Nobody Played 'Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze,' but I Loved It Anyway
It wasn't Donkey Kong's fault that everyone wanted a new Metroid, but it doomed this absurdly good platformer.
Images courtesy of Nintendo
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I remember where I was when it happened. When I realized that Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze would become an undeserved flop.
It was E3 2013, I was newly settled into a role at a bigger gaming site, and we were deciding what games would get our coveted "best of E3" awards. I enthusiastically jumped up and yelled "Donkey Kong!" and everyone looked at me like I had ten heads. "I played it! It's awesome!" I said, not convincing a damned soul in that room.
My co-workers weren't the only ones. Some were just generally cool to Kong and his goofy family. For others, the mere fact that Retro Studios, well-known for the excellent Metroid Prime games, wasn't making a Metroid game was a disappointment. It seemed no one cared when the game's colorful debut trailer played as part of Nintendo's Direct event.
When the late, great Satoru Iwata—then president and CEO of Nintendo—introduced the game at in its launch trailer, he noted that the Donkey Kong Country series was "known for dynamic action and creative stage design." I'm not one to quote PR, but in this case, he's right. Donkey Kong Country (which began on the SNES in the 90s and was rebooted in 2010's Donkey Kong Country Returns) was always popular, and always pushed the graphical capabilities of its home hardware. Returns sold beautifully on the Wii. Surely, Tropical Freeze looked like a sure bet on Nintendo's first HD console.
But right away, the game was hit with the anti-buzz of angry Metroid fans, demanding that Retro return to Samus's territory. Threads popped up on gaming message boards like NeoGAF calling the announcement a "disappointment," even given the game's pedigree. One colorful commentator offered, "It looks REALLY great (loved the rotating camera) but what a kick in the dick. As if anyone wants Retro stuck doing this game again.. sigh." The implication, shared among a large chunk of the audience, being that Retro was too talented a studio to be working on a silly kid's game.
Right away, Nintendo even tried to address the whole not-Metroid-ness of the project. Nintendo president Reggie Fils-Aime spoke with Retro's Michael Kelbaugh at that very event, asking, "So, I've been looking at all of the social media, and one of the big questions is, 'Why did Retro decide to do another story of Donkey Kong Country?'"
With a big smile, Kelbough answered, "Well, after Donkey Kong Country Returns [the previous game in the series], we had a lot of gas left in the tank, there was a lot of cool things we wanted to do: the underwater levels, the 3D camera—we were just very excited about working with Donkey Kong and wanted to continue that."
Sure, they're just hitting the talking points, the same ones we got in the game's trailer, and the same ones I heard at my own live demo that year. I suppose a vague sense of "cool technical tricks!" sounds good on paper, though I wonder, if Nintendo marketing had gone after the real appeal of the game, we wouldn't be talking about how underrated and under-appreciated it is.
The folks at Retro have designed around a really satisfying core concept: Introduce an obstacle. Twist it. Expound on it. Explore it in surprising ways. Then challenge the shit out of the player.
The DKC games have always been better designed than that critical fart face would have you believe, but Retro's offerings have both boasted level design that is truly brilliant—in terms of pacing, player education, and intelligent twists. The folks at Retro have designed around a really satisfying core concept: Introduce an obstacle. Twist it. Expound on it. Explore it in surprising ways. Then challenge the shit out of the player.
No level conceit seems half-assed. Ideas—like floating leaves that allow the player to perch for a second before falling down, fast-flowing currents in underwater caverns, or even Dixie Kong's signature hair-helicopter—are explored fully, offering new ways to interact with the environments in every stage. This is a design straight out of old-school Mario's textbook.
More important, the game felt special in the way the older Donkey Kong Country games always did. As well-designed as Donkey Kong Country Returns was—and it was an excellent platformer—it never held quite the same sway on me. The SNES games were full of atmosphere and a weirdly specific sense of danger and adventure, of being in a bizarre representation of nature that was as deadly as it was gorgeous.
Those games were formative for me. I got to explore a really interesting and pretty world, with the mechanics (exploring, traversing, surviving), baked right into that exploration. Since then, I've played many platformers that were well designed and fun, and I've played so many games that let me explore beautiful, interesting worlds. But they so rarely come in the same package.
Tropical Freeze was all of that for me: Those underwater stages, with Aquatic Ambience's tinkling presence in the background, brought me right back to my younger self, gawking at awe at the world set before me. Autumnal forests and tricky mountain peaks and wildly OSHA-flaunting factories all put me in the same headspace I once occupied.
It wasn't so much pure nostalgia as a real appreciation of what made those older games special. It wasn't just the pretty graphics and music, or the zany level designs. It's the fluidity and the warmth with which they were crafted, with an eye toward atmosphere and mood. Retro took what worked about its own reboot—excellent level design and a crunchy challenge—and then took those extra steps.
As for the rest of the world, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze enjoyed positive reviews, and then promptly fell off the face of the earth, aside from a few end-of-year award nominations and very little actual recognition. It seems that those few who played it, loved it, but there weren't all that many of us.
Maybe it's not-Metroid-ness was the problem. Maybe the Wii U was the problem. Maybe the fact that it looked like a goofy kids game but was tough as all hell was the problem. But Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, for all its brilliant design and lovably goofy brand recognition... just didn't sell.
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