Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze: The Kotaku Review

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze: The Kotaku Review

Let me tell you about a moment in world five of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. It’s a little late in the game, but it’s oh so typical (and not a spoiler, unless you count the placement of platforms as a spoiler). How you feel about this moment will determine how you feel about this game.

Here we are, playing as Donkey Kong, with Dixie Kong on our back. Technically we’re playing two-player mode right now, but not really (more on that later):

The game we’re playing is a sidescroller. A platformer. A very difficult platformer. And this scene here is Very Difficult Platforming 101. Or 102. Or whatever the more advanced class is.

See, we’ve got some problems. Hazards, even. We also have some options.

As Donkey Kong, we can jump, roll or slap the ground. With Dixie on our back, we can float in the air and actually propel ourselves upward a little more, then drift downward with a little left or right movement. He can also jump up and grab any grass that is growing from an overhang. That’s what we want to do here.


The thing we want to grab is on a swivel.

More problematically, we’re in some sort of power plant that is coursing with electricity. If any of the little white nodes we can see come in contact with any of the spherical cage-like things, then things get electrified.

That’s bad.

Sorry, Dixie!

We need to get to the moving platform on the right that’s sliding from side to side. The best course of action? Grab that grassy ceiling, clamber over to the right of it before it can tilt too much and then jump onto that moving platform…

Of course, the moving platform…. moves! It also has one of those nodes that can connect with one of those cage things, so it can briefly be electrified. It also passes under two deadly electrified barriers.

As you’re playing, you can’t see many of these hazards coming, you know. You see one problem, solve it, see more problems coming, and, if you think too much about solving them, you die.

This is how you play the game.

Try. Die. Retry.

You will improve.


And then you’ll die again.

You’ll die again, because Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze is a game you play in inches. It’s a game that will teach you by killing you, which I must say is fun some of the time. Sometimes, it’s maddening. Sometimes it feels like the worst of an older style of game design that sure felt like it was conceived to eat quarters or waste kids’ time and keep them occupied to justify the cost of a cartridge.

Then again, getting past one of the tough obstacles that killed you before can be bliss.

Would that make you happy? Would it be worth it?

Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is the fifth Donkey Kong Country sidescroller, the second made by Nintendo’s Austin, Texas-based Retro Studios in concert with Nintendo producers from Kyoto, Japan. The games have always been difficult. They’ve also been among the slicker-looking Nintendo games. Original series composer David Wise also made them some of the best-sounding games, and he’s back in this new one to do the same.

Nintendo’s fairly glutted with sidescrolling heroes, though, and I must say that Donkey Kong never quite seemed to measure up to his peers to me. His games were fun, but lacked the ingenious level design of the best Mario and Yoshi sidescrollers. His rogues gallery was funny, his move-set decent, but in both regards he was trumped by Kirby.

What Donkey Kong seemed to have over Nintendo’s other characters were development teams that saw the ape, for some reason, as an opportunity to push for the highest-end graphics possible. He inspired game creators to make his games technical showpieces, with each and every level an impressive set-piece. In that regard — if not in terms of how difficult the Donkey Kong Country games have been — the series might be something of Nintendo’s way of making something of a sidescrolling Call of Duty, prioritising spectacle in a company that typically tends not to. The results, realised in Tropical Freeze, are often stunning.

One level will take place in a storm:

Another in a blaze:

Another in a massive sawmill:

Another under water with an angry octopus acting out:

If Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze gave its players pause to more than catch their breath or curse in frustration with some of its devilish levels, I think it would elicit a lot of wows.

It’s a sidescroller done as a blockbuster.

Except… it’s not.

It’s not because blockbusters — think, Hollywood blockbusters — go down smoothly and easily. So do Call of Duty campaigns. So do Kirby platformers and a lot of other games. Not this one. No, that’s the twist here: we’ve got a game that looks like it’s made for pop appetites but is tuned to be enjoyed by the brave and hardcore. It’s tuned to be played by people who have an appetite for entertainment that’s painful to consume. No pain, no gain of fun, as it were.

You know what? Tons of people actually do love the excruciatingly difficult Flappy Bird. Maybe there’s a large crowd of people who’d love a game as tough as Tropical Freeze too. Still, effortless popcorn this ain’t.

So what have we got?

Six worlds. Three possible partner characters, all of whom can help you jump further and all of whom can be controlled in co-op. An invading force of penguins, seals, walruses and other cold-weather interlopers messing with Donkey Kong’s tropical hangouts. Lots of bananas. Lots of gold medals to collect. Lots of platforms to jump on, vines to grab, minecarts to ride, barrels from which to be launched and rockets to ride. There’s Rambi the rhino too.

Also… ugh… six pattern-recognition-based boss battles that remind me why I hate boss battles (I know, I know, you and many others love just those kinds of encounters!). Talk about a part of games that waste your time.

There’s nothing in Tropical Freeze that will shock DKC veterans and a lot that will comfort them. This is the first high-definition version of the series, after all. It’s the first on Wii U and a reminder that Nintendo’s console can do some technically-impressive stuff. There’s an appealing confidence to the game’s technical proficiency and to its ignoring of the Wii U controller’s screen for anything other than off-TV play. There’s no hardware gimmick to the game, and in that way it feels pleasingly pure.

There’s also an impressive coherence to the game’s look. Levels don’t just have themes but are built and animate in such a way that they feel like they actually fit together. They seem like they could actually exist, if that makes sense when talking about a gaming genre in which we don’t question why platforms can float in mid-air.

Here’s an example of that visual logic, taken from a level in the game’s fourth world:

To justify the game’s difficulty or perhaps to simply compensate for it, Tropical Freeze‘s designers give players lots of opportunities to gain free lives as well as the ability to enter the game’s levels with extra powers.

Those special powers, purchased with medals collected in the levels, can give players an extra heart in their life meter, a painless recovery the first time they fall into a level’s bottomless pit or even a brief period of invincibility after their first accidental bump with an enemy. I burned through these abilities a lot, especially for boss battles, but I thankfully never lacked medals with which to purchase more. Thank goodness. I needed them, through to the end.

The game’s levels are full of bananas to collect, every hundredth one granting a free life. You’ll miss a lot of the bananas if you don’t have a good eye for finding hidden areas. The game is stuffed with them, which is one of the most delightful aspects of Tropical Freeze. There are hidden secrets everywhere. So, pay attention! Be curious!

As generous as the game is with bonuses, the game’s approaches to difficulty don’t come together as tidily and successfully as its graphics and sound do. The two player co-op system, for example, seems designed to be exploited.

When played by two people, the partner player can explore and fight on their own or simply ride on Donkey Kong’s back, shooting pellets to stun enemies. No big deal there. But playing co-op also doubles the amount of hearts you’ve got, two for each character. That makes a world of difference when playing the game’s toughest levels. And that makes it a no-brainer for a solo player like me to simply turn on a second controller, put the partner character on Donkey Kong’s back and swing on through the level. Double the health bar! Plus: the partner characters all have added abilities that let Donkey Kong jump better, making every single platforming challenge easier. And, yes, you can get these partner characters in singleplayer mode, but you can’t assume that you’ll always have one with you unless you’re playing in co-op.

The only reasons not to exploit the co-op as a solo player are 1) the game chews up two lives at a time when you’re playing this way and 2) the second controller will go to sleep every few minutes, pausing the game. Neither is a big deal, but it still feels odd and very un-Nintendo for this option to not just be available but for it to be advisable. It feels sloppy.

With dollops of patience and a sharpening of skills, any player can have a great time with Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze. Lack that, and you’ll be miserable. I recommend this game for players who want some pain — some pain wrapped in a beautiful adventure.

Just be sure to time your jumps right.

And try to get used to this.


  • From reading a bunch of reviews, the main complaint seems to be that “it’s hard and when you die you have to retry stuff”. That’s… not a negative. Meat Boy, Dark Souls, Demon’s Souls. Those, as with Returns and Tropical Freeze require you to play with a certain degree of precision. Do the wrong thing, get punished. Do the right thing, succeed. If you want something you can kind of play on autopilot, play Kirby – I mean Christ, he can’t even die in some games. If you want something challenging that requires being switched on and having reflexes and timing, Returns and Tropical Freeze. Much like a large portion of the kids I teach, there’s a reason Kirby is a shapeless, gelatinous blob.

  • Donkey Kong is and always has been stupidly hard….. And I love that. If this new one is hard then I can’t wait to play it. Most games are too easy these day, it’s not a matter of if I can finish it, but when. I had stacks of games as a kid that I could never finish

    • Donkey Kong is and always has been stupidly hard….. And I love that.

      Well, apart from the first DKC game on the SNES. That was actually almost insultingly easy apart from a couple of specific levels, unless you were trying to speedrun it 😛 It wasn’t until DKC2 that the difficulty was cranked up.

    • Most interestingly, the “Super Guide” feature that Nintendo started implementing in their games a few years back doesn’t appear in this game. In DKCR if you died a few times you had the option for “Super Kong” to finish the level for you so that you could progress, but none of the collectibles counted.

      Super Guide is obviously still a thing at Nintendo, since both Mario 3D World and the upcoming Yoshi’s New Island have it, but interesting that Retro didn’t include it this time.

      • I think the more hardcore players of DKC likely never used it. I know I didn’t. Even when it was there begging for me to use it I was like “hell no, I’m finishing this level on my own”.

  • It interesting that people think that Nintendo games are for kids because they are all colorful and too easy, then when a hard game comes out the difficulty listed in reviews is always a negative.

    So people want Nintendo to make harder games and when they do people complain because there too difficult, it boggles the mind.

  • Everyone commenting here gets it. The reviewer doesn’t.

    I played COD: Ghosts recently and it felt like I was playing a movie that I could interact with but ultimately had to follow a boring linear path. Looks pretty yes, but lacks challenge and substance.

    Played Tropical Freeze this morning. Love it. Whilst difficult it’s also rewarding. Parts were frustrating but the frustration was at myself for missing a platform or similar, not at the game’s difficulty.

  • I’m in agreement that in the previous DKC title when I died it was my fault. I didn’t react in time to a jump or missed a timed a duck etc etc. I would get annoyed when I missed it like 3 times in a row but I was getting mad at myself not at the game. The game wasn’t being unfair it was making me memorize the pattern, timing and execution required to progress.

  • Get good? You don’t like it because you’re bad at platformers, that’s cool, but it’s one of the better games I’ve played in a while.

  • Ummm… I’m pretty sure the author isn’t saying “it’s difficult and therefore bad.” He even opens with “How you feel about this moment will determine how you feel about this game.” That literally states that personal taste will affect how you feel about the difficulty in this game, and as far as I can tell I would not like this game. Why? Because it seems like it’s more I wanna be the guy gaidan than Dark souls.

    As far as I have experienced every “bullshit” moment in Dark Souls is forewarned. The bridge where the Drake comes down and lights on fire and kills you? the bridge is charred black so something involving fire is going to happen and maybe it will involve that dragon that landed in front of our character before. Doesn’t tell you how to solve the puzzle, but it does forewarn you of the danger.

    In the clip the author used he platformed past the current obstacle only to be thrust into a second obstacle that was previously off-screen and without enough time to observe and prepare donkey kong died. Maybe there was a checkpoint between the two obstacles that I was unaware of because I haven’t played this game, IDK. But dying to something I had no hope of surviving except for blind luck is definitely something I don’t want to experience in the games I play

    • You can probably rest at ease, the game requires some pretty precise timing in quite a few of the sections (that I have so far played through, 2 worlds complete) but I never felt like I didn’t have enough time to react to a change after it occurred.

      There was maybe one place I can think of that I felt like the game cheap-shotted me but upon reflection, it was no issue. The place in question, there are scrolling platforms and an area at the top of the frame concealed by trees, I was behind said concealment and one of the platforms had an enemy on it that I couldn’t see yet.

      The game is challenging and rewarding when you complete a difficult platforming section while at the same time not being too punishing if you are struggling. You are not likely to run short on lives and checkpoints usually come pretty close after difficult portions so you get some regular relief.

  • Stephen Totilo almost could fool me that he’s a 20-something years old that was brought up on the latter wave of easier, non-hardcore-friendly, market-widening games. Gamers that were raised in the old wave, the old Megamans, Super Metroid, Battletoads, the original DKCs, etc. crave this kind of challenge, which very few games nowadays dare to have. That negative side of his review sold me on the game far more than his positive opinions.

  • Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze was the reason I bought a wii u and the only disappointing aspect of the game is that it is too short. Any time they threw a cheap shot at you they were kind enough to give you a heart afterwards. The mine card and rocket levels were amazing and they give you two lives this time around so there is room for error (player error not poor game design). Game reviews complaining about difficulty are frustrating because that’s what veteran gamers want, not having your hand held like in Kirby and yoshi games (moreso just new games). I want to give retro studios a pat on the back because I absolutely loved this game. This guy needs to man up. My buddy and I beat this game in a day with a rule that we drank at every checkpoint. If you think it’s difficult now try our rule for some real fun ; )

  • The scene that the reviewer describes at the start is from world 7, not world 5. Furthermore there are 7 worlds and bosses, not 6. Sloppy.

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