Videogames can do a few things better than any other medium, and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze does one of those things perfectly.
DKC:TF is a pretty straightforward platforming adventure. Donkey Kong was just donkeying around, enjoying his birthday with the members of his family that he remembered exist this week (sorry, Lanky Kong), when a group of malevolent penguins invaded his home. With the helpful flippers of some Viking walruses, Donkey and pals were escorted far from Donkey Kong Country, and banished to an even five islands away from home base. Donkey, Diddy, Dixie, and even Cranky now must fight their way back to their tropical island, and there’s only an army of owls, deadly pits, and other assorted nonsense to repel the apes. At least there are a few frozen bananas to nab along the way.
And, so I can pretend I maintain a proper gaming review blog, I’ll note the experience does play like a dream. The DKC series may handle like Super Mario Bros. on a fundamental level, but the big guy always feels completely different than his plumbing rival. Recent Donkey Kong Country games dial that “heavy inertia” feeling from the original Rare games up to eleven, and, If you’re doing your best hedgehog impression and always moving as fast as possible, it’s very easy to experience a “rollercoaster” feeling. Yes, you have full control of everyone’s favorite gorilla, but there’s that unmistakable feeling that you can’t slow down, that you’ve gotta go fast, and you’re just doing your best to steer this barreling freight train as best you can. Mind you, that metaphor becomes a bit more superliminal on the actually-a-rollercoaster minecart levels, but that feeling persists through the rest of the game. And, if you don’t like it, don’t worry, you can still take it slow, too. Well, on most stages. I wouldn’t slow down when you’re attempting to outrun a lava flow.
But that’s all auxiliary to the best event in the game (and possibly the franchise). After five “worlds” of random island hijinks, the final (well, final-not-secret) world is… Donkey Kong Country.
You’re finally home! Hooray! … Except, yes, the Snowmads have conquered the tropical paradise, and turned it into a frozen stronghold. So DK and pals must fight from DK home up to the tippy top of Big Crazy Volcano… which is the premise of the previous game, Donkey Kong Country Returns. The final world of Donkey Kong Country Tropical freeze is Donkey Kong Country Returns.
And I love seeing this kind of thing in a videogame.
Even if nobody noticed, this got its start back in The Legend of Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link. If you hang out on the south-western “Death Mountain” region of the map, you’ll note the bottom section of the peninsula is actually the entirety of the overworld from The Legend of Zelda (1). In one instant, that simple plot of 8-bit pixels completely recontextualizes Link’s entire adventure, and, wow, did you see that? This new game is, like, 800 times larger than the old one! Oh man, how is Link going to survive his biggest adventure ever!?
(And, for the record, I feel like every Zelda after Ocarina of Time has failed for using the same basic layout as OoT [and arguably A Link to the Past]. It’s not exciting to find Death Mountain in the North or Gerudo Desert in the West, I want to see what’s past those landmarks. C’est la vie.)
But this same trick has been used in a variety of games for a variety of reasons. In Metroid Prime, a frigate is explored early in the adventure, and then, after it crashes to the planet below, it becomes a sunken “ghost ship” that is an entirely new “level”, but is still recognizable from its earlier appearance. Speaking of Metroid, you see this often in “prequel” games, where an important location from the “next” game is revisited by a different group that has no idea about the significance of the latest locale. See Lufia and Lufia 2 for a fun, fatal example of this concept. And while we’re on the subject of 16-bit JRPGs, time travel is great for video games for this exact reason. The Black Omen might be unchanging, but it’s fun to see how the simple villages and dungeons of 600 AD evolve in 400 years.
And why does this work? Why is this fun? It’s all because videogames have to be very mindful of “space”. While your average modern action movie doesn’t have to worry about the surrounding area for its epic battles at all (pop quiz: how many countries have been destroyed by random Transformer fights?), videogames are all about space, because the player must inhabit those locations for proper exploration and storytelling experiences. It doesn’t matter in every game (I admit, I might not be able to draw a map of Metro City), but so many games must keep an eye on distance and location, else, well, nobody likes to get lost forever. And, if everyone is doing their job right, the player learns the ins and outs of any given area almost subconsciously, and, before you know it, you’re able to recall the layout of Midgar a lot more easily than your home town. If you’re going to swing by my place, just take the third left after Wall Market.
I’ll save any further gushing about this concept for when ROB inevitably chooses Bioshock, but the flipside to memorizing a map or area is that, when that area is changed, your brain immediately notices. Even if it’s been fifteen years since you played the previous game, since you spotted the new, “different” area, some part of your head recognizes that something is wrong, and why is this wrong, and let’s explore a little further, and find out what happened here. And, on top of that, when something that was previously “the size of an entire game” is reduced to “now it’s smaller”, you subconsciously feel awesome, because, wow, look at how much more I’ve accomplished than last time! Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is six times larger than Donkey Kong Country Returns! DK is huuuuuuge!
Oh, and it is pretty fun to replay through reimaginings of all the Donkey Kong Country Returns levels in a frozen wasteland, too.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is an entertaining game all on its own, but the way it recontextualizes Donkey Kong Country Returns is amazing.
FGC #253 Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
- System: Nintendo WiiU. A months ago, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a 3DS port, but now I’m kind of expecting a Switch port. We’ll see if that pans out.
- Number of players: Two! And I really want to try that sometime! Diddy and the other helpers apparently can assist with a second controller, but I’ve never thought to actually try that with any of my real-life buddies. There are so many other games we can play where we can have apes fight, ya know?
- Favorite buddy: Cranky Kong has Scrooge’s pogo stick! That makes him tougher than the toughies. On the other hand, the pogo ability is just as finicky as it was back in the NES days, so I’d rather have Diddy in my corner. Can’t tell you how many times that jetpack saved my bacon.
- Favorite Boss: One baboon laughing at Kongs is bad enough, but a baboon that splits into three just to mock a monkey even more? That’s cruel.
- Did you know? There’s a patch/update for this game, and it seems to exist entirely to fix a glitch in the third world that would prevent the next level from unlocking. “Beat stage, go to next stage” is pretty much videogame 101, so you have to wonder how that glitch got out into the wild.
- Would I play again: If there is somehow never another Donkey Kong Country game “like this” again (you never know with Nintendo), then I’ll play this again in due time. If there is a DKCR3, then I’m all about leaving the past behind.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Streets of Rage 2! Good! I was getting tired of using the “Nintendo” tag continuously. It’s time to see some streets raging! Or maybe people raging at streets. I don’t know! Please look forward to it!