Remember E3 of 2010, when Microsoft and Sony scrambled to get us to care about their motion control peripherals, while Nintendo mostly ignored its own to show off fun video games? One of the couple brand new games that were announced for Wii was Donkey Kong Country Returns. I was absolutely enamored by this game, developed by Retro Studios of Metroid Prime fame. Returns was an absolutely enthralling experience for me, with its stiff challenge and frantic platforming sequences. Naturally, I was excited when the sequel, Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, was announced for Wii U. I've played the new game extensively, and I can safely say that it's more of the same, but nothing more.
Tropical Freeze begins and ends with stunningly detailed and meticulously animated CG cut-scenes that bookend a mind-numbingly simple and goofy story that does its job of adding a touch of purpose to the adventure. An army of no-good Penguins freeze the jungle the Kongs live in as well as the surrounding area. They must be stopped, and bananas must be collected along the way to feed into Donkey Kong's dangerously strong addiction. It's vague, but it's fun.
The visuals are great in Tropical Freeze. Stylistically, it's pretty conventional, but incredibly cute, colorful, and lively. Additionally, from a technical standpoint, Tropical Freeze does much to impress. Enemy designs are adorably antagonistic, and a high level of detail doesn't get in the way of a convivial, cartoon aesthetic. The game just looks fun, but with a bit of a rougher look than something like Kirby, and even Super Mario. The score does its job but didn't manage to capture me in a big way, save for a few tracks. Sound effects are silly and often provoke a smile or even a laugh, and the dynamic animations for especially the playable characters are quite enjoyable to look at.
What makes Tropical Freeze enthralling is more or less what made Returns enthralling; there is an intense level of finesse and refinement to a big collection of levels rife with inventive concepts. The first level of the third world is my favorite; it features a bunch of moving, cardboard animals with poles and vines attached to them, which makes for some exciting jumping about, all far from the ground. Other levels take advantage of sacs of water to be thrown at fires and bombs to be used to blow up wood; both of these things add a level of strategy that doesn't bog down gameplay like similar concepts in puzzle/platformers. It took a world or two before the gameplay felt notably fresh, but once it happens, it really does happen. This is a challenging yet never frustrating video game with a multitude of moments in which the player must quickly rush through a level, fueled by the fear of impending death from behind. Even during segments in which you're not forced along, there is a certain whimsy to how elegantly one can zip through these tough environments.
The whole game gives off the stark impression that Retro Studios put a lot of passionate effort into this project. Small but important fixes to this game over the last are evident, most notable amongst them the control options that drop motion controls. Levels are packed with little visual quirks and each include (addictive) online leaderboard-enabled time trials, and the game boasts a myriad of cleverly-hidden collectibles and secret levels. Unfortunately, none of the few noticeable changes to the formula here elevate this game over the last one on Wii, despite clear potential. There are a few new companion characters to play with and they're all an equal joy to use, but it doesn't do much for the overall quality. Every now and then, the camera slides into a perspective different from the typical side-view, which could have been what this game needed to push it over that line if it wasn't used so rarely.
Super Mario Galaxy was an incredible, revolutionary game when it came out in 2007, and magically enough, 2010's Super Mario Galaxy 2 managed to be better than just "more of the same" because the challenge and density of new concepts were both markedly superior. Tropical Freeze doesn't do the same thing over Returns, which sucks, but only to a point. It's essentially a big, graphically-updated expansion pack. Because of that, the achievement of Tropical Freeze isn't remarkable, but it sure is a blast.