It was all quite familiar to me. I had made my way through the jungle and was pleased with the smart design and the creative ideas. I was satisfyingly challenged, a little delighted, completely nestled in my comfort zone. More of the same, but more of the good. I really could not complain at all. I didn’t expect the charm of the past anyway and I didn’t need it. But then I got it.
Level 4-3. A cave, a bridge, a penguin. Ambient sounds and then – a leap into the water.
When you plunge into the sea on a hot day, everything changes. The heat, the sounds, the bright light, everything gives way to the cooling calm of the vast sea. Time stands still for a moment. In Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze it works like this: the regular visuals give way to silhouettes already known from other levels. A visual trick that is used so sparingly in the game that it doesn’t wear out. Neat. The music is bubbling along, certainly another nice track by David Wise. And then the piano sets in.
The slightly delayed notes, a familiar sound palette, the yearning but crystal clear melody. I was following schools of fish to get through poisonous undergrowth, was bringing ancient machines to life and was dancing with glowing jellyfish in deepest depths. Sperm whales in the background. A gigantic catfish opens a new way with a shattering headbutt. Donkey Kong is one with nature. I am one with Donkey Kong. Pure escapism. And above all “Amiss Abyss” by David Wise.
When it was announced that Retro Studios would dedicate themselves to the Donkey Kong Country series after their impressive work on the Metroid franchise, I was thrilled. The original DKC trilogy for the SNES are more than any other “my games”. I discovered them on my own and made them personal favorites. The first part was included with my used SNES. I had never seen anything like it. The look, the speed, the challenge and – of course – the music. Deep drums, driving bass riffs, turmoil, tension, thrills. Shortly afterwards, I was staying at a Canadian family for a weekend during a summer camp to experience… real life in this… exotic part of the world. Turns out, the son had a SNES. But it wasn’t my SNES, it was clunkier and pastel-purple, which was weird. And he played Donkey Kong Country. But it wasn’t my Donkey Kong Country, it was more colorful, better, something beyond. And when I came back to Germany, I checked and what do you know – we also had Donkey Kong Country 2. My brain went pop. And only one year later Part 3 came around, and again and again the music delighted me.
Retro Studio’s take on the series fulfilled all hopes: Donkey Kong Country Returns is not just a reproduction of the old games. The controls are spot on, the level design is heavily modernized, the worlds are believable and lovingly crafted – it’s objectively better than the original trilogy, but of course it didn’t have the same effect on me. When Tropical Freeze was announced, I was almost a little disappointed because I felt I had had enough and would have preferred something different from Retro. Only the announcement that this time David Wise would be responsible for the soundtrack catched my attention. After all, he was the one who had composed the majority of the pieces on the SNES that are still hanging in my head to this day and contribute so much to the legendary status of these games. And it was all fine and good. But then there was this leap into the water in 4-3 and this tune: a perfect moment that made time stand still. Tropical Freeze is more than SNES nostalgia. It is an audiovisual masterpiece and the best platformer of all time.
2014’s Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is still the most recent project of Retro Studios, who have delivered a consistently high quality games with three Metroid and two DK games. What went askew in the last six years is subject to speculation. The studio is currently working on the fourth part of Metroid Prime. The underwater world 4-3 can be explored on Wii U and Switch.
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