Retro Studios received a bit of grief when the world found out they were making this instead of another Metroid Prime. By the world, I mean 3 angry nerds on a videogame forum with Samus avatars. Despite Donkey Kong Country Returns being a huge hit and selling over 5 million, gamers were surprised when Nintendo green-lit a sequel. To be honest I liked DKCR but not nearly as much as the Metroid Prime games, so I had one foot in the entitled playground myself. At the end of the day we found out Retro gets to make whatever they want which is a good thing. DKCR was a refreshing change for Retro and they did an amazing job, but it didn’t hit that special spot for me and the level design felt a bit tame. Tropical Freeze however, is an entirely different beast. A beast that was frozen and injected with tropical goodness, then unleashed on unsuspecting Wii U owners with tropical fury. I bought the game about a month ago and I’ve already gone through all the levels, then back through them again on Hard Mode. It was a brutal challenge and one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but perfect level design kept me going and I’ve loved every second of the struggle. In my mind it is (without a doubt, far and away) the best 2D platformer ever made and one of the greatest games ever. Retro Studios completely blew my expectations apart and if you’re having trouble getting excited I’m here to sell you some Tropical Freeze. It’ll enhance your performance and keep you going all night for weeks on end.
Tropical Freeze combines the purest possible form of gaming in 2D platforming, with an absurd amount of visual polish and craft. Walking through these environments transcends anything I’ve ever experienced, the atmosphere is thick and mighty with the purpose and presence of a 3D world. There is an unprecedented amount of detail and love put into the environments, not just for a platformer but compared to any game I’ve ever played. It’s not the overwhelming Resident Evil 6 style detail where you think “wow, there’s a lot of shit“. Instead it’s meticulously crafted to make every area feel unique and special. Combined with amazing music it creates a wholeness that makes you feel like you’re there. Every jump means something because you want to be there and prove to the whole island that you are Donkey Kong.
The controls are fundamental to this whole masterpiece because their incredible precision makes Donkey Kong Island feel like your backyard. I did not have one frustrating “he should have done this” moment in my entire 50 hours playing the game. It was always “I should have done this“. Donkey Kong isn’t the most agile beast among 2D platforming stars, but he walks with pride, rolls with enthusiasm, and jumps like he’s going to kill something (usually himself). The fluidity and accuracy of all these inputs does justice to the king of the jungle and makes every platform feel reachable, and every enemy beatable even if they require a lot of thought and self-control. The levels are designed in a way where you have to be extremely aware of the environment and this makes the entire game feel like a danger zone. An incredibly beautiful tropical island that requires your full attention, I can not think of a better recipe for an engaging game experience.
Level design is ridiculous to the point where I need a stupid GIF to express how I felt playing some of them for the first time. If I had to pick my 5 favourite levels ever they’d probably all be from this game, and there isn’t a single bad level. With the amount of polish in this game there is no repetition and every level not only has a unique graphical style, but gameplay approach. There are 6 worlds but honestly it feels like each level is a world. Some levels I died at least 50 times but it just made me look at everything even closer, and you forget anything else even exists. Hard Mode is very brutal in this game. It gives you one heart and removes all checkpoints, effectively asking you to perform a perfect run through the level. Appreciation of the design is the only way to conquer it, and frustration will just kill you faster. You have to grab your inner beast and conquer it, and more importantly never give up and feel like you can’t do something. You are Donkey Kong, you can do anything. It sounds brutal and intimidating, but the surreal graphics and music have a great way of soothing the harshness of this tropical challenge.
The beauty of this game extends far beyond technical expertise, with subtle animations and unique objects perfectly placed to create the narrative of a level. Grass blows in the wind, trees dance to a groove, platforms crumble under stress and entire formations of land fall victim to a levels unique harshness. Shit is always happening whether it’s fruit being sliced apart or a bushfire sweeping out of control. The music is also dynamic which means it changes throughout the level, for example when you dive into the water. I have to bring special attention to the water levels because they are absolutely stunning. The swimming controls are the best I’ve ever experienced in a game, Donkey Kong still has weight to him yet he can turn 90 degrees very quickly with a beautiful sweeping athletic stroke. It’s nice to see all the training for Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games has paid off in his own game. I’ve read some comments where people struggled with the water levels but I don’t understand that, they were some of the only Hard Mode levels I beat in my first attempt. Just swim freely and appreciate the surroundings, Donkey Kong is far more agile than he looks. Screenshots don’t do the water levels justice because the music creates an incredible ambience and everything is alive, but here’s one anyway.
The game is just so good I urge you to play it by any means necessary. Buy a Wii U, trade in some shit games, work a few extra hours, sell your car, eat only bananas for a week, there is a way. OK, admittedly I don’t have the high ground here since I bought it 6 months late myself, and know the struggles of life all too well. I’m just trying to nail down the point that this game is much better than I ever thought it could be. It does justice to everything special and wonderful about videogames, and after exploring this game so heavily I’m convinced Retro Studios are the best development team in the world right now. They can make whatever the fuck they want after this, and take as much time as they need. Since Donkey Kong exploded into arcades, it hasn’t had a mighty presence as a franchise outside the DKC trilogy and Jungle Beat. DKC Returns was a triumphant return to glory, but Tropical Freeze has truly established the king of the jungle where he belongs. At the very top. This game is the very best DK game, the very best Retro Studios game, the very best 2D platformer. Retro Studios did not leave a single barrel unsmoked and it feels like they were trying to prove something to the world with the superhuman amount of effort put into this game. On a scale of tropical goodness, you’d get 200 banana smoothies if you crammed this game into a juicer. Just don’t try to drink them all in a day.