Among Nintendo platformers, the established pecking order has long been Mario, then Kirby, with Donkey Kong County somewhere way down here.
The series has its diehard fans, but the first game in particular has long been known at least as much for recycling enemies and levels out the wazoo as for being a technical marvel circa 1994.
In part because it traded so much on techncial novelty, Donkey Kong Country sort of faded into memory after 1996, until Retro Studios plucked it out of the dustbin of history and turned it into a viable franchise again. Now it has a talented development studio behind it, and more importantly, a real identity. That is to say, it's meant to be hard in a way that appeals to core gamers. Not that the Mario gamees are "easy" per se, but in Nintendo's mind, at least, it stands as the more family friendly series. Donkey Kong Country has been a difficult series pretty much from the beginning though, and so it's become the platformer that's not afraid to pull its punches. And with Tropical Freeze, the series' first foray on the Wii U, it embraces that identity wholeheartedly. But there were a couple other things that jumped out at me about Tropical Freeze as well.
First, it moves way faster than its sibling New Super Mario Bros., in part because there's so much more happening in the levels themselves. In the best level of the bunch, a sea of flames in which everything in the jungle is catching fire and burning up, it's imperative that Donkey Kong and company keep moving, otherwise both the floor and the vines that DK needs to bridge various chasms will turn to a pile of burning ash, and he'll be trapped. Somewhere offscreen, I felt that there was this invisible force telling me: "Go, go, go." I love that sense of momentum in a platformer.
The second thing that jumps out at me is how well-suited Tropical Freeze's co-op mechanics are to the pace and the action. This isn't any New Super Mario Bros., where four players ennd up consistently bumbling into one another. Subordinate skills nicely complement Donkey Kong's own moveset; so, for instance, if Dixie is on DK's back, she can use her helicopter ponytail to slow both their descents after a jump. She can also fire her bubblegum gun and stun enemies, and help propel him underwater. In fact, if she wants, she can simply let DK carry her to the level exit, which may be preferable for spouses and siblings who want to play, but can't keep up. If DK ends up plunging into an abyss by mistake though, that's two lives lost from the pool split by both players, so there's a tradeoff.
The co-op multiplayer mostly builds on the legacy of the previous which can be said for much of the rest of the game as well. But the design feels that much sharper, and thanks to the Wii U's graphical capabilities, the scope is bigger as well. The aforementioned fire level is one instance of a stage that couldn't have been done on the Wii or the 3DS, or at least, it would have been more limited. Another example is the minecart stage, which was the bane of everyone's existence back in the days of the Super Nintendo. In Tropical Freeze, much of the minecart level makes use of a 3D camera, making it much easier to see and avoid obstacles. It's really amazing how the simple application of technology can make a lousy bit of rail jumping tolerable.
In the meantime, Tropical Freeze also builds on the legacy of the previous games, while simultaneously burnishing its own credentials as a platformer for core gamers, in the way it handles collectibles. In addition to the usual "K-O-N-G" letters scattered throughout each level, there are puzzle pieces, which are frequently very difficult to reach. Most of the time, they lay near a collapsing bridge, or if it's a vehicle level, in a spot that you have to go out of your way to reach. Collecting them all is intended to be a major challenge.
Interestingly, Tropical Freeze isn't all that big on exploration, though there are a few hidden rooms loaded with bananas. The levels are relatively straightforward, which in turn magnifies the importance of the collectibles, as they represent the main impetus for going back and replaying a particular stage once its complete. The collectibles, for their part, are mostly right there in plain sight, you just need some skill to get them. It's a calculated decision by Retro, and in the end, it's probably the right one. In a game like Tropical Freeze, where speed is at a premium, the less time spent hunting for a hidden door, the better.
With all that in mind, Donkey Kong Country seems to have settled rather comfortably into its niche as a Nintendo platformer. That is to say, it's comfortable with kicking my butt. I was able to finish almost of the levels I saw in the time allotted, but I had to dig pretty deep at times. By what would be the game's midpoint, I was dying a lot. But that was fine by me. Given that it's almost hard not to accrue double digit lives in New Super Mario Bros. these days, a little added challenge is actually pretty nice.
And Tropical Freeze isn't just content to be hard either. It's stylish in a way that more recent Nintendo platformers, like the aforementioned New Super Mario Bros., can't really match. The one area that really comes to mind is the water stage that I saw, which alternates between being fully lit and hiding Donkey Kong in sillhouette, which is really quite lovely in motion. Tropical Freeze is full of such flourishes.
I realize that a lot of this has always come part and parcel with the Donkey Kong Country series. It's always been attractive, as well as rather difficult. It's always featured co-op multiplayer and collectible items. But despite featuring some strong entries in its own right, Donkey Kong Country has always been "the other Nintendo platformer" in my mind. I suppose that's what happens when you're up against the likes of Yoshi's Island.
With Mario kind of going off in its own direction though, and gaming as a whole having changed a great deal, Donkey Kong Country has been given a new chance to shine. Its graphics may no longer be particularly revolutionary, but its old-school challenge stands out in their own way, as does Retro's strong grasp of platforming design and momentum. Ironically, the decision to adhere to the franchise's tradition and accentuate its strengths is the very thing that helps it to stand out the most, allowing it to carve out its own niche in the Nintendo pantheon.