One of the demos I tried at E3 today was none other than Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, a new game developed by Retro Studios which was announced by Nintendo earlier today. Following in the footsteps of Donkey Kong Country Returns, Tropical Freeze takes the Kongs on another sidescrolling adventure through DK Isle filled with barrel blasts and jungle baddies, this time with an arctic twist.
Tropical Freeze centers around the jungle invasion of the Vikings from the frigid northern seas, replacing the fan-favorite Kremling Krew and the recently-retired Tiki Tak Tribe as the game’s enemies. Personally, while I longed for the return of King K. Rool and his bumbling minions, as long as the Kremlings are absent, I’m very pleased with the addition of the Vikings. Being so historically centered around animal life, it’s only fair that animals reclaim the antagonists’ role for Donkey Kong’s first outing on Wii U. Unfortunately, however, the Vikings in the demo function in largely the same way as their cursed wooden predecessors, so the change in enemies between Returns and Tropical Freeze seems to be based almost exclusively in appearance.
Judging from the trailer and of course the whole concept of the game, Tropical Freeze focuses heavily on frozen tundras, which I find to be a charmingly funny contrast to the typical equatorial setting. Unfortunately, the demo of Tropical Freeze doesn’t show off much of the glacial atmosphere, but it did introduce a lovely new mechanic making a return from the classic Country trilogy: swimming.
Swimming in Tropical Freeze is quite different from the mechanic found in the original three Donkey Kong Country titles. First and foremost, swimming is no longer the primary (nor only) focus of levels, but rather short sections between platforming action, which does well to keep up the game’s pace. Beyond use, swimming feels very much inspired by Super Mario Galaxy, as the Kong family’s aquatic motions are flawlessly smooth and work best when swimming in circles or shaking the Wii remote to dash forward. Unlike the original trilogy, the Kong family must now worry about oxygen when swimming under water. Who’d have thought that gorillas needed to breathe?
Further additions include ducking in minecarts to avoid low-hanging obstacles, as well “plucking,” a simple action by which the Kongs can trigger certain changes — such as making new platforms appear and revealing hidden bonus rooms — by plucking a stopper of sorts out of the ground. The Kongs can also now grab and throw certain enemies in a manner similar to barrels, which offers a few new minor puzzle opportunities by throwing enemies at targets and allowing collectibles to be, you know, collected. In essence, changes like these are minor and show strong potential if used to their absolute fullest, but their use in the demos is frankly quite boring and indicates that they won’t be anything but very minor alterations to the original Returns experience.
Visually speaking, Tropical Freeze is a nice step up from Returns on the Wii, thanks to the Wii U’s HD visuals. On top of sheer graphical fidelity and the gorgeously rendered monkey fur, Tropical Freeze introduces a few beautiful changes in camera angles which really liven up the game when Kongs fly from barrel to barrel. Sadly, the exciting dynamic view only applies during aerial sections and does little to change the familiar ground-based sidescrolling gameplay.
At its core, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze plays exactly as one would expect a sequel to 2010’s Donkey Kong Country Returns to play. The look and feel of the game is remarkably similar, and Nintendo does decently well in the way of new material with additions like swimming and even Dixie Kong, but so soon after the release of Returns, Tropical Freeze is ultimately underwhelming. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy to see Donkey Kong getting some more love — and for those who have never played Returns, buying Tropical Freeze is a no-brainer for its gorgeous art direction and the stellar core mechanics that Retro has worked so hard on, but series veterans will largely find it to be more of the same.
Another outing on DK Isle would have been perfectly fit for launch a year or two away, but as for 2013, Tropical Freeze appears to be too similar in style and too close in time to its predecessor to be worth much more than a reserved, “Oh, that’s cool.”