Of all video game genres, the side-scrolling platformer is my favorite. And of all the platformers out there, the Donkey Kong Country series is by far the best designed.
Sure, the Mario series runs a close second. But I always found DKC more difficult, more atmospheric. It doesn’t always have the razzle-dazzle of Mario, the kookiness, the originality. DKC sticks with a couple ideas and does them well.
I love all five DKC games. In this post I’ll be discussing DKC Tropical Freeze for the Wii-U.
I come back to this game over and over again. When I’m bored, lonely, or just need a diversion, this game is there for me. I play it for an hour or so and all my cares drip away.
Not every level is good. But many of them are great.
Think of this post as a playlist. If I need 60-90 minutes of quality entertainment, fun all the way through, these are the levels I play. I don’t search for puzzle pieces, but if I find them I grab them. I don’t do the bonus levels, as I like listening to the stage music and not the zany bonus music. I don’t play all the levels on this playlist, but pick and choose between 75% of them.
As much as I love Tropical Freeze, the first world is underwhelming. However, Busted Bayou clearly stands above the rest.
The music is swinging, the graphics are alluring, and the use of shadows and dark space to conceal platforms and puzzles is ingenious.
This is a world I want to spend time in.
Discovering the hidden star in the leaves is one of my favorite memories from this game.
Before I played Tropical Freeze, I was getting jaded with the world designs in platformers. There’s always an ice world, fire world, water world, desert world, etc. World themes have gotten very cliche; DKC and Mario games are to blame for this.
Then I saw World 2 in Tropical Freeze. A German-themed world? That’s the best way I describe it to friends. Anybody think of this theme differently? The folk instruments, the windmills and bells, the beer steins–it’s all so different. And Windmill Hills nails it.
The music is so relaxing, and the juxtaposition between jungle apes and Germany is so strange.
This level has a great sense of scale, as you fly through the air and jump from windmill to windmill. This is my second favorite level in the game.
You can’t go wrong with the Rambi levels. Who doesn’t love running around breaking things?
If you aren’t searching for puzzle pieces, this level’s quick and exhilarating. Smashing rocks and smashing bells. That’s all you need in life.
DKC Returns and DKC Tropical Freeze are awesome games, don’t get me wrong. But by this point in the DKC franchise, the infamous mine cart level formula has gotten a little stale.
The mine cart levels in DKC and DKC2 are most memorable to me (did DKC3 even have them?), but those games actually use the mine carts only a couple times. They were memorable because of how sparse they were.
To Tropical Freeze’s credit, they did try to mix up the mine cart formula. Of the mine cart levels, Sawmill Thrill is the best.
The music is more akin to original DKC music, and there’s just something satisfying about switching from the mine cart to the sawed log boat.
Okay, the last level from World 2! If I don’t have a lot of time, I play Windmill Hills, followed by Alpine Incline.
The music’s a little dark, and the stage is a little scary. You jump from such high platforms with very little margin for error.
This level really gives me a sense of vertigo!
I love the inclusion of the temple levels in the DKC Returns and Tropical Freeze. With no checkpoints, the levels are unforgiving.
However, they are a challenge. If I’m playing to relax, which is what this playlist of level is all about, I usually don’t turn to these levels. But if I had to pick one, Bopopolis would be it.
It’s so difficult to time the bops and jumps just right. But when you get it down, when you fly through the level with no errors, I get a sense of great accomplishment!
Picking a top level in Tropical Freeze is tough, but Grassland Groove has to be it.
We’ve seen jungle theme in DKC before: jungle is the primary theme! For some reason, though, we’ve never seen African theme.
World 3 is a real treat, just like World 2, in overturning expectations!
Grassland Groove has the best music and the best graphics of any level in the game. This level is fun and happy, celebratory even. The excessive fireworks are also a nice touch.
When you get to the end, stand on the balloons for a few seconds and let the music finish. The sun shines, and the crowd sings your praise. Can you end a level any better than this?
Frantic is right! Dust storms, tornadoes, flying water buffalo, this level has it all! It’s a Rambi level, so that automatically makes it good in my book.
But this Rambi level isn’t so much about smashing stuff, but dodging debris. The end section, when DK and Rambi are caught in a wind storm, jumping from rock to rock, is sublime.
Scorch ‘N’ Torch
As I said before, lots of platformers have obligatory fire or lava levels. The trope has been so overused that fire levels just don’t excite me anymore, even though fire is inherently exciting!
Scorch ‘N’ Torch changed my perceptions. Finally, a new take on the fire level!
The idea of branches and grass slowly burning the longer you stand in place is masterful. It forces you to keep jumping, to keep moving. It adds a little stress, but a good kind of stress.
You feel like the world is actually burning around you, that you have to escape, unlike most fire levels, where it seems inconceivable that a monkey could stand in the middle of a volcano and not feel the slightest discomfort (I’m looking at you DKC, Returns!).
One major problem with DKC Returns: no water levels! I know many gamers hate water levels, but the water levels in the DKC series, especially the first one, were so epic, peaceful, and calm.
Now they’re returned in Tropical Freeze! My one criticism is that most of them have transitions between water and land parts, and usually the land part has different, more upbeat music than the water parts. I want to listen to the ambient water music the whole way through!
Amiss Abyss doesn’t disappoint in the music area. The new soundtrack is awesome, and the music doesn’t change on the land parts.
Plus, the black on blue shadow effort looks rad.
If you’re noticing at theme on this list, I prefer the relaxing, atmospheric levels over the more chaotic ones. Irate Eight is an exception.
You’re constantly under pressure to keep moving. This is the hardest of the water levels, but the pounding classic DKC medley encourages you to keep fighting, keep pressing forward.
Even though I love swimming in real life, water is one of the scariest things to me. Being under so much dark water in this level, with stuff constantly flying at me, sets me on edge. But I like that feeling. And Irate Eight captures the horror of water so well.
Same music as Irate Eight, same effect of scaring the pants off me! The pounding rain, the rockin’ relics, the lightning flashes: very cool.
This level does have different musics for the water and land sections, which I’m usually annoyed with in Tropical Returns. However, this time the tracks on both land and sea are awesome, and the transition between them is much smoother.
Okay, World 1 was a bit of a letdown, theme-wise. World 5 is even more so.
After the awesome new themes of Germany and Africa in Worlds 2 and 3, and the return of water levels in World 4, we are treated (get it?) to…fruit theme.
DKC Returns had a secret bonus level that was fruit-themed. It was difficult, and quite silly. I was so surprised, then, to see Retro Studios double down on the fruit theme.
Because of the theme, I just can’t enjoy most of the levels in World 5.
Frosty Fruits is the CLEAR exception. The music is moody, the platforming is exciting, and the frosty theme actually transitions nicely to World 6. After all, this game is called Tropical Freeze.
One more challenge temple level. Platform Problems is a little easier than Bopopolis, but no less satisfying to complete.
This level is so rickety: the platforms are constantly falling away. You have to think fast, and jump quick, if you want to make it out alive.
We’re getting to the end of the game! World 6 blows all other worlds out of the water. This is how ice levels should be done.
What’s so ingenious about this world is that each of the 8 levels is reflective of one whole world from DKC Returns. It really feels like DK’s island has frozen over. The stakes are high. You want to save your homeland.
The first level in DKC Returns paid homage to the first level of DKC. Homecoming Hijinks pays homage to both.
The music sets the mood: this is a sad world. The snowmads have already won the war. They’ve settled in and made DK Island their home. All traces of the monkeys and their forest friends have been eliminated.
Now DK has to fight back!
Jungle theme has always been one of my least favorite video game world themes. But frozen jungle? That I can do.
I know I said Grassland Groove is my favorite level, and Windmill Hills is second, but some days, Seashore War tops both of them combined.
The music is forlorn. Is this really a war? The snowmad’s ships are everywhere, conquering the bay. And DK has to single-handedly take them out.
The water is freezing, so no more swimming. That’s fine. Water is an obstacle again. Water’s scary, like I said, and freezing water is especially scary.
I love all of the ships that DK has to pull up from the sea. Even though it makes no sense (video game physics, y’all), his strained grunts, against the backdrop of the melancholy music, makes you feel DK’s pain as he tears apart the snowmad fleet.
The third world of DKC Returns was Cave world. Not one of my favorite themes, but it had some sweet mine cart levels (better than Tropical Freeze). We return to the caves, not to race mine carts, but to climb across frozen, stone ruins.
Nearly every platform breaks away. These aqueducts have stood the test of time. They are ancient relics.
Unfortunately, the snowmads ruined them. Completing the level is bittersweet. Sure, DK liberated this part of the island from the snowmads. But at what cost? The remnants of some ancient civilization are reduced to dust and crumble.
DKC Returns tried to mix up the gameplay by adding in rocket barrel levels. The music is a little too jazzy for my taste, but the rocket levels are a nice diversion from the mine cart levels.
If I had to pick one rocket barrel level from Tropical Freeze, Blurry Flurry is it. The final few seconds in the snowball make it all worth it.
David Wise, original composer of DKC, returned to Tropical Freeze to contribute to the music. He really hit it out of the park on Forest Folly, as per his style.
The land is still frozen, and the music is strangely accepting of the devastation. By this point, DK has liberated half of his island. But the snow keeps coming, and the snowmads refuse to give up their stranglehold.
Giant totems are frozen, and the snowmads seem very comfortable with their new home.
DK has a sort of resignation to himself in this level. He’s getting sick of the snowmad’s crap, but he’s here to do a job, and he’ll finish the job, even if he’s alone.
So it looks like I’m just favoriting every level in World 6 at this point!
Another shadow level, Cliffside Slide gets us away from the melancholy feelings of the previous levels and gets serious.
Snow is burying the island, and DK is mad. The snowmads know no rest from their wickedness. Now they’re destroying million year old dinosaur fossils.
DK can’t save everything. But maybe he can bury the snowmads in their own snow.
I always loved the factory levels in DKC. They seem like such a weird theme. Jungle animals in industrialized areas? What a perfect way to show the extent that DK’s home is conquered by outside forces!
True, the factories were already present in DKC Returns. The snowmads seem to have taken up residence in a factory DK previously destroyed.
How strange, then, that DK has to activate this factory before he can defeat the snowmads! Factories were always DK’s enemy. But the enemy of his enemy is his friend.
DK will turn on this polluting factory if that means getting the snowmads off his island.
Fire levels are boring. But ice and fire levels? Amazing!
For some reason, 2D platformers usually don’t mix ice and fire themes, even though they naturally go together. You can’t get any more contrasting than ice and fire.
We return to the volcano from DKC Returns (really DKC2), but even the volcano is frozen! The snowmad’s reach has extended way too far.
Atop Rambi, DK will smash all the ice apart, returning the volcano to its natural state.
Is an active, boiling volcano safe? No. But in DK’s mind, an active volcano is a much more manageable, a much more predictable foe than the icy havoc of the snowmads.
When I’m playing to relax, usually I finish my playthrough with Meltdown Mayhem. But if I’m not ready to put the controller down yet, I play the two World 6 bonus levels.
Dynamite Dash is another cave level. But this time you blow everything up.
And sometimes that’s enough.
Whereas the normal 8 levels in World 6 are frozen reskins of DKC Returns levels, Icicle Arsenal is original. The castle featured in this level didn’t appear in Returns.
It seems, then, that the snowmads have done more than just occupy DK Island. Now they are building their own castles, their own settlements.
And DK, once again, is here to tear them down.