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.