Lately, many hardcore gamers have accused Nintendo of being too coddling to its fanbase. "Where have all the challenging games gone?" they demanded. While Nintendo seems content to continue mostly producing games that place accessibility over challenge, they did fire back with a resounding answer: "You want a challenge? Fine. Here's Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze." And what a frosty challenge it is.
As with most Nintendo titles, the story of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is perfunctory, but barebones. In it, a group of nomadic arctic vikings show up to the DK island and cause it to be seized by a supernatural winter. Now Donkey Kong has to thaw his beloved homeland, and this time he's bringing friends. Several of them.
Following the standard set in previous Donkey Kong Country titles, DKC: Tropical Freeze sees you completing numerous themed worlds, each with a series of stages accessible by an overworld map. The map is mostly there to help sort out exactly where you'd like to go, so don't expect to spend much time there. Instead you'll be barreling through the many stages, mastering their trials and digging deep to find their secrets. You'll hop, jump and roll through these stages, making use of the myriad skills of your three different potential partners Diddy Kong, Dixie Kong or Cranky Kong.
Every time you die, you'll return as a solo Donkey Kong, but once you find a barrel containing a partner things really open up. Having a partner means having extra health and extra abilities. Diddy Kong brings with him the jetpack he had in the excellent Donkey Kong Country Returns. Dixie Kong offers something of a combination double jump/hover thanks to her helicopter hair, and Cranky Kong uses his cane, Scrooge McDuck-style, to bounce you up higher and over harmful obstacles like spikes. Though many levels let you choose which partner you'd like to use, any that have more specialized challenges will make sure you have the right partner to conquer these obstacles.
Variety is the name of the game here. Having the three different Kong partners keeps things feeling varied on a moment-by-moment basis, and each level is wildly different from the last. You could be running through a massive tornado in one savannah-themed level, then making your way through the jungle guided only by your stylish silhouettes, and then trying your best to survive a breakneck-paced minecart ride (a staple for the series). Even though each world has a specific theme, the individual levels within each world are hugely diverse, and because of this it never feels like you're doing the same thing. The levels also come over-freaking-flowing with secrets. There are KONG tokens to collect, puzzle pieces to snag, banana tokens to pick up and the occasional secret exit or two which will lead you to alternative levels. These secrets are everywhere, making it a joy to play and replay these levels.
And replay them you will. Not just for the secrets, but because Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a tough, but fair, challenger. There's a steady ramp up in difficulty as you progress through the game; experienced gamers will relish the thrills, and nascent gamers may find themselves struggling a bit, but not for long. The aforementioned banana tokens you'll find scattered across every level can be exchanged at Funky Kong's shop for goods. You can buy invincibility potions, extra hearts, balloons that will save you from death, unlockable figurines, parrots to help sniff out the game's secrets... there's a lot here, so if you're ever struggling with a particular level, you can always go on a shopping spree and return with a supercharged step. If worse comes to worse, you can always bust out the new banana-charged super move, which destroys all on-screen enemies and replaces them with special armored heart power-ups— it's both a stylish and effective way of getting through some tougher spots.
With a platformer as demanding as this, it's important to have controls that are intuitive and responsive, and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze delivers in spades. There aren't many buttons you have to concern yourself with, and the many Kongs all operate intuitively; when you want to jump, roll, or hang on to something, they'll do just that. The music is, as you would expect, top-notch, with catchy original tunes and remixes of classic Donkey Kong Country pieces that will have you humming along for long after you're finished. While DKC:TF's visuals don't exactly push the Wii U hardware, their simplistic charm is still absolutely gorgeous, with splashing water, gusting winds, and even the rustle of DK's fur all being presented in hypnotizing HD. And whoever was in charge of the art direction deserves a huge pat on the back. The myriad levels and countless foes all have such sharp art design that they're both distinctive and memorable.
If you own a Wii U, you have no reason not to pick up Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. Its challenges are numerous and demanding, but not without leeway, its secrets are nigh-infinite and most importantly, it brings with it that classic Nintendo sense of fun. DKC: TF is meant to be a challenge, but it's a challenge that excites you with the joy of triumph, not one that frustrates you with failure.