So I picked up Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze on launch day, because I had been looking forward to it for months. Donkey Kong Country Returns was a ton of fun, and I knew Retro would continue putting in 101% effort. I was not disappointed.
Firstly, the game is rather difficult (if you've played Returns, it's expected). Do not let that deter you, because it's difficult in the best possible way. It's not difficult because the controls are wonky or the hitboxes are off. It's difficult because the intention and design was to make it so. So much craftsmanship went into every aspect of every level, and it just radiates throughout the entire game. When you clear a particularly hard stage, the satisfaction you feel is immense, and it just drives you to keep going. The game never "screws you," but it isn't very forgiving either. If you die, you know exactly which mistake you made. Thankfully, extra lives are plentiful. And believe me, you're going to need them.
Man oh man, where do I begin? The variety of levels is huge. This keeps things from becoming stale while at the same time providing new and challenging experiences to the player. Even the standard platforming levels one would expect are brilliantly crafted. And once you start running for Gold Medals in Time Trials, you will see firsthand how every single piece of a stage is made to compliment the rest. Every enemy placement, every platform, obstacle, and the like are meticulously placed. It's great, and really makes the levels feel very cohesive. And if a particularly brilliant concept is used, it's often only used once. This makes it stand out even more, and prevents Retro from recycling like a lazy developer.
Underwater levels also make their return, and thankfully feel just as well-developed as the rest of the game. Different partner characters have different abilities underwater, just as they do on land.
The perennial favorite mine cart levels return, but this time there's several twists. An example would be the above-mentioned "3D" effect. At one point, you might be looking at the cart from a 45° angle, which allows you to jump back and forth between multiple rails before they dead end. It's a great revelation to an already cemented concept. The rocket barrel levels are also present, and have the same types of innovation as the mine cart ones.
DK is your main single player character. Only this time, in addition to adding Diddy to your team, you have the option of adding Dixie and Cranky as well. Each character has their own abilities and strengths.
Diddy has his rocket backpack, which allows you to hover in mid-air for a second longer than normal, which can be very helpful for making those tricky jumps and landings. While underwater, he can use his backpack to propel DK forward quickly for a short burst.
Dixie uses her ponytail to lift DK just a little bit higher than his normal jumping distance. It can also be used to get that extra hovering power like Diddy, which is why I prefer Dixie over him when I have the choice. While underwater, she can continuously propel DK forward to fight strong currents.
Cranky uses his cane to implement a DuckTales-esque bouncing attack. He can bounce off otherwise invulnerable enemies, as well as ground spikes/thorns. If you execute a roll jump, you can continually use Cranky's cane bounce to launch yourself forward without losing momentum (which is critical during certain Time Trials). While underwater, he can use his cane as a weapon against certain enemies.
Having a partner on your back also allows you to continue your basic roll attack indefinitely, as well as gain two extra hearts. Losing those two hearts means that DK is back on his own until another character barrel is discovered.
Funky returns to aid you in your quest, providing items at his shop that will assist you when you're in need. In addition to the items Cranky would sell you in Returns, Funky also offers things like a select partner at the beginning of a level and several life-saving items. I usually chose to pass up on most of these items, because they feel like a crutch, but I can see their appeal.
He also has a gashapon machine that gives you different figurines at random. Needless to say, getting full completion of the entire game is going to involve a lot of coins spent on this pretty trivial activity.
Sadly, Rambi is the only returning active animal buddy (Squawks is around, but only used to find puzzle pieces). Levels with Rambi in them feel haphazardly thrown in. It's really too bad, especially with the return of water levels. I would have loved Enguarde to make a re-appearance.
[UPDATE: Somebody informed me that the control scheme issue has since been rectified by Nintendo in a post-release patch. Nice.]
One of my only gripes about Tropical Freeze is the certain control layout options. You are able to use the Wii Remote + Nunchuk, GamePad, or Pro Controller. The GamePad has no real function other than as a basic controller (the screen goes dark when playing a level), so I opted to use my Pro Controller instead.
The game has four major buttons: The directional control, the jump button, the attack button (used for basic ground pound, rolling, etc.), and the "pull" button (used for pulling handles, etc. out of the ground).
You can change between two controller layouts: Left stick directional control, or D-Pad directional control. I like old school, so I initially opted for D-Pad directional control. However, the game then automatically switches the attack and "pull" buttons. Why?
There should really be four control schemes. Default roll/attack and "pull" buttons for both Left Stick and D-Pad controls, and swapped roll/attack and "pull" buttons for both Left Stick and D-Pad controls. There was no way I could play using the ZR button as my roll attack. It's so awkward to try and use that and the "B" button in tandem together. Therefore, I was forced to use the Left Stick for control. It wasn't the end of the world, I just would have preferred to use the D-Pad.
It's also worth mentioning that there isn't a "running" speed and a "walking" speed. It's just a default "forward movement." Holding down the roll button after a roll will not increase your movement speed. You can still hold the button down anyway (and I do out of habit), it just won't do anything differently than if you didn't.
David Wise returned to score this game, and he did a brilliant job. Every track has that classic DKC feeling, despite it being 2014. I like how instead of deciding to try and do something totally new and radical, he realized why he was hired to compose for this game and took his composition mindset from the mid-1990s and created new pieces. That's not easy to do, and I applaud him for it. If they wanted something totally new, they would have hired somebody else. But they were specifically aiming to capture that old-time DKC essence, so they went to the source. Wise manages to find that mid-to-late 90's spark of feel-good, atmospheric but melodically strong composition that he's most well known for and uses it to its full potential. Hell, the music in the level Mountain Mania sounds like it came straight out of Diddy Kong Racing. I love it. There are also small melodic and harmonic cues that immediately bring old-school tracks to mind. It just really feels like these tracks are totally interchangeable with the SNES-era ones.
As a side note, I am absolutely appalled that neither David Wise, Eveline Fischer, nor Robin Beanland received any credit whatsoever for Donkey Kong Country Returns. While I think Kenji Yamamoto is the bee's knees and love his work, he did not compose most of the music for Returns. He arranged it, sure, but the source material for many tracks is not his. The fact that only he and four other Japanese composers are credited for the game's music is an outrage. It's an even more blatant fact since many of the track titles are things like:
DK Island Swing Returns
Bonus Room Blitz Returns
Aquatic Ambience Returns
Voices of the Temple Returns
Forest Frenzy Returns
Treetop Rock Returns
Fear Factory Returns
Notice any patterns? They're just arrangements (often sounding lazily similar to their source material) of the SNES era's tracks. There is a tiny bit of original music, but it seems like filler more than anything else. Nearly all the tracks are arrangements of Wise and team's Donkey Kong Country work. Maybe they couldn't give them actual credit because of Rare being owned by Microsoft and all that, but you could still put their names in the "Thanks" or "Special Thanks" category. Don't have to pay money for that. Put their name freaking somewhere! I'm just really disappointed with Nintendo about that whole thing. They're better than that.
Some classic DKC tracks that weren't hijacked for Returns make their re-debut in Tropical Freeze. But Wise doesn't make a huge deal out of it. Returns' music was all about having the player reminisce about earlier times, but it imitated the magic rather than create it. It felt like a crutch. Tropical Freeze re-uses some classic DKC series tracks, but only for one/two levels (e.g. the Lockjaw's Locker music). It really works better this way, because it makes it feel more special, rather than trying to cram it down your throat at every turn. It also makes it easier to focus on the new, original, awesome tracks.
The enemies are from up North and have invaded the DK Islands, so naturally they're things like penguins and walruses. They felt more like classic enemies than the Tiki Tak Tribe from Returns, but didn't quite convince me all the way.
I would say it's because it's really, really hard to match the unrepeatable performance of the Kremlings and krew. Those characters are an iconic part of the series, and while I understand Retro's want to push things forward and be new, it contradicts what they're trying to do with this particular series. The entire point is to continue the Donkey Kong Country mentality, and the Kremlings are just as much a part of that as DK and friends.
But it is not simply because "they're Kremlings" that makes them so effective as enemies. I cannot emphasize that enough. Simply replacing the Tiki Tak Tribe or Snowmads with Kremlings would not solve the problem by a long shot.
What really made the Kremlings work so well as enemies was the variety. It wasn't the enemies themselves, it was the creative ability by that era's team. Holy crap. I'm talking about things like the enemies' actions. There were very few baddies that just walked towards you. Hell, entire levels would be built around one enemy's behavior. Here's some examples (and I've been playing DKC3 lately, so examples are from that):
Barrel Shield Bust-Up
Squeals on Wheels
Fish Food Frenzy
Krack Shot Kroc
Tyrant Twin Tussle
Unfortunately, Tropical Freeze has nowhere near the amount of variety in enemies. Even if they didn't use the Kremlings, but still got the enemy behavior variety down, I'd be over the moon. Sure, Tropical Freeze's baddies look the part, but they're basically all boring walking hitboxes you have to jump on. The game makes up for it with level design (often making the stage itself the greatest enemy), but having baddies act the part as well would have been icing on the cake. Retro just hasn't gotten Rare's enemy formulas yet. Oh well, practice makes perfect.
The bosses in Tropical Freeze were harder than I expected. There's a lot of phases and varieties of attacks utilized by each of them, and it really made the battles seem unique and well thought-out. They require skill, no doubt about it. No way you'll survive by trying to run into the boss with a "run his health out before mine" mentality. It was a dramatic improvement from Returns.
This game looks absolutely gorgeous. So much effort went into every aspect of every level. Utilizing the "3D" also allows levels to be seen from different perspectives, as well as launch through levels at a very rapid pace. The scenery is the best I've seen in a long time. I am incredibly impressed. Each World takes its theme to the maximum potential. It's more than just, "well, the water area has underwater rocks and stuff." The Bright Savannah was my favorite area to go through, while the Juicy Jungle impressed me the most with level innovation and variety.
Arguably the most challenging part of this game, the Time Trials require:
Near-flawless execution of the level is needed for that elusive Gold Medal. As stated above, you can really see how Retro designed each and every level to complement speed-running. I would run through a level a couple of times, testing out where exactly I needed to jump/roll/etc. for unhindered speed. Then I would start trying to do it as fast as possible. Often I would have what I thought was a damn good run, only to barely make a Silver. Then I would sit and analyze how the hell I was going to shave nearly thirty seconds off of my completion time. It was rough, and I'm still working on it.
If you have a great run in Time Trials, you can choose to upload it to Miiverse for all to see. This is great for both parties, because it lets you show off while showcasing ways for others to grab the gold as well. I really like this feature, and praise Nintendo and Retro for including it.
The standard unlockables return from Returns, such as music, concept art, 3D dioramas, and the like. They aren't particularly challenging to unlock, which is good. Because if you're knowingly including behind-the-scenes stuff, then you obviously want people to see them, and they should be able to do so relatively easily.
There's a lot of replay value here. Let's say you complete a level. Great! You can move on, but know that you can't unlock all parts of the game without obtaining all collectibles inside levels. Aside from the aforementioned puzzle pieces and KONG letters, the Time Trials really test your skill. Some of the harder, hidden levels can also bring you to your knees fairly easily, and will take quite a chunk of time away from you. Each level has a lot of exploration involved to collect everything, and more often than not you'll be frantically moving through a level and spot a lone puzzle piece but be unable to turn back. So you'll have to remember where it was and come back later.
"Hard Mode" also returns, but takes quite a bit to unlock in the first place. In this mode, you have one heart, there are no buddies to team up with, and there are no checkpoints. You don't have to reacquire puzzle pieces, but you do have to pick up the KONG letters. As a small condolence, you're allowed to choose which Kong member you'll play as. I breathed a sigh of relief upon figuring this out, because DK is definitely the toughest to use solo. I don't know if I'll have the patience to make it through the game again in Hard Mode, but we'll see. I imagine I'll move to other games for a while, then come back to Tropical Freeze just to do Hard Mode.
My only complaints are the nonsensical controls, lack of enemy variety, and lack of animal buddies (and seeming afterthought of Rambi's inclusion). Aside from those minor things, this game is an absolute blast. Easily 9 out of 10. The only recent 2D platformer that I've played recently that matches Tropical Freeze in terms of execution would be Rayman Legends. If you want a great challenge while at the same time seeing how perfectly a game can mesh together, then pick up Tropical Freeze. You won't be disappointed.