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.
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.