Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze returns the series to its 16-bit glory

I had one rule when playing Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, and it was this: Wear my good glasses. My old prescription was slightly weaker, the lenses harder to scrub clear. But with my newer glasses I saw the visual grandeur before me with what seemed like an important clarity. Something else felt more necessary, beyond the simple jumping and running through levels, a simple task really: to pay attention.

Ostensibly, this collaboration between Nintendo and Austin, Texas-based Retro Studios is a platformer, and very much a direct sequel to 2010’s Donkey Kong Country Returns on Wii, a reboot of the classic franchise begun on the Super Nintendo but ignored since 1996. But it might as well be one of those Hidden Object puzzles, full of rich details spread out across the screen waiting to be found. Because to notice what others have not becomes the goal in this game. And when you do take your time to soak in this rambunctious feast of monkey derring-do, you’ll recognize why Donkey Kong continues to exist for more than three decades. It’s all about character.

A world of personified animals, smartly evoked, can feel more human than yet another stereotyped story of overcoming evil. 

If Mario is the everyman of videogames, Donkey Kong is the lovable louse, the original villain we loved to hate. Since their mutual debut in 1981’s Donkey Kong, the ape has had an underrated portfolio of work. We forget how wide his range is: from kidnapped hostage in Donkey Kong Jr., to catalyzer of angry bees in Donkey Kong 3, to patient teacher in Donkey Kong Jr. Math, the character has long ago escaped the shackles of stereotyped baddie and become something more akin to a plush doll, pliable and soft. With 1994’s Donkey Kong Country, he finally stole back the spotlight from his first opponent and became the hero. Twenty years later, the first inklings of an ideal sown long ago have come to fruition. And with it comes something of a revelation: a world of personified animals, smartly evoked, can feel more human than yet another stereotyped story of overcoming evil.

The original Donkey Kong Country and its two sequels were graphical showcases for the long-in-the-tooth SNES, before 1996 brought the Nintendo 64 and the Japanese company turned their back on two dimensions. The popular franchise was tabled for two systems, but when Returns launched on the Wii, a generation of players were given a chance to relive the joy of launching their heavy primate selves through the air, leaping from vine to vine, pounding the ground with giant palms, or riding in a minecart—because, well, that’s what you did in the original.

Retro Studios, fresh off of reviving another Nintendo franchise with the stunning trilogy of Metroid Prime games, dug their hands into a new patch of forgotten soil and found it quite fertile. Returns was among an early rash of 2D platformers reminding us again why the format deserves a spot amongst the first-person battlefields and open-world sandboxes. And while the programmers at Retro made up for its platform’s native limitations with an art direction that distracted us from the fuzzy SD textures, Tropical Freeze on the more powerful Wii U finally returns us to a Donkey Kong Island as luscious as the name deserves.

But more impressive than the higher definition textures is an attempt to convey personality through carefully chosen details. In his arcade debut, Donkey Kong famously introduced a semblance of story to what could have been a simple obstacle course. In today’s era of high-production voice-acting and cinematic cutscenes, Nintendo chooses to reveal character through subtle cues noticed, or not, while playing. The events taking place—Viking animals named Snomads kick the Kong family out of their beloved home, and Donkey and friends scramble across a host of islands to return home and kick the interlopers out—is not the story worth paying attention to. Instead, listen to the music composed by series veterans David Wise and Kenji Yamamoto. Look carefully at these enemies rendered as if carved from wood and handpainted. Watch yourself move and marvel at the impossible sheath of fur, rippling like tiny waves.

Jump into water and your monkey feet flutters behind you. Turn and you’ll swish your giant hands, displacing water in a way that redirects your body’s momentum. I’ve never seen a monkey swim. But this is how I imagine it to move: human-like, with a brutality implicit to its massive torso and a surprising, lithe elegance unbefitting the beast’s ample stature.

Three other characters join you in supporting roles, offering additional lift on a jump or other such  powers. But it’s Cranky, the original DK from the arcade, whose presence tells the most interesting story just by being there. Jump and he holds onto your back, his legs flailing behind him, those thin knobby legs belonging to an elder who uses a cane, quadriceps atrophied from little use. His jawline slacks, gums worn back by a zookeeper’s tenacious brushing, lips wrinkled with age. To play Tropical Freeze is to see the evolution of character from a knob of inanimate pixels to this simian fossil, given life and moving slickly across a technicolor screen.

These enemies aren’t simple stock obstacles, they are characters, and each has personality inscribed on its very design. 

Enemies as personified bipedal animals have been a staple of the series since the SNES original. Here, the reptilian Kremlings are replaced with memorable arctic invaders. A polar bear wields two adjoined blowfish as a double-headed mace. A penguin archer slots fish into his bow and shoots them like arrows. A fat walrus clearly depicts both walrusness and fatness. That sounds like a joke line, and maybe it is, but it’s also true: these enemies aren’t simple stock obstacles, they are characters, and each has personality inscribed on its very design. There is no dialogue, no developing relationships, no other holding cell for these creatures’ beings other than the way they look, move, and react. And yet each feels whole, even as it serves its sole function: to be jumped upon, avoided, or hit by a barrel.

There is, in fact, one line of dialogue, and it’s my favorite bit of voice acting from the year so far. Each boss encounter begins with a short animated scene that sets up the fight. They read almost as parodies of other games’ boss encounters. The usual template involves some fictional warlord spouting off for minutes about ego, or terror, or jealousy, some constructed narrative to give credence to a battle which, essentially, shares the same emotional quality as smacking a pinata with a plastic bat. In Tropical Freeze, the designers recognize this dissonance and give us the tiny poke we need, sans all that blabbering.

As you step into the arena you encounter a giant owl. You’ve trespassed on his island, smiting his minions for no apparent reason. And now here you are, face to face. The giant bird flaps to the middle of the floor and bellows a single word: “WHO.”

Or, I guess, “HOO,” as owls are wont to say. But of course it sounds like the giant in a fairytale, entreating upon all who enter to announce themselves, to speak their name. That the pun is spoken in a deep, reverberating scowl, emitted from this massive frozen bird that will soon throw shards of ice at you from its feathers, just amplifies the playful jibe. The player doesn’t need a ten-minute long screed on loyalty or abandonment. All they need is that single word—Who?—to respond as all videogame heroes, human or otherwise, do: With a smart whoopin’. On to the next one.