Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (2014)

Great old school platformers can be tough to come by in modern gaming. While there are some retro gems out there like Celeste, Shovel Knight, Sonic Mania, and A Hat in Time, it feels like major studios have mostly abandoned the concept of a pure platformer. Sure, plenty of games have platforming aspects to them, but it is rarely the focal feature. When a game like Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze comes along, anybody who is a fan of platformers should stop what they are doing and play it as soon as possible. It’s a fantastic game consisting of imaginative and fun visuals, superb difficulty, and tightly-crafted level design.

As far as Nintendo platformers go, Donkey Kong Country games have always been the most challenging of the bunch. That being said, I was impressed with how approachable Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze was. The first zone of the game was fairly straightforward, and the difficulty of the game slowly ramped up as time progressed. There are tons of powerups that you can buy if you need an extra boost, and if you are really struggling there is a Funky Kong mode available on the Switch port that serves as an easy mode. But what’s more impressive is the numerous hidden aspects that can crank up the difficulty for experienced players looking for a challenge.

In each stage there are hidden puzzle pieces for completitionists to hunt down. While I ignored those for the most part, the more visible “K-O-N-G” letters were my main focus. The letters are easy to spot, but often require a more difficult or risky jump to collect. And if you collect all four letters in every level in a zone you unlock a secret stage. The secret stages are where the meat of the game’s challenge was for me. I found most of the regular levels to be tricky enough that I needed to play well, but not perfectly. The secret stages often required such precision and timing that I felt like I really needed to master them. And if you manage to conquer all the secret stages, you unlock a challenging hidden zone with three more devastatingly difficult levels. And if you succeed in that you unlock Hard Mode.

Of course, you can entirely ignore the puzzle pieces, letters, hidden exits, secret levels, the bonus zone, and Hard Mode entirely. But the fact that all of these things were included as extra little ways to incrementally tune up the difficulty was wonderful. Letting the player pick what is important to them is a great way to introduce some optional difficulty instead of just giving the player five different difficulty modes at the start. But the most impressive thing about Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze was how the level design facilitated multiple styles of play.

A majority of the standard levels in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze are designed such that you can mostly take your time and think about what you are doing before you make the leap. While there some frantic and exciting sequences requiring you to move quickly, it’s a game that can be taken at whatever pace the player desires. But something interesting happens when you try to go as fast as possible through a level. You realize that everything lines up perfectly. As you bop from one enemy’s head to another to maintain your momentum, the platforms and enemies seem carefully placed to facilitate this level of speed. That’s because they are. While every level seems like a standard platforming stage at first glance, there is a deeper complexity behind the speed running curtain. I was extremely impressed by the level of thought and effort put into every single level in the game.

On top of the effort put into the gameplay and flow of each level, there was also a tremendous amount of care put into the visual experience. There are so many fun settings that make it feel like you are running and jumping through an animated movie. Not only is the background a spectacle, but the visuals tie into the gameplay. You can ride a rhino and dodge fireballs as a volcano erupts in the distance, or swing between decorative floats during a Lion King like celebration in the savannah, or jump between platforms as an avalanche sweeps away the platforms below you. There are tons of memorable stages that will go down as some of my favorite platforming levels of all time.

My only complaints with Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze are fairly minor. It could be frustrating to get to the end of a level, notice that there is a secret exit, and realize that you have the wrong power-up to access it. This meant that you would have to restart the entire stage with a certain Kong partner and make it all the way to the end without dying or taking more than 2 hits of damage. I say this is minor because these are completely optional stages, but still, I rarely enjoy having to redo a level through no fault of my own.

Furthermore, I was not a huge fan of the boss fights at the end of each world. They were often pretty long with no checkpoints. They usually had three phases, getting progressively more challenging every three times that you hit them. But I found that the first and second phases were simple, and the final phase was fairly difficult. It could take a few attempts to learn the final phase patterns, and having to go through the entire boring lead-up every time could be a bit boring.

Overall, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is an excellent platformer in a world deprived of the genre. It combines imagination, visual spectacle, and exciting gameplay to create a spectacular experience. The level of care put into the level design is astounding. Whether you are someone new to the genre or an experienced platformer player, you can definitely find what you are looking for in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze.

Valfaris (2019)

Sometimes you just need to take a break from the massive open world RPGs and the like and dive into some old-school shooters. Valfaris is a modern indie game that was clearly inspired by the past. Its roots stem from the genre of run-and-guns that began with the classic Contra. Initially I was skeptical of Valfaris; I felt like it was nothing more than a stylized throwback without anything to make it standout. But I was wrong, even though Valfaris is from an ancient genre it manages to be unique by virtue of its carefully crafted level design.

Valfaris is an old-school run-and-gun that plays heavily with the themes of metal. The game reminds me quite a bit of DOOM stylistically, the key difference being that in Valfaris you are obliterating aliens instead of ripping demons apart. The music is appropriately metal, pumping the player’s adrenaline without becoming too hectic or distracting. I will mention that the visual sprites could sometimes be a little messy and hard to read.

I appreciate the game’s commitment to the theme, and individually all of the artwork is great. However, when the environments, backgrounds, enemies, projectiles, and animations are all together sometimes the screen would be difficult to read. This could be a little frustrating in more challenging portions of the game as you may not have even seen the attack or enemy that damaged you.

Where Valfaris shines isn’t in reinventing the genre, but instead it is the tightly designed levels that makes Valfaris enjoyable. Run-and-gun games are historically difficult, and Valfaris is no exception. However, I very rarely felt like the game was being unfair. The time between checkpoints felt perfectly designed. The tension created by weathering a horde of enemies, praying that a safe haven would be right around the corner is exhilarating. The absolute relief when hitting a checkpoint after a challenging section cannot be understated.

Moreover, the enemy design in Valfaris is superb. Most enemies are absolute cannon fodder, letting you shred your way through a level. But there are a few tougher baddies scattered about to up the challenge. Keeping on your toes, making sure none of the weaker grunts damage you while dodging the more elite aliens is a careful balancing act. But the key that makes Valfaris so engaging is that it follows the historical strategy that staying in motion is the best way to avoid damage.

Being aggressive, firing your gun constantly, swinging your sword at nearby enemies, and just moving around is the best defensive tactic. Staying in one place and shooting at enemies as they come is ineffective. They will catch you with stray shots and many enemies spawn from hives that will keep pumping out threats until you destroy their nest. That feeling of rushing in and causing havoc is superb.

Without a doubt my favorite aspect of Valfaris were the bosses. Every single one felt punishingly difficult the first time I encountered them. But fairly quickly I realized how predictable their patterns were and how consistently I could dodge them. I never felt like I got lucky, but instead that I mastered the boss and every one of their attacks. Without a dodge-roll, and your only defensive tool being a shield that saps your energy, running around and positioning yourself correctly becomes all the more important. It’s not a game of reactions, but a game of learning to stay mobile.

Valfaris gives the players an absolute arsenal of weapons to choose from for being a fairly short game. Surprisingly, each weapon is extremely unique and has different use cases. The difference in damage, range, spread-pattern, and special effects make every weapon fun to test out. I believe they are all fairly viable, although some are inevitably more powerful than others. You can equip a single sidearm, a melee weapon which deals high damage and restores energy, and a powerful main weapon that consumes energy when used.

It’s fun to test out different loadouts. But a critique that I have is that the upgrade system hampers the player’s ability to try new weapons. There are limited materials that can be used to upgrade your weapons, so once you start upgrading one it feels like you are committed to that choice. Especially once you get to the later part of the game you probably have a max-level weapon and aren’t going to want to swap it out for a fresh new one. I wish I didn’t feel so constricted when upgrading my weapons so that I could have experimented with some of the interesting choices that the game offers.

An interesting aspect of Valfaris is how it encourages and rewards risk in different ways. The most obvious is with the concept of Resurrection Idols. One of these can be found in every section between checkpoints, and extra ones can be found by diligent explorers. It costs a single Idol to activate a checkpoint. But if you choose not to activate the checkpoint and push forward, you get to keep the Idol. For every extra Idol you hold you gain bonus maximum health and maximum energy. I personally never took the risk and skipped a checkpoint, but it is an interesting risk for more experienced players to choose to gain a permanent bonus.

Moreover, at the end of every level there is a machine in which you can exchange bonus Idols for weapon upgrade materials. Effectively trading max health and energy for more power. The risks surrounding Idols and how to spend them is definitely an appreciated player choice. Another way the game handles risk is by encouraging the player to run around and slash at enemies. Melee attacks generate energy, which can be used for your heavy weapons and shield. So, if you want to play it safe and stay at range with your sidearm you can, but if you want to cause mayhem you need to slice up aliens to power your destructive rocket launchers and such.

Overall, Valfaris is an excellent modern run-and-gun. It’s hard to stand out in a sea of games that all stem from a genre that started 35 years ago. But Valfaris masterfully captures the thrilling side-scrolling action that defines the genre. The best way to describe it is 2D DOOM. Which is a pretty high compliment to give to any shooter. Despite a few minor issues like messy visuals and stunted upgrade paths, I believe Valfaris is an excellent game. It is for these reasons I give Valfaris an 8/10. While not being anything mind-blowingly new or innovative, Valfaris is the essence of run-and-gun.