of the game controlled on the Wii or Gamecube, but on the Wii U gamepad, I forgot I was even holding a controller. The controls are seamless and intuitive.

So, uh...you like fishing?

How's it sound when you're doing all that stuff?
It sounds awesome. Outside of the aforementioned lack of sword-to-wall click, the sound effects sound authentic. Link still doesn't talk (He should never talk! He's a silent hero!), and characters communicate via text-box, but Link's grunts and yells are great. Sound effects during fights are as intense as they should be. Monsters make blood-curdling calls. Arrows whooshing all around. It's nice. But the true standout in this department is Twilight Princess' musical score.
A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time both have all-time great soundtracks, and fortunately, of all the Zelda games not scored by the legendary Koji Kondo (i.e., A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time), Twilight Princess' is the best. Nintendo assigned relatively green composer, Toru Minegishi, with the task of creating the game's music (with assistance from Asuka Ohta). Minegishi is apparently a huge student of Kondo's work because Twilight Princess' music sounds like a natural evolution of the maestro's work. Yes, I just called Koji Kondo "the maestro." He's created some of the most memorable compositions of all time, and deserves the title. Any doubt cast on my previous statement can be immediately extinguished by attending a Symphony of the Goddesses concert. And if you already don't have any doubt, you definitely need to attend a Symphony of the Goddesses concert. I did, cried the whole time, and had a transcendent experience--it was truly a magical night. Kondo gives a pre-recorded speech where he explains how he attempts to stir empathy in the listener when he composes a Zelda soundtrack. Incredible.

If you come here as a wolf, everyone pays a bit more attention to you.

The music in Twilight Princess is awesome: thrilling in Hyrule Field, incredibly relaxing anytime Link is near water, mysterious when he is traversing a misty forest, furious during a fight. The dungeon music, while not quite on the level of Kondo's haunting compositions, are a step above Wind Waker's. particularly Minegishi's work on Arbiter's Grounds. Minegishi also reprises and reinterprets Kondo's themes at key moments
So I've talked about everything Twilight Princess has in common with previous Zelda games. Now it's time to get to what's new.
You mean the wolf?
I mean the wolf. 

Hungry like the.

Twilight Princess' biggest departure from the Zelda series is that, during certain segments of gameplay, Link is turned into a wolf. As the wolf, Link's attack moves (option 1. bite. option 2. bite) become limited, though his mobility and senses are enhanced. At first, playing as the wolf is a function of the story and mandatory, but later in the game, the player is free to switch between the two forms. These segments are a nice change of pace, and never take long enough to wear out their welcome. They also add to Twilight Princess' already thick atmosphere.
What's so thick about it?
The atmosphere arises from Twilight Princess' storyline. Zelda games are generally a simple battle of good versus evil, with a few extra details tossed in, but Twilight Princess does a great job of presenting something a bit more complex, without losing that classic Zelda feeling.  The story this time has to do with a Twilight Realm that is essentially a parallel dimension, existing directly on top of Hyrule. In a twist, our main three characters, courageous Link, wise Princess Zelda, and powerful (evil) sorcerer Gannondorf are roped into the dramatics of this other world, and the game's action bounces between the Twilight Realm and Hyrule. I won't give anymore away, but the storyline is engaging and involving, and brings to the fore Link's greatest companion to date: Midna. 

My apologies to Navi.

Midna possesses a certain attitude unique to the Zelda series, as she is possibly more powerful than Link himself. From early in the game, she is always near, riding Wolf Link in the Twilight Realm, and right behind Human Link in Hyrule. Her advice is always helpful, her jibes enjoyable, and her warping abilities later in the game eliminate any tedious backtracking. 
To tie together everything that's new and old, I think Twilight Princess can be best summed up by its dungeons. While the Zelda overworld is a place to ride free and explore, meet new characters, and fight minor enemies, Link's journeys underground (and in one case, far over ground) to the dungeons truly test his, and by extension the player's mettle. That was a lot of commas, sorry.
Twilight Princess' dungeons, in a hyphenated word,  are awe-inspiring.  Their sense of scale, ingenuity in puzzles and gameplay, and diversity in aesthetic design are some of the greatest the Zelda series has to offer. Best of all, the incorporation of Wolf Link into the dungeons (after his use becomes optional) makes Twilight Princess an even more memorable experience. The amount of thought the game designers put into these dungeons, accounting for both Human and Wolf Link, is astounding. If you play this game for one reason, make it the dungeons. I repeat, Twilight Princess has some good dungeons. The dungeons are great. In case I haven't made myself clear...dungeons!

Pictured above...not a dungeon.

And finally, an HD upgrade isn't Twilight Princess' only Wii U improvement. Like Wind Waker HD before it, Twilight Princess HD sports a menu screen on the Wii U's Gamepad touch-screen controller. This means that the player can select and change out items or look at the game map without pausing. This Wii U innovation will be missed in the future, when Nintendo inevitably makes a course correction with following systems, and ditches the Gamepad screen.  I can say with conviction, having that little additional screen for any 3D game involving exploration and an inventory has been a real bonus.  I wish Nintendo could have found some way to make the Wii U catch on. It is going to be difficult playing future Zelda games without it.

Pictured above: startlingly, something actually apt to what I just talked about--the Gamepad touch-screen...and my items. Yes, that was a colon, hyphen, and suspension point in just one caption. Deal with it! 

Double finally, I've heard some people complain about the emptiness of Twilight Princess' Hyrule Field overworld. Hyrule Field surrounds game-central Hyrule Castle, and leads to Hyrule's lake, forests, fire, and icy lands. The game makes quite clear that this Hyrule is a once great land that has fallen into disrepair. There are ruins everywhere, fallen columns, broken stone bridges. Yes, while Hyrule fields sports loads of enemies and secrets, there are certain sections that are a bit lonely--and this only serves to drive home this feeling of desolation all the more. 
As a design choice, I think this is brilliant. It's not like the player has to ride for minutes through empty terrain--there is just a tangible feeling of emptiness, and that this is a world that was once thriving and connected, but now broken and dying. 

Hey, look, a broken and dying little Goron...just kidding...I'm sure he's probably fine.

This is reiterated by the strife and paranoia between Hyrule's various intelligent species, which is gradually alleviated by Link as he opens the land and connects once separated areas togethger. It's clear there was once closer relationships between the humans, Gorons, Zoras, etc., but years of Hyrulian decay have severed these ties. 
The best Zelda games champion exploration. My favorite moment came when I discovered an ancient, ruined theater on a hillside. Boar-riding orcs aren't the only Lord of the Rings influence on Twilight Princess. Making this discovery reminded me of Aragorn's wistful words about Weathertop. One could easily imagine the creatures of Hyrule seated at this theater long ago, gathered together in a period of unity and artistic prosperity. Now the area is overrun by monsters, as the humans huddle together behind the castle walls. 
Pfft. Empty.

It's also a perfect place for target practice.

I'll show these birds to gather.

This sense of a land with a deep past links beautifully into past games, as well. For instance, villainous Gannondorf's race, the Gerudos, are mysteriously absent from the game. However, the desert still shares their name, and in the center of it is a great, ruined prison dungeon full of bones--a fitting resting place for a people whose leader attempted to mold Hyrule to his will. 
At night, Hyrule Field's boisterous, dynamic theme segues to a quiet, meditative piece, punctuated by mysterious singing. The voice is that of Malon from Ocarina of Time, which occurred centuries before Twilight Princess. Malon was a ranch hand who befriended Link in Ocarina, and a possible shared romantic future is hinted between the two. Twilight Princess' Link lives on a ranch. Is this the voice of his ancestor comforting him in the night? Twilight Princess is full of this hinted past.
Not all of it is hinted, though. The ancient Ocarina Link is actually in this game. His spirit comes at select moments to train Twilight Princess' Link in combat.

The Hero of Time stands apart from it.

Once wouldn't catch on to this without having first played Ocarina of Time, which is not a detriment to Twilight Princess at all. However, as this gnarly old skeleton recalls moments from his past adventures, and teaches Link the songs of his youth, Ocarina fans will be smiling with the recollection of each note.
Oh yeah, and you can go fishing. If you get the time, you should probably go fishing.

Gonna catch me a biggun.

It's no XBox 360 Tomb Raider, but it looks pretty great, except when the sword-to-wall collision detection fails.

Music and Sound
The legendary reputation of high quality Zelda music continues. Sound effects, despite the absence of voice-acting, are great.

Huge overworld to explore, unbelievably great dungeons, stunning combat, a thrilling story, and you can go fishing.

Lasting Value
Long 30+ hour adventure, with a multitude of optional side-quests that can stretch playing time even further.


Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD (Review)

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The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD
Released on the Wii U, September 20, 2013, by Nintendo 
Retail: $49.99
Wii U Game Reviews Score: 9.3/10

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Some relationships are simple. Then again, some relationships are the one I've had with The Legend of Zelda: The Windwaker over the last 13 years.

Some history: Zelda for the NES did not strike my childhood fancy. It was not a 2-D platform game. In my mind, games that were not 2-D plaformers or sports simulations were not games. Then one day, hanging out in the lobby after being essentially abandoned at a Florida hotel, I became acquainted with Street Fighter II. This was indeed a game, too. That Christmas, I saved up all my money, returned some gifts to get more, and bought myself a Super Nintendo and Super Street Fighter II, just so I could play Street Fighter II at my house. Apparently, though, my SNES came with a free game: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.The game looked unfamiliar, and thus, weird, and I forgot it in the box, nearly throwing it away in between sessions of using Cammy to pummel Chun-Li and vice-versa. That's that.
"Why don't you try that Zelda game?" asked one particular cousin one day. That particular  cousin has tended to be right most of the time.
"It looks weird," I said.
"But you have it, so you have to try it," he said.
"Yeah, whatever." 
After he left, I thought about his comments, checked out the window to make sure he was long gone, and tried out A Link to the Past. 
Within a week, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past became my favorite video game of all time. A Link to the Past marked my departure from arrogant, stick-to-what-I-know child, to adventurous, fun-loving teenager. Several years later, in 1998, Nintendo released A Link to the Past's follow-up, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. A little under halfway through Ocarina, Link, the series-protagonist, grows from a child to a 17-year old. The game was released just weeks before my 17th birthday, during a time when my best friend was my Nintendo 64. To say that Wind Waker, released five years later on the Nintendo Gamecube, had a lot to live up to, is an understatement.
If that wasn't pressure enough, Wind Waker directly followed the release Ocarina of Time's N64 quasi-sequel, Majora's Mask. Majora's Mask is one of my favorite games in the Zelda series, but it entirely features an adolescent Link. As much as I love Majora's Mask, by 2003, I was again ready for a Link closer to my own age.
No dice.
Leading up to the game's release, Nintendo announced that the Link of Wind Waker would again be a child. Not only that, but the game would be animated in a cel-shaded, cartoon style, instead of with the awesome, more-realistic graphics the Nintendo Gamecube seemed to be capable of producing. This whole Wind Waker thing just seemed to be not working out for me--it wasn't like finding A Link to the Past in your Super Nintendo box when all you want is Street Fighter II--it was like finding more ocean when all you want is land.
Still, this was a new Zelda game. Mario Sunshine had just disappointed me by not being a traditional Mario game. Certainly, The Wind Waker could not be that big of a departure. Just like with Ocarina of Time, I pre-ordered the game. 
Fast forward a few weeks, and about 80% into Wind Waker, I grow frustrated with a fetch quest, and quit. I had already decided I wasn't a fan of the cartoonish graphics, the huge-ocean overworld, and the slight differences in puzzle logic from previous games. The fetch quest sealed the deal--it obfuscated every positive element Wind Waker had going for it (which, even then, I could admit, were a lot). I was done with this game. About that time, a buddy of mine gave me his old PS1, so that I could finally play my long-ago purchased copy of Chrono Cross, the sequel to Chrono Trigger, a game that had years-before overtaken Zelda as my favorite. My copy of Wind Waker soon grew dusty.
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Much to my surprise, outside of a fun foray into the Game Boy Advance's The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (which I completed), I never played another Zelda game again. As the Wii was released, and with it two new Zelda games (admittedly, one of those was also released on the Gamecube), I looked on with jealousy, but never had my chance to play them...until I finally decided to be awesome again. Several years ago, I purchased a Wii U for my son and myself, and my life as a gamer was resurrected. The cherry on top: Nintendo announced they were releasing an HD-update to Wind Waker. Now I could finally take care of some unfinished business.
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I Assume the Unfinished Business You Took Care of Actually Took Less Time to Complete than this Review Will to Read?
Oh, hi. I'm glad you're here. I was waiting for your snide comments. Actually, considering the intuitive nature inherent in most Zelda games, I am going to attempt to make this as brief as possible. 
So James Joyce Length Instead of Victor Hugo? I Mean, You're Still You.
Sure. Let's shoot for that. I love Ulysses.
You Would.
The world of Wind Waker actually brings to mind another Ulysses. There's definitely a heavy ancient-Greek vibe to Wind Waker. The game takes place between many scattered islands in a vast sea. This is a large departure from previous Zelda games, which generally took place in a generic (though generally beautiful and fun to traverse) fantasy world featuring an open field, a forest, a mountain,a lake, and a desert. Even Link's Awakening, the trippy old Game Boy game that shipwrecks Link on a strange island, stays fairly true to this form. Wind Waker breaks this mold, with its ocean overworld, and unique island locales. The setting is completely new.
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Is Everything Completely New?
If everything was completely new, this wouldn't be a Zelda game. Wind Waker continues the control scheme started in Ocarina of Time. The B-Button is used to attack with Link's sword. The A-Button is context-sensitive, at times signalling Link to sidle along a wall--don't try this with your sword out, though, or instead of sidling, you'll leap forward with your sword--quite frustrating when you're sidling along a cliff wall. There are also context-sensitive moments in combat If there's a detriment to Wind Waker's A-Button context sensitivity, it's that Link doesn't always seem to do what you want him to. Sometimes you want him to jump up to grab a ledge and he sidles, or vice-versa. Maybe it's the rose-colored glasses of Time, but I don't remember this cropping up in Ocarina. 
Like most Zelda games, the Link of Wind Waker accumulates a large variety of items throughout his quest, and also like Ocarina and Majora's Mask, the player can assign/map three items from their inventory at a time to three respective buttons, Y, X, and R. 
During combat, the player can have Link lock onto an enemy (or out of combat, to a desired target like a switch or grapple point) by pressing XL, thus allowing Link to circle his prey, and center his attacks upon it (combat can be deep, with a variety of sword-fighting moves and critical hits at Link's employ...or the player can just mash "B"). This control scheme, revolutionary when it was first employed by Ocarina, still works wonderfully. The player saves a lot of time digging through inventory with the button-mapping, and the three buttons can be remapped to different items whenever the player pleases. The enemy-targeting solves the camera issue that often cropped up in 3-D combat games before its invention. While countless games have ripped off this control scheme, it has already been perfected by the Zelda games that invented it.
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Wait...what exactly is a Zelda game?
*Sigh* Really? Well, I guess kids who've only played Call of Duty games might not know. Or maybe this is your first game in general. I'll give you the benefit of the doubt.
Zelda games center on a hero named Link, who often begins the game as a regular teenager, and is chosen to undertake some quest to save his world. Link must learn to fight with a sword, and then travel through a vast land full of secrets and magic. He visits towns, ventures deep into dark dungeons, solves puzzles and battles foes in order to retrieve ancient artifacts to assist in his quest. The dungeons are often a centerpiece for Zelda games (Wind Waker's are fun, but not quite series bests), and follow general patterns: Link solves puzzles to unlock doors, and to find keys that unlock other doors. He fights many foes, some native only to that dungeon. He finds a compass to reveal treasure and boss locations, a map with a layout of the dungeon, and an inventory item, often a weapon or tool that will soon prove useful. 
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Link fights a mini-boss about 2/3 of the way through the dungeon, and then finally, at the end, fights said final boss (Wind Waker's are epic in scale, but only the last couple pose any challenge). When the boss is defeated, Link earns an extra heart on his hit-meter, and whatever pendant, or jewel the boss is holding that is key to reaching the end of the quest...
And speaking of quest, Link is often aided in his by Princess Zelda, who is portrayed just a little differently in each game, sometimes just as someone Link has to save, and sometimes as someone whose heroics are just as important to the quest as Link's (Wind Waker's Zelda splits the difference between tough as nails, and damsel in distress). 
The key theme of a Zelda game, though, is exploration and discovery, as the player is free to venture across a vast world, and to undertake numerous mini-quests that aren't necessary to complete the main quest, but that may reward Link with items that make his journey easier. Even if one stays the course and follows only the linear plot of the game, the sense of discovery as Link visits new regions, encounters new foes, and gains new items, is still thick.
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Outside of the Watery Setting, What Else Is Different about Wind Waker?
The key difference in Wind Waker, and what's been the lingering story even years later, is style. After the two Nintendo 64 Zeldas, many, including me, assumed Nintendo would then continuously create more and more realistic-looking Zelda games. Instead, Nintendo gave us something...else. Having already spent my teenage years defending Nintendo from people who said the company only made games for little kids, I felt like Nintendo was purposefully mocking me: not only do we make games for little kids...we make cartoons
Wind Waker's graphics are cell-shaded in the same vein as the classic Dreamcast game, Jet Grind Radio. 
Or in other words: yep, it's an interactive cartoon.
While this certainly was not my or most Zelda fans' first choice of style for a Zelda game, the Wind Waker's graphics end up becoming one of its most endearing aspects. With this more classic cartoon style, the graphics can't get dated. They still look great now...one doesn't watch Looney Tunes thinking, what this really needs is better graphics. A cartoon looks like it is supposed to look. 
For this HD remake, a new lighting system makes Wind Waker look even better. While some may complain that this improvement diminishes the cartoon elements just a bit, the incredible sense of motion they create more than makes up for it. The greater effect of clouds over the water, and trees swaying in a sea-breeze only serves to make the game more enveloping. There's nothing like climbing to the top of the an island as the sun sets, fish jumping in the waves far below, grass moving in the wind all around you. While the HD-upgrade obviously makes Wind Waker look better on a modern television, these lighting improvements are also worth the price of admission.
 photo Windwaker 174 2_zps42jxr2ss.jpg Isn't Music Important to these Games, As Well?
Yes. Unfortunately, Wind Waker is the first Zelda game not to feature the name "Koji Kondo" next to the "Music By" credit. Kondo came up with the classic Zelda theme, perhaps second only to the Mario "Ground Theme" in video game music familiarity...and Kondo wrote that one, too. Kondo's soundtracks for the original Zelda, A Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time, and Majora's Mask are all legendary. Kondo is arguably the John Williams of video game music. 
A team of composers take Kondo's place on Windwaker. They do a great job, creating a very memorable Celtic feel that furthers Wind Waker's seaborne atmosphere. The theme composed for Link's sailing through the open seas conjures an incredible sense of discovery and adventure that's about as Legend of Zelda as it gets. If I've got a nitpick, though, it's that some of the game's tracks are a bit too short and simplistic. In particular, the dungeon themes, as a whole, lack depth, and pale in comparison to the work Kondo did for the vast depths of A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time. That nitpick aside, this is excellent work.
Wind Waker's sound effects are top notch, riding a great line between cartoonish during the game's more humorous sections, and realistic when Link is clanging his sword against the armor of his enemies, or running through the ever waxing/waning surf. Every sound-effect associated with the sea is right on the money. Also, because this is a Zelda game, Link doesn't talk (he is a classic silent hero), and everyone else speaks in text boxes.
Hey, What's a Wind Waker?
Hey, I'm glad you asked.
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The Wind Waker is obviously key to the game that took its name--it is a baton Link uses to control the wind. This is necessary to sail Link's ship across the game's ocean overworld. The Wind Waker can be used to play several other songs Link learns throughout the game. These songs serve the same function as some of those in Ocarina of Time, allowing Link powers as to change the time of day, or warp to another location, among others. These abilities come in handy as the quest expands.
What Is the Quest Here Anyway?
It doesn't really matter. All that matters is there is a quest. People are kidnapped, and dark powers arise, and Link has to travel the world, collect various items, and become a great hero in order to save the day. With that said, Wind Waker does provide a bit more thematic depth than most Zelda games, with ideas like letting go of the past, and creating a better world for the next generation receiving particular focus. 
You're Still a Long-Winded Gasbag, but You Seem to Be a Little Less Gassy than Usual. Why Don't You Conclude With the Reasons this Remake Won You Over. 
I appreciate your direction, imaginary narrator. I feel like I have talked the game up without mentioning why I think it is so much better than the original (which I think I'd rate an 8.6/10.0). The Wind Waker HD contains multiple improvements that helped me to get over the original hump, and finally complete this game. I can easily identify the elements that caused me to quit the first time:
1. The Triforce Shard fetch quest at the end of the game seemed so needlessly tedious, I couldn't gather the will to complete it. Add to that the fact that often an individual Triforce Shard Chart had to first be collected in order to then collect the individual Triforce Shards, and you have the recipe to video game misery. In the intervening years since Wind Waker's release, I've spoken to many others who quit the game at this exact same point. The quest has been streamlined here, with less charts and shards to collect. While it's still unfortunate and a bit anticlimactic that the developers chose to make the latter portion of the game a mandatory fetch quest, the remake does do a decent job of making the fetching feel more like a good excuse to visit still unexplored portions of the map, rather than just to backtrack for hours.. 
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2. The Wind Waker elements become tedious. Having to play the same song over and over again just because you want to slightly change the direction your boat is heading gets old really fast. I didn't particularly enjoy having to do this when I was bouncing back and forth between towns and dungeons, so having to do it ad nauseum for the previously mentioned fetch quest brought me to the brink of insanity. These two factors in conjunction led to my unbeaten copy of Wind Waker being unceremoniously shoved back into its case...forever.
But then, lo and behold, this updated, HD Wii U version added the Red Sail. 
The Red Sail, which can be acquired near the game's midpoint at an island auction, allows Link to sail at lightning speed, regardless of wind direction. This way, just when Link's Wind Waker starts to lose its polish, the player can disregard that element and move on to other things. Nothing in an otherwise great game has ever ticked me off as badly as when I'd overshoot a sunken triforce piece by boat, have to pull out the Wind Waker and play to change the direction of the wind, overshoot it again, rinse, repeat. This red sail eradicates the misery.
This Wii U upgrade also takes fine advantage of the gamepad's screen, as the player can look at the map, or cycle through inventory without having to pause. Less impressively, the player can use the gamepad's motion control capabilities to aim projectiles.
One quick nitpick of an unchanged element that is emblematic of something larger: the Nintendo 64 Zelda games name the dungeon bosses as each respective one makes their entrance. Wind Waker does not do this, and that missing detail reveals the lack of a certain polish Zelda games have conditioned me to expect. While it's a small thing, this is still a disappointment.

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So is Link swimming Around this Whole Time?
No! Haven't you been looking at the pictures and catching the references to the "boat?" The "sail?" That's cool, I'm not even mad. I will end this thing talking about the boat. That's a great way to finish this.
Link's boat is a talking, aquatic red lion. That sounds weird, but in the game, it is weirdly not. The sailing portions of Wind Waker, particularly in this HD remake, are one of the game's most enjoyable elements. Few things beat sailing into the sunset and on through the night, looming landmarks guiding the way through moonlight (and on occasion when the moon is gone, as the night sky in Wind Waker undergoes lunar cycles, starlight). 
Link's boat functions much like Epona the horse did for Link's Nintendo 64 adventures, except this time, if you get knock off, you can drown (Link has a small oxygen meter). The reason Link can get knocked off is that the ocean are not an entirely friendly place. Enemy ships lurk the high seas, ready to rain down cannon fire upon our hero's head. Various sea monsters are also ready to send Link to Navi Jones Locker. Thankfully, once Link gains the ability to use bombs, his ship sports a cannon, making for some sweet ship to ship combat. Also, once the bow is earned, Link can tee off on any menacing creature that needs to get put in its place. 
Most importantly, the boat also functions as a guide, directing Link to the next leg of his quest when the player doesn't know where to steer. However, there's nothing to stop Link from sailing to the (literally) four corners of this Earth. This is one of the game's greatest elements. Link's map of the sea is populated by a 7x7 grid of 49 squares. Each map square, which is generally occupied by at least one unique island, is blank to begin the game. It's up to the player to fill in these gaps...and the game can be saved at any point.
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Admittedly, I had recently completed the Dreamcast RPG, Skies of Arcadia, before I picked up Wind Waker for the first time. This numbed my sense of discovery just a bit. However, the sense of discovery is this game's best aspect, and returning now with (the incredible) Arcadia less fresh in my mind, Wind Waker's adventuring holds much more of a wow factor.
So overall, I can't say that Wind Waker has become my favorite entry in The Legend of Zelda series, but I can say that it is a lovely game marred by several small flaws that might keep it from the top, but do nothing to tarnish its greatness.

Beautiful, cel-shaded graphics immerse the player in the middle of a cartoon fantasy world, upgraded with a new lighting engine that brings this already timeless look into the future.
Music and Sound
Sound effects and lovely, world-music influenced score invokes the sea, though some pieces of music loop a bit too early. 
A huge nautical world to explore, populated with interesting locales and perilous dungeons, but a fetch-quest near the end dulls a bit of the shine.
Lasting Value
With everything to do and see, the game goes on for quite a while, and when it is beaten, there are a million things left to collect, giving excuse to explore Wind Waker's seas all over again..


Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (Review)

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Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
Released on the Wii U, February 21, 2014, by Retro Studios, co-developed with Monster Games for Nintendo 
Retail: $49.99
Wii U Game Reviews Score: 9.5/10

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It's been a while since I've posted a review, but that's only because I've been...well, I don't feel like talking about it. Let's talk about Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. 

If you haven't played a Donkey Kong Country game before, I'll give you a brief summation. Donkey Kong Country games are platformers that generally (but not always) star the titular ape, as he traverses detailed and difficult 2-D terrain (except in one case, where he traversed a 3-D one), generally in a search of his stolen banana horde, or a family member, or in the case of that 3-D one I mentioned in the parenthetical, approximately 78,000 random items that serve no other purpose than to allow Donkey Kong and his brethren to search for another 78,000 purposeless items (and even that game has its charms).
Did I mention brethren? Yes, I did, the word is obviously in the previous sentence, but common transitions in the English language are veritably lazy. Anyway, Donkey Kong has a bunch of ape buddies and cousins and whatnot, and they generally come along for the ride, as well. Clear enough?
Hey, I Ask the Questions Around Here, Reviewer Guy!
Yes, that's true, other person who is actually me in the guise of you, a fictional character who makes questions and comments to smoothly move the reviews along, because if a transition isn't lazy, it's a gimmick. You do ask the questions.

Darn Tootin'. So What Makes Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze Any Different From All Those Other Games You Just Mentioned?
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is the sixth game in the Donkey Kong Country series, the first (and perhaps only) Donkey Kong Country game for the Wii U, and the first rendered in high-definition, which means it looks great on your big screen TV. Actually, it looks great in general.

What Do You Mean, It Looks Great?
I mean, the graphics are translated by your eyeballs as beautiful moving and stagnant images. 
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The Donkey Kong Country games have always been known for excellent visuals, and at the least, have pushed their respective system's hardware to the limit. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze sets a new high-water mark for the series. The Wii U may not have the graphical capabilities of the PS4 or XBox One, but it is still powerful enough to please the eye. Retro Studios does an excellent job of utilizing the Wii U's capabilities, working within its limitations in a graphical style that gives the impression that the Wii U has no limitations at all. Several things stand out:
Are You About to Make a List?
You bet your bottom banana...er...
1. Donkey Kong's fur. It reminds me of watching Monster's Inc. in theaters and marveling at a breeze rippling through Sully the monster's life-like fur for the first time. 14 years removed from that experience, I feel the same way watching Donkey Kong leap around the screen. 
2. Layering. 2-D games can in some ways stimulate the imagination more than their 3-D counterparts. A good 2-D game background is like a living, interactive book. The 2-D game perspective peaked in the mid-90's during the 16-bit generation of the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. Think about the scary pastures and bony horses in Castlevania IV's early levels, conjuring their own terrifying, imagined back-stories. How about the colorful, stone-marked hills of Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island? How did those stones get there? What would it be like to visit them? How about the mountains and valleys in the background of Chrono Trigger's higher elevations, raising the possibility that somewhere out there, another group is having their own adventure? Even the simple view of vast forests from the top of Death Mountain in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past conjures thoughts of possible journeys. 
The Donkey Kong Country series' 2-D entries have always featured excellent background work, but Tropical Freeze uses the Wii U's graphical power to take this element to an entirely new level. Tropical Freeze's backgrounds feature a stunning amount of depth, like waterfalls cascading over rocks in the foreground, vast grasslands stretching in the background as far as the eye can see, and all variety of characters and enemies off in the distance...doing stuff.
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Doing Stuff? What Do You Mean, Doing Stuff?
Well, here's an example. One particular level, set in a lakeside village, features a pair of penguins in the background, juggling fish into baskets. You cannot attack them, and they cannot attack you. They are simply in the background. When you pass by, one of the penguins gets distracted, his buddy doesn't stop tossing fish...and hilarity ensues. This moment only occurs at this one point, on this one level in the game. Tropical Freeze is full of these unique, singular moments, all of which the player can miss if they are not paying attention. These moments don't affect gameplay, but they make the cartoon world of Tropical Freeze seem real and lived in.
3. This is the most important aspect, and what really sets Tropical Freeze's visuals apart from the majority of today's games, especially major studio fare: color. 
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So many games this last decade have settled for a drab color palette. Maybe this current crop of game developers are aliens from a planet where a rainbow consists of blue, dark gray, gray, light gray, lighter gray, tan. While Tropical Freeze's developers' programming skills are *snort*snort*snort*"out of this world"*snort*snort*snort, the game creators are also well-acquainted with the full-color spectrum of planet Earth. 
So what we have here are a crew of visually creative developers, who know full well both the limitations and strengths of the Wii U's graphics chip, and understand how to make the best of the situation. 
I like looking at this game.
That's Great, But Looks Aren't Everything, and You're Probably Some Shallow Jerk Because this Is the Internet and Everyone Is Mean. Do You Actually Like Playing this Game?
First, your comments are getting a bit long, aren't they? I'm supposed to be the rambler, not you! Second, I don't like playing this game. I love playing this game. Side-scrolling platformers have undergone a bit of a renaissance since the independent eStore game boom of the last several years. I guess 2-D games are easier to make, and who would have guessed, people actually like to play them! Turns out people like me enjoyed playing all those old NES and SNES Mario and Donkey Kong games for a reason. 
What's the Reason? Is It the Same Reason I Like to Curse Out All My Buddies Through a Goofy-Looking Headset While I Play Call of Duty 78: Ghost Wars of the Dead Plains?
I'm sure that's a great way to get out all your hormonal rage, and help you deal with the fact that you don't have the guts to ask out Emma Whatsherface to Homecoming, but it's also actually possible to feel joy while playing video games, as well.
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Joy? Is that Like What I Feel When My Dad Yells At Me for Forgetting to Take Out the Trash, and then I Play Gears of War and Shoot a Bunch of Dudes in the Pancreas?
Kid, you're scaring me. Joy is sort of like happiness-like happiness in the moment--and a great 2-D platformer provides loads of it. Tropical Freeze's joys include timing jumps perfectly, evading traps and obstacles, bouncing off one bad guy to the next, all while exploring vast worlds full of secrets and mysteries. Meanwhile, the controls are simple, intuitive, and react to the player's touch they way they should. 
But What's It About?
Donkey Kong and his buddies are chilling on his island, not bothering anyone, when a scary bunch of ice-creatures known as the Snowmads (Snow + nomads) roll in and exile Donkey and his crew to an island far away. With Donkey Kong Island now vacated, the Snowmads take it for their own. The Kongs must trek their way across a chain of five islands, then take back the now-frozen Donkey Kong Island from the King of the Snowmads, himself.
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That Sounds Kind of Simple.  
Exactly. A great video game doesn't need to have a complex story--just a simple mission that the player actually wants to complete, and to which the player can maybe attach a little emotional connection. Donkey Kong is a lovable character, and I don't like that those Snowmad jerks took away his island. Therefore, I want to trounce all the Snowmads and take back Donkey Kong's home. It is fun to master the timing-sensitive jumps along the way, and I can't wait to experience the visual splendor of each consecutive level. And speaking of measuring timing-sensitive jumps, the developers obviously honed their skills on old-school difficult 8-bit games, because one of the greatest pleasures of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is that the game is very, very hard. However, like all trying, yet great games, Tropical Freeze isn't hard because of problems inherent in its design. It is hard because the designers designed it to be so, yet made the challenges fair. If the player masters the controls and gameplay mechanics, they can progress, and feel a great sense of accomplishment. An easier game doesn't yield such a feeling.
This Feels Like a "Review for Dummies." The Language You Are Using Seems Kind of Patronizing. 
I'm not trying to be patronizing. The joys of a basic platformer are so primal...like video game primal. Bouncing between foes' heads and moving platforms over a pit of spikes will always be thrilling, whether the background is a static color and the foes are ten pixels, or the background is gorgeous and full of detail, and the foes look as good as any cable cartoon villain. It's hard to put something so simple into words...it's like trying to describe a color or something. Suffice it to say, it's the way I just described and Retro Studios ramp up the difficulty along the way in subtle and inventive ways. 
Remember those mine cart levels from previous games? They're back, you're about to get launched into one, and you're about to lose like 50 lives.
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Also, if you played Donkey Kong Country Returns for the original Wii, you know all about rocket-barrel levels. During rocket-barrel levels, Donkey and friends get shoved into a barrel that can't stop OR EVEN BRAKE, and can only be steered up or down around the rocket-barrel levels myriad obstacles. "Obstacles" is really a euphemism for death-fields.
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Get ready to die.
Also, the above picture is blurry because the rocket-barrel is fast--the better to kill you. The game also utilizes sidekick barrels, just like previous entries in the series. At certain points in levels, a rotating barrel pops up containing either Dixie Kong, Diddy Kong, or Cranky Kong. At times, the sidekick is situationally chosen for Donkey, and at others, the choice is optional. The sidekick then hops on Donkey's back, to assist him on his journey.
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I mentioned Dixie Kong first because she is by far the most useful sidekick. Her ponytail helicopter-spin extends each Donkey Kong jump by several feet and seconds. This move makes difficult jumps far less difficult. Diddy Kong carries a jetpack that can also extend Donkey's jumps, but not nearly as far as Dixie's (Diddy's give a horizontal boost, but Dixie's is horizontal and vertical). Cranky Kong, the grumpy gramps who simply offered advice in most previous games, is playable for the first time in Tropical Freeze. He is the most difficult sidekick to master, as his special move completely changes the game's dynamics. Cranky holds a walking cane that functions much the same as Scrooge McDuck's pogo-cane in the old NES Ducktales game. When Donkey comes down from jumps, Cranky can slam down his cane to bounce Donkey high in the air. The cane-bounce also allows Donkey to come down safely on sharp objects, which is ideal for spike or thorn-filled levels. However, outside of the latter-mentioned situation, Cranky's merits are debatable. Most players will just want to use Dixie (nicknamed "Flappy" in my household), which is really one of Tropical Freeze's only flaws--the other two-sidekicks' powers should have been more evenly balanced with hers. 
Finally, if a second player wants to join in, two people can play simultaneously as whichever character they like. Unlike the classic Donkey Kong Country games, where player one and player two tag-teamed, each player in Tropical Freeze has free-range to go wherever they want. If one player lags too far behind the other, the slow one is beamed to wherever the further-along Kong is. 
The Kongs traverse a World Map for each island, beating generally six levels, two, or sometimes one of which will contain secret exits to two additional secret levels. Finding these levels is extremely satisfying, as is collecting the Kong letters scattered through each level. If the K, O, N, and G are grabbed from every level on an island, a K-level is unlocked. "K" might as well stand for "kill you a bunch of times," as the K-levels feature some of the most difficult platforming action of all time. These levels were designed with the hardcore gamer in mind, and clearing them is quite a cathartic experience. Bopopolis, for example, features no ground, and forces the player to bounce off the heads of countless villains throughout its seemingly eternal duration. I exhaled so loudly when I finished this level...er put this level behind me...er, came to the end of this level...er, beat this level, that I think my neighbors called the cops, and I live in a cane field surrounded by swamps.
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Each level also contains a various amount of puzzle pieces. Collecting all of these, as well as progressing through various points of the game, unlocks cool production art, dioramas, and choice level soundtrack cuts. Gotta catch em all?
Like Pokemon. Speaking of Pokemon, Remember in the Pokemon Movie, When the Tears of the Pokemon Healed Ash? Do These Levels Have Save Points?
Well, I've definitely never seen that movie before, and definitely never cried whenever Pikachu tried to revive Ash's corpse with thunderbolts because I don't even know about that part because like I said I've never seen that movie, but yes, the game's levels contain multiple save points. You may have heard some critics whining that the save points are spaced too far apart, but those particular critics are just whiny crybabies, who are scared of a little challenge. It's not a game if it holds your hand and just lets you win--if it lets you win, then you aren't actually playing. 
Anyway, the real challenge awaits the player who beats Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze and obtains all the game's items (and, as said, there are only two types needed to unlock anything, KONG letters and puzzle pieces...not 78,000 item types like a certain 3-D Donkey Kong game). That dedicated player is given the gift of hard mode.
Defeating the original mode, collecting all the items, gaining access to a secret, ultra-challenging seventh world, and receiving a 100% score is challenging and satisfying enough. Taking on hard mode is an act of madness. In hard mode, the player can use whatever Kong they choose, but they most go it alone with no sidekick...and one hit leads to death. In regular mode, the character can take two hits, and can often fill back the first hit with a heart item from a felled foe. When one can only take one hit, there is no replenishing. This completely changes the game from a dream to a digital nightmare, as even the easiest level on normal mode with a sidekick who can take two hits before the player even gets down to Donkey's first two becomes an obstacle course from hell on hard mode. One simply does not realize how often they were getting hit before, until those hits really, really count.  Playing through this hard mode unlocks a few extra pieces of Tropical Freeze concept art, and extreme bragging rights. Just for fun, the player can also try to do this while collecting all the Kong letters again, which now go from their classic red and yellow color-scheme to blue-and-gold...which you can see in one of the photos above as proof positive that this reviewer's dedication is insane.  
Anything else? 
Glad you asked because I actually forgot a few other items the player can collect. There are bananas scattered everywhere, just like coins in the Mario games. If the player grabs 100, they get an extra life to burn (and they will need it!). The player can also grab tokens throughout each level that they can spend at Funky Kong's shop (each island contains one Funky Kong station).
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You can buy Kong barrels for sidekick assistance, extra lives, extra its, a balloon that gives more oxygen for the games' numerous underwater levels, a balloon that gives the Kongs one free pass from falling to death,and a crash-guard to give an extra hit during vehicle-based levles, plus little collectible, randomly chosen figurines featuring the game's vast character gallery. Oh, and I forgot, Donkey's old friend Rambi the Rhino shows up to give Donkey a ride every now and then, allowing the player to plow through foes, and open up secret areas. 
Finally (this is the second "Finally"), to harp on the second of this game's very minor flaws, the Wii U's unique controller screen serves only one function in Tropical Freeze: the player can use it to play the game when the TV is off. If the TV screen is used, the Wii U gamepad controller screen is black. This doesn't hurt this near perfect video game experience, but it certainly would have been nice to use the Wii U's unique strength to the game's advantage...though admittedly, I did get quite a few late night rounds in on the gamepad, while everyone else in the house was asleep.
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Looks Like You're Going Long, As Usual, But You Haven't Even Talked About the Music, Which You Always Seem to Like to Ramble About. What Gives?
What gives is, I saved the best for last. David Wise's soundtracks for Donkey Kong Country 1 and 2 are generally considered to be two of the greatest video game scores of all time. Just check out any video-game remix website or Youtube channel, and songs from those games generally dominate. For the last two decades, Wise has been largely absent from the Donkey Kong Country franchise. Tropical Freeze not only marks Wise's triumphant return to Donkey Kong, but a series and career best. 
I mentioned "emotion" up above in relation to this game. This game's emotion comes from David Wise's score. From the fun jazz of the early, more easy-going levels, the strange, breezy intensity of the mountainous second island,the celebratory African chants and sounds of the third, the atmospheric, mysterious pieces of the mostly submerged fourth island ("Amiss Abyss" is my jam!), the texturally rich tunes of the fifth island, to the rousing music of Donkey Kong's return to his now frozen home, which sounds like it could soundtrack William Wallace returning to the highlands to face the British, every stage, THAT'S RIGHT, every stage's music is supremely evocative. I capitalize to not only press the incredible point that Wise composed a unique song for almost every level in this 60-plus level game, but that somehow, reaching sheer ludicrous levels of mastery, every stage's music seems somehow better than the last. 
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So, IN ADDITION to wanting to see whatever fun challenges and eye-pleasing visuals await behind each level's entrance, there is the added pleasure of hearing just what aural alchemy David Wise has conjured next. 
As far as sound effects, from Donkey Kong's grunts, to the sound of his massive fists pounding the ground in TIME TO GET SOME defiance, to bells ringing and volcanoes erupting, everything here is movie quality. 
I'm Out of Questions and Snippy Comments. It Sounds Like You Really Love this Game.
I do, and I think I can praise it without bias. I love those first two Donkey Kong Country games, but I can still objectively criticize the collectathon Nintendo 64 iteration, even though I love Nintendo 64, Nintendo 64 Rareware games, Nintendo 64 Rareware platformers, and Nintendo 64 Rareware platformers composed by Grant Kirkhope. Donkey Kong 64 (yes, I will speak its name) isn't an awful game, but it contains several uninspired elements that distance it from greatness. Donkey Kong 64 is worth playing, but Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is more than worth playing.
Simply put, for fans of old-school platformers, for younger fans who have enjoyed the recent 2-D indie-gaming boom, or for fans of great video games in general, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a can't miss. In fact, if you don't even like video games, but if you enjoy great music, particularly World Music, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a can't miss. In fact, if you are a living, breathing human, and you can get your hands on a video game controller, you at least owe it to yourself to play Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze's Grassland Grove stage. In fact...
Alright, We Get It.
Good, my hands are starting to hurt from typing...and I need to use my hands to play Donkey Kong.
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Colorful, detailed, fully lived-in environments for a beautifully rendered and animated Kong family to rampage through.

Music and Sound
David Wise may be the greatest video-game composer of all time, and this atmospheric, emotional soundtrack is his masterpiece. Sound effects satisfy. 

Challenging, near-flawless 2-D platforming, full of secrets and unlockable bonuses.   

Lasting Value
Working through all six worlds takes time, then there are secret levels, items and art to unlock, and an extra world and hard mode tossed in when all is completed.