If there’s one Nintendo game Canadians can understand, it’s Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. In the opening cinematic, everybody’s favourite tie-wearing ape is celebrating a birthday on a sunny and warm island with his friends and sidekicks Diddy, Dixie and Cranky. In rolls a shadowy bad guy harnessing the very power of winter itself, who freezes the island and blows the Kong clan out of their home with a frigid gust of wind. Coming in the midst of a exceedingly cold real-world season in North America, the idea of winter as the enemy in a video game is an easy one to grasp.
Tropical Freeze provides a virtual vacation as it features Donkey Kong trying to reclaim his home island. The voyage takes him through a number of other warm and inviting locations that have so far escaped the cold clutches of the mysterious villain. The crisp, high-definition visuals are undeniably the highlight of the game; Nintendo’s top simian – now a full third of a century old – never looked so good. You almost wish you could be there with him to take in the sunny tropics, even if you might have to battle evil penguins and go on the occasional ride in a mine cart to do so.
Unfortunately, beyond the visuals the game itself is disappointing. Tropical Freeze is another in a long line of side-scrolling platformers where the basic object is to jump from one ledge to another without dying.
A lot of platformers require players to learn patterns and execute split-second timing, but Tropical Freeze takes it to next level by being almost completely unforgiving. There’s one sequence where DK rides atop a rhino as the ground beneath him collapses that must have taken me 20 tries thanks to the steed’s unpredictable and often uncontrollable gait. I rage-quit once and chucked the gamepad to the ground twice, and that was relatively early in the game. There’s no denying this is a particularly tough platformer.
That said, there isn’t much that’s inventive here, or that hasn’t been done before – and not just in previous Donkey Kong titles. In fact, if the characters and settings were somewhat changed, you could almost mistake this for a typical Mario game. Besides cosmetics, not much distinguishes the two. There are lots of hidden power-ups and secret levels to be found, many of which DK can access by teaming up with his diminutive sidekicks, which are indeed perhaps the game’s only differentiator. Diddy, Dixie and Cranky each have their own respective abilities, which they confer to DK when sitting on his back. Diddy’s jet-pack allows the duo to glide over short distances while Dixie’s pony tail serves as a helicopter rotor that can boost them to higher ledges. Cranky can pogo bounce on his cane, thereby making it safe to traverse spike pits and other hazards. The powers they confer aren’t too distant from those that Mario typically gains by eating various mushrooms.
Bringing in a second player to control DK’s sidekick does no one any favours. The two characters are considerably weaker and less able to take on the game’s assorted rigours on their own, with tough sequences really only beatable when one player is riding on the other’s back. When that’s the case, there really isn’t much point to having two players. My wife and I played together for a few hours before agreeing that the game is better and easier when taken in alone.
This amped-up difficulty and the relative lack of new ideas make it tough to really enjoy Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, despite its beautifully inviting environs. While newcomers who haven’t played this sort of game a hundred times before may find it entertaining, veteran platformer fans are likely to find it trods a little too frequently on well-worn ground.