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Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze Review: Money in the Banana Land


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If the quality of a platformer can be measured by how long it staves off the obligatory lava level, we're in pretty good shape with Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. Nintendo's ground-pounding gorilla now sees his home island beset by the vaguely Germanic "Snowmads," cool-climate creatures that show up by the viking boatload, set the stage, and then cover it with a slippery layer of ice.

Not that we need the narrative justification to save the jungle and bop the yellow eyebrows off an evil Fiordland Penguin. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is another few-frills, breathlessly paced jaunt in two-dimensional jumping, ducking and dodging all manner of loosely thematic dangers, though it's not quite as polished as the last game in developer Retro's newly commandeered franchise.

Gallery: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (10/8/13) | 11 Photos

His hair has never been more luxuriant than in this Wii U incarnation, running at a color-saturated sixty frames per second, but Kong still adheres to his basic nature. There's a good, learned sense of movement, which necessarily makes him a less precise avatar in a game that demands quick, particular leaps across crumbling platforms and perilous pits. The gorilla's inertia is something to internalize as part of the challenge, though, and once your intuition is tuned to his heavy jumps and slippery turnarounds, the onus is on the level design to deliver thrills. (Better that than tacky Gamepad features, of which there are none.)

You won't count many objects or rules at play in most of the levels, spread across a variety of islands, so you may catch yourself undressing the game to its essential skeleton. In truth, you have a delicate, hairy clump of pixels moving from left to right, seeking safety atop horizontal lines (the platforms), swinging on the vertical ones (the vines) and avoiding any object that looks like it might bash, pulverize, burn, electrocute or otherwise steal one of your hearts. This is an extreme reduction of the platforming genre in general, mind you, and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is an expert at dressing up its hazards.

There's a creative obfuscation of these basics in Donkey Kong Country, with every single level assembling – and often destroying – a new framework of rapid-fire close calls around you in a spectacular way. Not content with the usual spikes and collapsing walkways, Tropical Freeze sends Kong flying through surprises like a giant saxophone, across disintegrating branches in a burning African savannah, in-between the clattering blades of a fruit-juice factory, and rattling down a railway as a giant buzz-saw follows, spitting out perfectly carved detritus in front of him as if it's building the level to come. If Uncharted were a 2D platformer, it might resemble this tropical roller coaster.

The incoming flow of calamities sternly suggests the correct route, leaving success a matter of mastering your reflexes and timing, not struggling to read the level as it scrolls from left to right. A copious number of collectable bananas act as a further guide (and a route to collecting additional lives), but this trail of floating potassium is more of a safety buffer. As the levels get tougher – and they become hold-your-breath hard when they're the optional kind – you'll start digging into your stash of fruit and extra lives.

Other members of the Kong family (Diddy, Dixie or Cranky) also act as safety nets, giving you two extra hearts, a second player if you want, and a life-saving double-jump while they cling to your back. Diddy adds hovering to your repertoire if you hold your jump, Dixie's ponytail spins to lift you higher, and curmudgeonly Cranky pushes his cane downward to insure a safe bounce on spikes. All of these are optional, and can help in completing tougher levels or besting the game's scattering of puzzle pieces and the precariously placed K.O.N.G. letters. (Oh, the infuriating indignity of ending a level with just K, O and N!)

A truly frustrating misstep in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is not in its obligation to the lava level (which is good!), but to the tedious boss fight. Kong's tussles with walruses and polar bears feel less like fights and more like boring, overlong tests of memorization. The hardest phase will kill you most often, but with no checkpointing between segments you spend an inordinate amount of time repeating and mastering the most trivial parts of every battle. The game would be arrested for this crime, if it weren't already being dragged off for its use of a charging monster with a weak-point on its back.

There's at least one other cheap prod of difficulty in the game, and that's in the hidden exits that lead to (usually excellent) secret levels. It's not that finding the hidden portals while playing is too hard. Rather, it's easy to commit a fruitless run through a cleaned-out level, because the overworld map is vague in showing which areas even have bonus exits. There's enough time wasted in the loading screens already.

At this point, there's not much written here that couldn't have been repurposed from a review of 2010's Donkey Kong Country Returns – and that's both the problem and the recommendation. Sure, there's swimming in lovely blue waters, a pleasant soundtrack by series composer David Wise and even prettier backgrounds for Retro's ingenious levels, but meaningful growth is kept to a minimum. Such is the blessing and curse of refrigeration.

This review is based on an eShop download of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, provided by Nintendo. It's a 12GB download, so make room! Images: Nintendo.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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