There is an image in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze that I can’t let go of. It is of a gorilla riding a gorilla riding a rhinoceros. One gorilla has a ponytail and a pink cap and can levitate; the other wears a necktie with his initials on it. I think of that image when I start to question why a man of my age and stature would devote so much of his time and attention to videogames. That image is the reason why. When work wears me down and I’m close to buckling under the stress, I think of that gorilla riding a gorilla riding a rhinoceros, and of the game that they inhabit, and laugh to myself. And then I get on Twitter to make a bad joke about it, and then I check all my email accounts again, and then I read strangers’ thoughts on baseball, wrestling and True Detective at various internet message boards, and then it’s been an hour and I’ve done very little work at all and I’m more stressed than before. And then that gorilla rides a gorilla riding a rhinoceros.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a beautiful game, in both appearance and demeanor. It is joyous in its joyousness, so happy to make us happy. Games should be beautiful and joyous. Games can be anything and can look like anything, and yet few games are beautiful or joyous—at least few games with the budget of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze.
This is what you do in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze: You feel happy. You feel happy as you march gorillas from left to right, navigating strategically placed animals dressed like vikings while jumping over and around obstacles themed to whatever kind of terrain predominates in that subset of levels. It is a platformer: You platform. Donkey Kong has a prodigious leap, raps a mighty beat on the ground with his open hands and can cartwheel enemies to death, using his entire body as a weapon. These enemies are adorable, little penguins and owls and walruses in viking helmets. You’ll feel bad killing them—Donkey Kong feels nothing at all.
Other gorillas help out. Diddy Kong and his jetpack increase the reach of Donkey’s leap. Dixie Kong acts like a makeshift helicopter, helping Donkey land on platforms his normal jump can’t reach. Cranky Kong directly assists Donkey for the first time in the franchise’s history, using his cane DuckTales-style to split enemies’ skulls or bounce a little bit higher than Donkey can jump. Each helper gorilla has a special power-up that can be activated through a high-five, because Tropical Freeze is fully committed to being awesome. It takes the entire gorilla troop to rid Donkey Kong Island of mean penguins.
Mysteries abound, in the purest platformer fashion. Secret chambers give you the opportunity to collect dozens of bananas in the hopes of winning an extra life and a puzzle piece. Some levels have multiple exits that unlock different paths on the overworld map. You can uncover coins that let you buy power-ups and balloons that give you extra lives. Puzzle pieces and the letters in the word “kong” can be found in each level, primarily to award those with the skill and ingenuity to collect them. Again: It’s a platformer.
Many factors go into making a videogame, but if you want to be lazy or glib, you can break it down into two territories: Action and aesthetics. That’s how a game plays and how a game looks and sounds. When it comes to prominent console games, there’s often not as much variety in these as one would hope for (unless you are remarkably adept at picking out the subtle variations on killing computerized men in grey and brown backdrops.) The platforming genre is an anomaly—experimentation is allowed in both visuals and level design. Note the recent Rayman games, Super Mario 3D World and Media Molecule’s tandem of Tearaway and Little Big Planet: Platformers are allowed to embrace idiosyncratic art design and find novel approaches to the core action of jumping from platform to platform, while shooters repeat themselves again and again.
Tropical Freeze almost reaches the heights of Rayman Legends in both action and aesthetics. There’s one level, the first stage of the third world, that is one of the most gorgeous experiences I’ve ever had playing any videogame in my entire life. The music, images and precisely calibrated play all combine to forge something I found genuinely moving the first time I played it. The game never hits that high again, but the promise remains until the end, and the reality is close enough to keep me satisfied.
I have no particular love for the Donkey Kong Country series. I don’t think my nostalgia for Mario and Zelda and Metroid color my opinions on Nintendo’s current work, but it definitely wouldn’t for this game, as there’s no nostalgia to get in the way. 2010’s Donkey Kong Country Returns for the Wii is the only game in the series I have substantial prior experience with, and its charm wasn’t always enough to compensate for its difficulty. I didn’t love it. I was not expecting to love Tropical Freeze, either, but here we are.
Tropical Freeze is hard. Even when it is hard it is adorable. The difficulty escalates at a steady pace, and never spikes dramatically, which is what a game’s difficulty should do. Every aspect of the action, from the standard platforming to the periodic undersea investigations to the exploits involving mine cars and rocket ships, fits smoothly into the game’s world. And best of all is our itinerant rhino friend, always ready to bear up to two gorillas aloft and bulldoze its way to the end of the level. I think of that rhinoceros, and the gorillas that ride it, and it makes me happy to still play games. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze makes me happy. I can’t say that about enough games.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games section and reviews games for the Boston Herald. He can make a pretty okay Manhattan. Follow him on Twitter at @grmartin.