Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze has, at long last, been released to the masses. By now, many have experienced what the game has to offer and for those of us who already want more, thoughts of where Donkey Kong will go next have entered our heads. It’s certainly an intriguing thing to think about, as the possibilities are endless for everybody’s favorite tie-wearing ape.
Donkey Kong is certainly no stranger to new types of games. The Country games were a huge step forward after DK’s beginnings as a villain in a Mario game and not many would have ever suspected a platformer controlled by bongos. As such, it seems a bit redundant to try and guess where exactly he may be going next. Many have clamored for a new 3D platformer and I certainly would be interested in seeing that somewhere down the line. We might get another 2D platformer instead — and then, of course, we might see something completely surprising and unpredictable.
Since DK is one of Nintendo’s most popular characters, it is inevitable that they will start on his next outing as soon as possible. Teams have always been allowed the resources to make the best experiences possible with the character and the games have always turned out very polished and detailed; rarely do they get rushed to market. Even so, considering the potential cash DK can bring in, I strongly doubt that Nintendo will hesitate to begin development on a new game, now that Tropical Freeze has been released.
Now, usually, I don’t feel that games often need direct sequels immediately, let alone a threequel, but after the brilliance of Tropical Freeze, my stance has changed somewhat. A new one is a no brainer for so many reasons. It would be best for Nintendo, it would be best for the developers, and most importantly, it would arguably be best for us, the fans.
As far as sequels go, Tropical Freeze was an impressive one. It very easily could have simply been DKCR in HD, but the improvements made to the game made it feel all its own. Compared to Returns, it is possible to point to basically any part of the game to see how it has been improved. Visuals? Obviously. Music? Absolutely. Bosses? Yep. Atmosphere? I’d certainly argue so. Less obvious things have been improved, as well; levels flow even better than before, pacing is perfect this time around, the camera is more dynamic, and the diversity in the locations — not just world-to-world, but level-to-level — is pretty remarkable.
Most importantly, though, is the variety the game has to offer from a gameplay standpoint. It is truly incredible. Every level introduces a new idea in some form or another, never letting a gameplay element outstay its welcome. Of course, this is something every good platformer should strive to achieve. Classic Mario games excelled at this for their time, as did the original Donkey Kong Country games, and even Returns did a great job at it. But this game was notable for an entirely different reason: it achieved this variety without introducing copious amounts of new types of gameplay. In fact, nearly every type of gameplay was brought over from Returns with no changes.
You may be wondering what exactly I mean by this. Despite using the exact same mechanics as a previous game that had over seventy levels, they managed to craft an experience that had ideas that set it far apart from its predecessor. Because it was a sequel, because they were revisiting existing mechanics, it managed to go above and beyond anything else we’ve seen from the genre and it did all this without even needing more than a new addition or two from a core gameplay standpoint.
So imagine what could be done with another attempt? A shortage of ideas is the least of the worries. Just looking at the unlockable artwork in the menu of Tropical Freeze shows some really cool, unused ideas.
The differences in their approach to sequelizing their source material is fascinating to me. DKC2 took the core of the original and — after the first world at least — focused on adding tons of new gameplay mechanics to supplement the original’s core systems. Every other level had something new to learn. Tropical Freeze stayed truer to Returns, preferring to perfect what was already there. Adding multiple partner choices and a dynamic camera, it focused not on new ways to play but instead, on using existing mechanics to create more well developed challenges and ambitious set pieces and visuals.
The updated series, then, still has a lot of life left in it. It has already proved to have the capability to expand on existing mechanics with great aplomb and it would continue to do so with the proper talent behind it. Beyond that, DKC2 has proven that adding lots of gameplay types can go a long ways towards making a better game without the game feeling fractured; the opportunity to mesh the two styles of sequelizing is quite enticing.
A new entry could expand more on the basic platforming, the partner characters, the vine-swinging, the mine carts, the barrels, the rockets, the swimming, and Rambi, yes — but simultaneously, the opportunity to introduce new animal buddies, new vehicles, new styles of gameplay is there as well. That mix is an opportunity that can’t quite be properly expounded upon with new IPs or changed versions of a franchise.
So the series has innumerable amounts of potential left — but so do plenty of series. Why should this one receive another entry when so many get left out in the cold? Well, there is the simple fact that, for once, there’s a fully completed engine ready to go. Returns went through a bit of a development hell, with Retro originally planning the game to use the engine used for the morph ball in Metroid Prime. That was too slow, however, and so, they created a new one for the game. The 3DS port needed to be rebuilt for the ground up, which doubtless took a fair bit of time, and Tropical Freeze needed some serious changes to be made to allow for all the visual upgrades, as well as the dynamic camera.
For the first time, development can hit the ground running. Sure, loading times might need to be worked on a bit, but everything else seems to be working flawlessly. All the partner characters’ attributes, in addition to DK’s base controls, could be brought directly over and even those fancy fur effects are all polished up. It’s not like the game would suddenly take years less to develop due to the finished engine, but it makes sense from a publisher and developer point of view to continue a series that has the tools and base necessary to create a great game.
But we still haven’t covered the elephant in the room: Retro Studios. Our very own Alex Balderas thinks that, despite the brilliance of the DKCR series, Retro’s talents may be better used elsewhere in the future and I’m inclined to agree. Tropical Freeze does seem to be solidifying itself as one of my favorite games of all time the more I play it and I fully believe the 2D platformer is a valid genre for a talented, ambitious team. Yet I still want to seem them branch out and try something new for their next project.
So who else could make a game with this level of detail in both visuals and level design? Who else could continue to lead one of the best platforming series on the market to new heights? Honestly, I can’t say I know.
The credits for Retro Studios is pretty telling about how development of Tropical Freeze went. About one hundred members from Retro Studios worked on the title: approximately seventy core members and thirty-six contractors. In addition to some directors and producers from Nintendo of Japan, as well as translators, the other staff were comprised of twenty-five Monster Games members.
For those who don’t know, Monster has traditionally worked on vehicular titles, from Exitetrucks to Pilotwings Resort. They recently took on the challenge of porting Returns to the 3DS with some light help from Retro and because they did so well, Retro asked them to help out with Tropical Freeze. Programming, visuals, level design — they helped with everything. So, having had so much hands-on experience with the design and with the engine, having proved their talent, and even being based in the West like previous developers of the series, they would be the perfect fit, right?
If only. Alas, Monster is — as far as we know — a small studio of only about twenty-five members. That means development of Tropical Freeze used up two entire studios’ work forces for three whole years. Chances are a small team couldn’t adequately follow that up properly. But again, the engine is finally completed. There are several core assets, and the dynamic camera has already been figured out. A third entry likely would not need quite such a big team nor as much development time.
So how could this work? Despite having completed a look at Nintendo’s development teams recently, I honestly couldn’t say if anyone else might be capable of creating a DK game on a similar level to Retro, let alone a studio that would be okay with creating a direct sequel to a game that others had created.
So perhaps Nintendo will do the unexpected and allow DK to take a long break or maybe Retro has secretly expanded to two full team and has been working on DK games on the side. Perhaps Monster Games is in the process of drastically expanding their workforce or perhaps an EAD team will swoop in and try their hand — or maybe something else completely unexpected.
Basically, we don’t know. There is not an easy answer for what developers should continue this franchise. But in the end, does it really matter? There are still plenty of possible options to turn to and with this kind of untapped potential that few platformers have ever managed to reach, Nintendo can make it happen should they deem it necessary.
This is a series that deserves one more shot. It has the engine, it has possible developers, it has a publisher that is prepared to give it the time and care it needs, and most importantly, it has the potential to deliver an entry to the genre beyond anything we’ve yet seen. So how about we give DKC one last chance and close out the trilogy with a final masterpiece?