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.

Yoshi’s Woolly World (2015)

Mario’s beloved dinosaur companion returns in this fuzzy platforming adventure. Nintendo has a large number of platforming IPs, each main character having a unique array of abilities to set the games apart. To go along with that, they all have drastically different difficulty levels. Starting with the slow and forgiving Kirby, Yoshi is the next step in difficulty, followed by Mario, and finally Donkey Kong. Kirby games tend to be introductory platformers and tend to bore more experienced players, so I was hoping to find the sweet spot of relaxing and difficult with Yoshi’s Woolly World. While the base levels of Yoshi’s Woolly World are fairly simple, there is a high variance in the difficulty of the game depending on many of the collectibles you try to obtain.

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Like most other Nintendo platformers, trying to collect the collectibles scattered throughout each level is a way of stepping up the difficulty for players who are looking for an additional challenge. Yoshi’s Woolly World takes this concept to the next level. Each level has 4 main collectibles for the player to find, and each has an individual purpose. There are yarns, flowers, stamps, and hearts, the two most important are the yarns and flowers. The plot of Yoshi’s Woolly World is that evil wizard Kamek unravels all of the Yoshis, who are made of yarn and scatters them across the land. Collecting all the yarns in a specific level essentially rescues one of those Yoshis and lets you play using their unique color scheme. If you collect every flower in all 8 levels of a specific world, you unlock a hidden bonus level, which is a shame because these bonus levels were generally my favorite and it is unfortunate that they are hidden behind collectibles. Stamps and hearts do not provide much for the player, but if you go through the trouble of getting all the yarns and flowers, you might as well go for 100% and get a golden star for finding everything. Personally, I generally like collectibles in games, but I feel like Yoshi’s Woolly World went about them the wrong way.

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Gathering collectibles in games is an optional task, and is best left that way because not all players love collecting. In Yoshi’s Woolly World, the player is heavily incentivized to collect things to save their Yoshi companions and to unlock hidden levels. Unfortunately, I do think that the collectibles were handled properly.  In a platformer, collectibles should be gated behind a platforming challenge, maybe a set of tough, consecutive jumps. Or in the case of Yoshi, whose special ability is that he can throw eggs, maybe have collectibles be an aiming challenge. Occasionally, there could be hidden areas that the player can spot if they are perceptive which hide collectibles. In Yoshi’s Woolly World, the vast majority of the collectibles are hidden in those secret types of areas. It even goes further than that, many collectibles are hidden inside invisible clouds or walls that the player cannot spot unless they physically touch it. So, if you are looking for collectibles you essentially have to constantly jump around and bump into every wall, ceiling, and touch every inch of the screen if you want to find these invisible objects. This is not ok, it slows down the pace of the game tremendously and makes progressing through levels tedious rather than entertaining. And if you miss something you have to go through the whole level again doing the same thing just to find one missing item. Most of the time I had to replay levels 2 or 3 times before I found the invisible final item nonsensically floating in the middle of the sky somewhere. It turns the game from a platformer into some sort of treasure hunt, where the treasures are hidden illogically and with the sole intention of wasting your time.

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Perhaps I hurt the experience for myself by going for the 100% completion, but I am not sure if I would have been engaged without searching for the collectibles. My suggestion for newer players is to hunt for whatever collectibles are on screen, but do not obsess over them as they are a giant time sink. It is a shame because then you won’t get to save Yoshis friends and you won’t get to play the great bonus levels, but they are not worth the time required to unlock them. If you complete the game regularly and want more, then definitely go back and try to 100% every level, but don’t ruin the game for yourself by going for all the collectibles right off the bat.

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The levels of Yoshi’s Woolly World are fairly easy, as I would expect from a Yoshi game, which is why I was going for the collectibles in the first place. What I liked about the level design was that every single level was unique. Every level had a sort of gimmick in place that was the central theme of the level. Ropes that you grab and swing on, bubbles that you bounce on, creating your own platforms by tossing eggs,  these are just a few examples but every single level has some sort of twist to it. I liked this as the game constantly felt fresh and there were no “throw away” levels that are there just to pad the content. My big issue was that everything just felt kind of slow. Outside of the secret levels, all but a few of the levels you just kind of waddle along at your own pace without immediate threats or danger. I guess I should have expected this out of easier platforming game, but I feel like this is how collectibles could have been used to improve the experience. Maybe collectibles could disappear after some time has passed as a way of speeding up the player, or have a series of optional jumps that increase difficulty for experienced players. I felt stuck in a sort of limbo, the game was too easy and not engaging when just played normally, but was a tedious scavenger hunt when I went for the collectibles.

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Outside of the uniquely and memorable gimmicks in every level, there are a few other features to this game that make it appealing. First, and most obviously, is the phenomenal art direction. Taken straight out of Kirby’s Epic Yarn, I absolutely love the visuals of this game. Everything is made of woven yarn and wool, and there is a ton of attention to detail to keep it all looking like it was handcrafted. These knitted characters and worlds are adorable, whimsical, and charming, it is probably my favorite feature of the game. It is especially cute whenever you get to play alongside Yoshi’s new canine pal Poochy, I mean who doesn’t love a good dog?  There is also a co-op mode so you can play with a friend, or maybe your kid as this a good platformer for beginners. Another cool feature is the ability to buy power-ups through gems that you collect in the levels. You will have an overabundance of these gems and it could be pretty fun to spend them to give Yoshi powerful abilities. Lastly, I think this game is probably an appropriate difficulty level for young kids. It is definitely a little tougher than Kirby games, but not as hard as Mario or Donkey Kong. I just think that there should have been a good way of stepping up the difficulty for more experienced players. I absolutely loved the hidden levels of this game, they were fast, fun, and had some challenging platforming. If the whole game had similar level design this would have been a must play game in my opinion, but there are so few of these levels and they are hidden behind an irritating collectible system.

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Overall, I think Yoshi’s Woolly World is a decent game. While I spent a lot of time ranting over its obnoxious collectible system, I don’t think most players will even attempt to collect most of them. And while for someone who is more familiar with platformers the game is slow and easy, it is the perfect difficulty for its intended audience. As someone who grew up playing the original Yoshi’s Island, maybe I expected too much out of this game, but I felt seriously stuck between the game being too easy when played normally, and flat out annoying when playing for collectibles. Still, the whimsical charm and creativity of Yoshi’s Woolly World is sure to impress. For these reasons, I give Yoshi’s Woolly World a 6.5/10. It is great as an introductory platformer, but I feel that it offers little outside of that.