The best game of 2014 that I never played
Boy oh boy was I a fool to have neglected what is easily an underrated gem of the current generation. Thanks to the consistent reminders and high recommendation from Wizard Dojo, I eventually decided to give Tropical Freeze a slice of my time. While I extensively enjoyed the Donkey Kong Country series on the Super Nintendo, Diddy’s Kong Quest in particular is quite spectacular, I’ve always felt fairly alienated by its following as for some ineffable reason, I didn’t enjoy them nearly as much as the status quo. They are certainly excellent games, do not get me wrong, but they never beguiled me to the extent of others, and while they most definitely left an imprint, I felt an unsatisfied need for something more. Both a controversial and downright ludicrous opinion am I right? Whatever personal gripe that overstayed its welcome or minute element that felt omitted, Tropical Freeze bombastically rectifies all of my personal uncertainties with the series and rightfully fills the void of understanding Donkey Kong Country’s true brilliance. Not only is it a pristine example of level variety and game design, Tropical Freeze is also the most thrilling and exhilarating platformer I have ever played. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze harmoniously merges the frantic, moment-to-moment nature of reactionary platformers and the strategic and methodical tendencies of Super Mario into a seamless masterclass of gameplay, resulting in what is easily the Wii U’s crowning jewel. Tropical Freeze is the best game of 2014 that I never played and is not only my favourite game on Nintendo’s Wii U, but is also a new personal favourite of mine.
I simply don’t understand how Nintendo does it; how are they able to create such visual artistry and crisp graphical design with inferior hardware? This was the case with Mario Kart 8 – a gorgeous showcase which was equally visually stunning as it was fun – and Tropical Freeze proudly continues this tradition of black magic. Brief cutscenes showcase the quirky humor that’s set up through its initial moments but they also highlight Tropical Freeze’s subtle attention to detail and its graphical fidelity. The detail in Donkey Kong’s glorious fur, as it sways in the howling winds, is incredible and while it’s not necessarily a requirement for gaming greatness, it’s definitely a nice touch that elevates the overall experience. While I’ll touch on Tropical Freeze’s impeccable game design and level variety from a gameplay perspective, visually each world is thematically diversified – an expected implementation of most Nintendo platformers. Whether you’re trailing through the calming rays of the Bright Savannah or sliding along the icy slopes that have enveloped Donkey Kong Island, each world is visually and tonally multifarious, with no visual element overstaying its welcome. A specific visual implementation that strikes notable tones would be when certain levels cast the visual prevalence onto the environment itself and renders DK, his gang, and enemies alike to silhouettes, with the environments and silhouettes contrasting each other beautifully, encompassing a truly idiosyncratic feel. It would be downright criminal to not commend Tropical Freeze’s score as it’s as equally underrated as the game itself. While I love the original score of Diddy’s Kong Quest – a game with a musical score that is beloved by many – I would have to say that Tropical Freeze would take the cake for me if I had to choose between the two. It simply embodies such a versatile nature which conveys moments of tranquility and serenity but also encompasses aggressive tones which appropriately fit alongside the more intense platforming moments, all of which creates a remarkable score in a manner of which resonates with my preferences. On a presentational level, there’s honestly not much to complain about with Tropical Freeze. Its visual and audio counterparts are technically sound and the game has its own subtle take with its charm and humor. However, Tropical Freeze’s exceptional gameplay is where this platformer truly shines as you’d be hard pressed to find a better modern 2D platformer than this underrated Wii U gem.
On the surface, Tropical Freeze is rather similar to its corresponding series, as it should be, but there is more than meets the eye with this platformer. Players are able to not only take control of the titular ape but also utilize the abilities of his trusting friends and family. Strolling around as DK is satisfactory enough but each Kong and their respective ability acts as an upgrade of sort which elevates the overall quality and precision of platforming. Dixie Kong’s iconic helicopter spin is an absolute lifesaver and easily my favourite of the abilities. Cranky Kong’s pogo stick ability is reminiscent to the NES classic Ducktales and its utilization is fantastic. While Diddy Kong’s jetpack was my least favourite of the three, it was still better than plain old powerless DK with no enhanced traversal, and truth be told, the jetpack was quite useful in certain instances. Not only are the levels and worlds extremely varied on a visual standpoint but new gameplay elements are implemented constantly so each and every instance feels fresh and exciting. Tropical Freeze encompasses thrilling vehicular segments which are absolutely insane and chaotic in the best way possible. Minecart sequences (which have become a staple in the series) have been modified so they cater to a more frantic, adrenaline-inducing nature due to the engrossing destruction – where pieces of the environment that have been obliterated by a giant buzz saw or a vicious tornado hurl towards you, becoming your eventual platform as you scurry away from the daunting threat of imminent doom. These destructive sequences are not exclusive to vehicular segments as traditional platforming has its own fair share of exhilarating moments, all of which culminates into an amazing collection of breath-taking set pieces which give the Uncharted series a run for its money. However not all vehicular mechanisms are as responsive to control as the minecart; the rocket barrel in particular was surprisingly clunky and undoubtedly harbored my primary frustrations with the game. While the game doesn’t feature the entire ensemble of animal buddies from the Donkey Kong Country series, which is an undoubtable shame, riding a top of the only animal buddy in Tropical Freeze, Rambi the Rhinoceros, is exhilarating to say the least as you ram your way through piles of destructible environment as the level’s very physical structure begins to fall apart. So while Tropical Freeze lacks the versatility of a diverse cast of animal buddies to control, its set pieces are astounding and no other game from the original series can touch its masterful implementation.
One of my biggest complaints with the original Country series was the under water levels; I was admittedly never a fan of the underwater sections as the controls felt rather sluggish in comparison to their on foot counterpart. While the underwater sections of Tropical Freeze are by no means my favourite, the improved controls and level design make them infinitely more enjoyable. Levels are also no longer restricted to specific structural tendencies as certain levels can seamlessly incorporate both traditional on-foot and underwater platforming. The responsive and slick controls transition well to Tropical Freeze’s reactionary nature on the platforming spectrum, requiring a resounding sense of precision as these frantic levels can be difficult to maneuver successfully. As far as modern platformers go, Tropical Freeze definitely leans on the more difficult side of things, boasting a welcomed challenge that is apparent at first sight. Despite the game’s noticeable frustrations with its difficulty, Tropical Freeze is admittedly fair, requiring clear strategic thinking in terms of platform and landing placement, and even the rocket barrel segments start to exude elements of fun as you begin to utilize your understanding of the specific level layout and controls to overcome any exceeding hardships. Tropical Freeze also caters to the more strategic and methodical with a plethora of secrets and collectibles to attain, which is a necessary gameplay element for platformers in my eyes. Each level is filled to the brim with K-O-N-G letters to obtain, which unlock challenging bonus levels for their respective world, and puzzle pieces to discover – which are the more challenging collectible to obtain as they are hidden in the most secretive places and can also be attained by completing secret bonus stages. It’s a respective gameplay element that is to be expected from this genre, but it’s downright addictive nonetheless. Boss fights are also an exhilarating factor of Tropical Freeze and also adhere to its challenging nature, implementing a multitude of difficulty stages that progress during each battle. While the game does boast quite a challenging aura, it does encompass a few elements that accessibly eases the pain of its difficulty. For those who wish to, you can use your collection of Banana Coins to purchase a slew of items ranging from extra life balloons to potions that give you an extra heart or provide extra protection for vehicles. These items, which are entirely optional, are excellent inclusions for those who are either not too familiar with platformers or want to experience Tropical Freeze in a less stressful manner. Lastly, Tropical Freeze, in its entirety, is playable in local coop, with your friend taking the role of either Diddy, Dixie, or Cranky, equipped with their respective ability. While this is definitely an excellent inclusion, there are two minute flaws with its implementation. With the other player controlling the other Kong, player one feels slightly underpowered as Donkey Kong simply doesn’t have any traversal enhancements. Also the game would benefit greatly from a drop in/out coop system as having to exit the level and add player two through the options menu is a rather inconvenient system. Personal qualms aside, Tropical Freeze is an exceptional experience whether engaged in solo play or enjoying the ride with a friend.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a true masterclass of the modern 2D platformer, an excellent testament to impeccable level design and addictive gameplay. Its thrilling set pieces are genre defining and set Tropical Freeze apart from the competition, crafting an exhilarating and novel experience for the genre. While its difficulty and level of challenge may be off putting to those who’ve become accustomed to the optional difficulty mentality of modern platformers, completing levels in a swift, technical fashion after a constant barrage of deaths is quite the satisfying sensation. Nintendo have continued their tried and true tradition of exquisite graphical fidelity on the Wii U and creating fun and engaging experiences that can be enjoyed by players with various gaming backgrounds. Not only is Tropical Freeze arguably Retro Studio’s finest work to date (I’d personally say that Metroid Prime is their greatest achievement but you could make a case for either) but it’s also one of the greatest games of all-time and rightfully so. I honestly cannot comprehend how this game has not received a resounding following of popularity and acclaim. Tropical Freeze is a breath-taking experience; whether if you’re referring to its gorgeously vibrant colour pallet, its melodically sound musical score, the exceptionally tight and responsive platforming controls, the absurdly intense set pieces of mass destruction, and its cleverly placed secrets and goodies, Tropical Freeze never ceased to amaze me, never overstaying its welcome or leaving me unsatisfied for more. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is simply an underrated gem, an unsung hero that has been possibly buried by the negative connotations associated with the Wii U. If you so happen to own Nintendo’s struggling console, do us all a favour and support this work of art that Retro Studios have beautifully crafted; it’s a thrilling experience that you will never forget.