More of an expansion than a sequel, but is that a bad thing?

Jon Mercer
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Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
Wii-U
Way back in the distant history of 2010, Retro Studios (the crew that made “Metroid” relevant again with the solid “Prime” trilogy) scored a major hit in the Mercer household with “Donkey Kong Country Returns,” a textbook entry on how to successfully reintroduce a franchise when it is more than 15 years past its expiry date.

A screenshot from “Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze.” — Submitted image

It was an impressive love letter to the platformers of the 16-bit era, to be sure. A little more than three years have passed, and both Retro, and the loveable ape are back at it again in “Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze.” Can gamers expect an adventure as bold and exciting as “Returns,” or just more of the same — and if so, would that be such a bad thing?

Over the years, many invaders have tried to separate Donkey Kong and his simian crew from his treasured Island and horde of delicious bananas. This time, DK is assailed by the “Snowmads,” a vicious army of arctic creatures with a Viking aesthetic. They conjure up an icy storm powerful enough blast DK across a chain of islands, and transform his island into a snowy hell. This, of course, will not stand.

“DKC: Tropical Freeze” is a romp across six themed islands (with additional hidden worlds), stuffed to the gills with treasure to claim and secrets to uncover. On the surface it appears to be very much in the vein of Nintendo’s popular “New Super Mario Bros.” series; however, they play very differently. DK is slower to move than Mario, and his jump feels a lot heavier. Making distance on any of the game’s seemingly infinite supply of harrowing leaps requires either holding down the run button, or tucking into a rolling attack for a burst of speed, or often times, both.

In fact, the bulk of the game’s magic happens when players are flying by the seat of their pants, way out on the ragged edge. The new selection of back-up characters add a bit of a wrinkle, as their abilities change up DK’s aerial game, and can modify the challenge levels of each stage.

Diddy Kong brings a limited hover, Dixie has a helicopter hover that adds a vertical lift that pretty much trivializes Diddy entirely. DK’s grandad, Cranky (the original DK from the arcade game) brings a cool pogo stick ability that is pretty much a shameless ripoff of Scrooge McDuck’s attack in “Ducktales.” It adds some much needed bounce when leaping from enemy to enemy, but may feel limited in comparison to the other hover-based characters.

One thing is for certain, all three will be missed when a player is facing the gauntlet of “Tropical Freeze’s” endless parade of bottomless pits alone. This style of play walks hand in hand with its crushing difficulty.

The catch here is that most of these exact same thrills were packaged up in “Returns” for the Wii. The levels are cleverly designed in the exact same manner as before, and collapse and transform as players dash through them, just like they did in 2010. “DKC: Tropical Freeze” is a sequel that plays it safe while appearing to be the very spirit of danger. Truthfully, it can feel more like an expansion than a proper sequel.

Of course, that’s more of a complaint in regards to the software-starved Wii-U, than “DKC: Tropical Freeze.” Traditional platformers have made a bit of a comeback in recent years, and often are available for significantly less cost on other consoles. There is quite a bit to do in “Tropical Freeze,” and scrubbing every level for secrets will take upwards of 15 to 20 hours — but most of the rewards are of a non-gameplay variety. For the good stuff, like the extra levels, players will have to work for by completing a series of nerve-wracking challenge temples.

There is more to enjoy about “Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze” than there is to rag on. It is still the absolutely stellar platforming gameplay that made its immediate predecessor such a triumph; and the jump to HD on the Wii U makes for some nice visual candy when stages get hectic.

“DKC: Returns” was a pretty game, this one is simply gorgeous when it wants to be. The return of composer David Wise, who scored the original titles for the Super Nintendo way back in the 1990’s is also a huge deal, as the game’s music sounds less like the work of an affectionate fan, and more in tune with the fantastic beats that drove the series in the first place.

The boss fights, as well, are towering accomplishments that should be applauded for their clever designs and manner in which they increase in pace and ferocity, and add in new attacks and patterns as the battle rages on.

 “Tropical Freeze” is, in its heart of hearts, a very good game that will delight fans new and old, it’s just not as brave and bold as its predecessor.

But, really ... an 800 lb. gorilla should be impressive enough, right?

Platform: Wii-U

Developer: Retro Studios

Publisher: Nintendo

Release Date: Feb. 21, 2014

Rated: E for Everyone.

Contact Jon Mercer via thejonmercer@gmail.com.

Organizations: Nintendo

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