Seeing everything there is to see in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a privilege, not a right. While some platformers present their content to you on a silver platter, daintily spoon-feeding each level into your eager mouth, Tropical Freeze tells you to go out into the snow barefoot, run around, and find your own damn stages. And as someone who's always loved DK's run-'n'-jump franchise, I wouldn't have it any other way. This demanding 2.5D sequel on the Wii U might refuse to go easy on you, but if you can handle some trial-and-error punishment, progressing through this frosty jungle is a gratifying delight.
Unlike Hell, Donkey Kong Island has frozen over, courtesy of the arctic Viking animals known as Snowmads. Donkey Kong makes tracks to reclaim his banana-laden home, with Diddy in tow--and this time, Dixie and Cranky Kong are joining the fun. If you played Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Wii U or 3DS, then you've got a good idea of what to expect from Tropical Freeze: vibrant graphics, catchy music, precision jumping, and more secrets than Cranky could shake a walking stick at. Oh, and a few levels so difficult that they make you want to rip your fur off with duct tape, just to feel alive again. But don't worry--that challenge is a good thing, because Tropical Freeze is difficult for all the right reasons.
First off, you've got far more control over the Kongs this go-around. No more awkward Wiimote waggling to perform the most basic of moves--Tropical Freeze ditches motion controls entirely, which is a godsend when traversing over the trickier chasms and collapsible platforms. And with three piggy-backing buddies to choose from, you set the pace of your play. Diddy's jetpack is great for beginners who need a little leeway on their jumps, Cranky Kong's invincible cane bounce is unwieldy but invaluable once mastered, and Dixie's extra mid-air lift is a happy middle ground between the two. Usually, you're given your pick of the three; this creates an awesome dynamic where you can experiment with everyone or endeavor to truly master one Kong.
All the backup Kongs get a chance to shine in the inventive levels, which stay varied from start to finish. No imaginative gimmick gets reused, save for the prerequisite mine cart and rocket stage--and contrary to what you might expect, Tropical Freeze isn't a game composed entirely of snow levels. The six islands (with more awaiting completionists) unite a ton of nifty themes, from savannah brushfires to sinking ships, and the difficulty scales up at just the right pace. That said, the challenge starts pretty steep as it is, with hidden exits and devilishly shrouded collectibles showing up even in the first level.
That challenge is perfectly encapsulated by Tropical Freeze's boss fights: grueling, but never insurmountable. You might expend upwards of ten lives figuring out how to reach a single checkpoint or overcome a single patterned attack from a boss, but you'll collect 1-Up balloons like candy, softening the blow of each fatal learning experience. Tropical Freeze has a helpful item shop stocked with extra lives, additional hearts, and one-time life savers, but there aren't any permanent upgrades--just Band-Aid items to help mend the damages of a single level.
I played through the majority of the game using the Pro Controller, which felt comfortable even in the trickiest of platforming sections. But I have one minor quibble: Why can't I remap the controls to my liking? Tropical Freeze refuses to let you recreate a SNES controller layout with the D-pad, Y to roll, and B to jump; I was forced to use the joystick instead. Again, it's a trivial complaint, but it seems silly to make configuring a truly old-school control scheme impossible.
Unlike the generous New Mode in the 3DS port of Returns, DK and his cohorts can only survive a mere two hits in Tropical Freeze. You'd think this would make each stage feel like a treacherous slog, but it somehow has the opposite effect: Tropical Freeze forces you to improve at such a drastic pace that you have no choice but to get better. Soon enough, you'll be cruising past obstacles you once found overwhelming, and it feels pretty awesome when you feel your skill increasing with each level. If you're determined to collect every last puzzle piece and KONG letter, your journey won't end until you've achieved nothing less than platforming expertise.
Alas, this kind of exacting difficulty translates miserably in co-op play, which boils down to two kinds of experiences: a frantic circus of same-screen confusion, or the second player sacrificing almost all their agency by hopping on DK's back. The latter is nice for your lesser-skilled sibling or parent, letting them play along by shooting enemy-stunning projectiles. But true cooperative play is so discombobulating that it just doesn't feel worth it, especially in the later worlds.
The benefits of Tropical Freeze being on Wii U are subtle, but they're definite there. At first glance, Tropical Freeze looks like a slightly more polished version of Returns--which isn't a knock, because that game was gorgeous to begin with. But when you take the time to examine the smaller features, particularly when you're not the one playing, the graphics really start to shine, with impressive depth and detail to each backdrop. As for the GamePad, it might as well not exist. Tropical Freeze makes zero use of the second screen beyond off-TV play, though that in no way detracts from the experience.
Tropical Freeze is a bit like Cranky Kong himself: it expects and demands so much from you, but always with your best interests at heart. Those not looking for a challenge have virtually no reason to play this game--but frankly, it wasn't made with them in mind anyway. Tropical Freeze caters to players who derive fun from overcoming adversity, which the game offers in near endless supply. If you can fall down a pit 16 times and still eagerly drift down on your 17th balloon, this is the Donkey Kong you're looking for.