Let me tell you about a moment in world five of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. It's a little late in the game, but it's oh so typical (and not a spoiler, unless you count the placement of platforms as a spoiler). How you feel about this moment will determine how you feel about this game.
Here we are, playing as Donkey Kong, with Dixie Kong on our back. Technically we're playing two-player mode right now, but not really (more on that later):
The game we're playing is a sidescroller. A platformer. A very difficult platformer. And this scene here is Very Difficult Platforming 101. Or 102. Or whatever the more advanced class is.
See, we've got some problems. Hazards, even. We also have some options.
As Donkey Kong, we can jump, roll or slap the ground. With Dixie on our back, we can float in the air and actually propel ourselves upward a little more, then drift downward with a little left or right movement. He can also jump up and grab any grass that is growing from an overhang. That's what we want to do here.
The thing we want to grab is on a swivel.
More problematically, we're in some sort of power plant that is coursing with electricity. If any of the little white nodes we can see come in contact with any of the spherical cage-like things, then things get electrified.
We need to get to the moving platform on the right that's sliding from side to side. The best course of action? Grab that grassy ceiling, clamber over to the right of it before it can tilt too much and then jump onto that moving platform...
Of course, the moving platform.... moves! It also has one of those nodes that can connect with one of those cage things, so it can briefly be electrified. It also passes under two deadly electrified barriers.
As you're playing, you can't see many of these hazards coming, you know. You see one problem, solve it, see more problems coming, and, if you think too much about solving them, you die.
This is how you play the game.
Try. Die. Retry.
You will improve.
And then you'll die again.
You'll die again, because Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze is a game you play in inches. It's a game that will teach you by killing you, which I must say is fun some of the time. Sometimes, it's maddening. Sometimes it feels like the worst of an older style of game design that sure felt like it was conceived to eat quarters or waste kids' time and keep them occupied to justify the cost of a cartridge.
Then again, getting past one of the tough obstacles that killed you before can be bliss.
Would that make you happy? Would it be worth it?
Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is the fifth Donkey Kong Country sidescroller, the second made by Nintendo's Austin, Texas-based Retro Studios in concert with Nintendo producers from Kyoto, Japan. The games have always been difficult. They've also been among the slicker-looking Nintendo games. Original series composer David Wise also made them some of the best-sounding games, and he's back in this new one to do the same.
Nintendo's fairly glutted with sidescrolling heroes, though, and I must say that Donkey Kong never quite seemed to measure up to his peers to me. His games were fun, but lacked the ingenious level design of the best Mario and Yoshi sidescrollers. His rogues gallery was funny, his move-set decent, but in both regards he was trumped by Kirby.
What Donkey Kong seemed to have over Nintendo's other characters were development teams that saw the ape, for some reason, as an opportunity to push for the highest-end graphics possible. He inspired game creators to make his games technical showpieces, with each and every level an impressive set-piece. In that regard—if not in terms of how difficult the Donkey Kong Country games have been—the series might be something of Nintendo's way of making something of a sidescrolling Call of Duty, prioritizing spectacle in a company that typically tends not to. The results, realized in Tropical Freeze, are often stunning.
One level will take place in a storm:
Another in a blaze:
Another in a massive sawmill:
Another under water with an angry octopus acting out:
If Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze gave its players pause to more than catch their breath or curse in frustration with some of its devilish levels, I think it would elicit a lot of "wow"s.
It's a sidescroller done as a blockbuster.
Except... it's not.
It's not because blockbusters—think, Hollywood blockbusters—go down smoothly and easily. So do Call of Duty campaigns. So do Kirby platformers and a lot of other games. Not this one. No, that's the twist here: we've got a game that looks like it's made for pop appetites but is tuned to be enjoyed by the brave and hardcore. It's tuned to be played by people who have an appetite for entertainment that's painful to consume. No pain, no gain of fun, as it were.
You know what? Tons of people actually do love the excruciatingly difficult Flappy Bird. Maybe there's a large crowd of people who'd love a game as tough as Tropical Freeze, too. Still, effortless popcorn this ain't.
So what've we got?
Six worlds. Three possible partner characters, all of whom can help you jump further, double your life hears and can also be controlled in co-op. An invading force of penguins, seals, walruses and other cold-weather interlopers messing with Donkey Kong's tropical hangouts. Lots of bananas. Lots of gold medals to collect. Lots of platforms to jump on, vines to grab, minecarts to ride, barrels from which to be launched and rockets to ride. There's Rambi the rhino, too.
Also... ugh... six pattern-recognition-based boss battles that remind me why I hate boss battles (I know, I know, you and many others love just those kinds of encounters!). Talk about a part of games that waste your time.
There's nothing in Tropical Freeze that will shock DKC veterans and a lot that will comfort them. This is the first high-definition version of the series, after all. It's the first on Wii U and a reminder that Nintendo's console can do some technically-impressive stuff. There's an appealing confidence to the game's technical proficiency and to its ignoring of the Wii U controller's screen for anything other than off-TV play. There's no hardware gimmick to the game, and in that way it feels pleasingly pure.