Every year the Polygon staff chooses 10 excellent games to award our Game of the Year honors, but that means some games we love don't quite make the cut. This year we've decided to run a series of opinion pieces by members of the Polygon staff explaining why certain games earned top marks from them even if they didn't make our staff-wide Game of the Year list.
I'm saddened, but not surprised, by the absence of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze on Polygon's Game of the Year list.
It came out at the beginning of the year, with little fanfare on a platform that's still not doing so hot. Plus, it's a Donkey Kong Country game, a series long (and wrongly) accused of offering flash over substance. When it was announced last year at E3, people were underwhelmed — many wanted developer Retro Studios to make a Metroid game, not another Donkey Kong Country.
It's too bad, because Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is the finest platformer of 2014, and one of the best designed games of the year, in any genre.
Retro Studios took the foundation that they built for Donkey Kong Country Returns — itself an excellent platformer — and went from there. Returns came out in 2010 on the Wii and 2013 on the 3DS, and it took all of the best elements of the older games — wacky, obstacle course-like level design, an emphasis on momentum in character movement, lush, colorful visuals and fantastic music — and built a challenging, modern 2D platformer out of them.
Tropical Freeze takes that foundation and runs with the concept, with a bigger, brighter world full of expertly-designed stages, hidden areas and challenging boss battles. Much of Tropical Freeze's success comes from its level design, which is consistently brilliant. The game kept surprising me — and yes, delighting me — with fresh surprises throughout.
Take this stage, Horn Top Hop (yes, every level has a cute name, and no, this does not make the game stupid). It's imaginative, to begin with — based in the Autumn Heights world, a mountaintop village/forest painted in colorful harvest tones. It gets its gameplay inspiration from those themes: in this level, you need to jump on giant leaves quickly and efficiently in order to progress.
It begins by introducing this feature — the leaves — in a safe way, with a nice, normal platform underneath. The next time we see the leaves, just moments after, there is a pit of spikes below them. By the third appearance of the leaves (just about 40 seconds into the level), the training wheels are off, and the player needs to navigate the leaves over a bottomless (read: failure inducing) pit. The fourth time we see the leaves, they are subject to the whims of the giant horn instruments. And so on.
This is generally how each level is designed. Some creative new element is introduced gradually, iterated upon, and made into a challenging little piece of gameplay. The designers at Retro are masters of level design, and this gradual learning approach allows them to get away with making stages that are so challenging.
All about the flow
The architecture of each stage is brilliant, but that would only go so far if the game didn't feel right. The Donkey Kong Country games have always been about momentum — DK controls like a big, burly gorilla, and pixel-perfect jumping is Mario's realm, not Donkey's.
Retro nailed this sense of momentum and speed in Tropical Freeze. I'll show another stage here, also from the second world, called Sawmill Thrill.
This is a pretty direct take on the classic games' "runaway minecart" stages. It's a fast-paced vehicle stage that requires snappy reflexes and a little trial and error to get through. It also simply feels good to play — there's a heaviness to the jumps and a satisfying clang to the cart.
Then, the stage switches to a sort of obstacle course on a log flume. The watercraft is faster and more slippery than the minecart, requiring even quicker reflexes. The sensation of getting "air" on the flume's jumps is infectious, and using that momentum properly is necessary to get to the hidden areas, as you can see in the video, right around 1:26.
This emphasis on momentum is key throughout the game, and the presence of Diddy, Dixie and Cranky Kong — all of whom have their own weight, heft and traversal abilities — serve to make the game richer.
The eye of the banana holder
Based on level design and game feel alone, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze would belong on a game of the year list, even if it were boring or generic looking. But it's a bright, colorful, beautiful game, with areas that look and feel wildly different from one another.
Take Amiss Abyss, for example. It's a lush, underwater cavern, presented mostly in silhouette. Crisp, cartoonish shapes dominate the background — sunken ships, fish, various waves and swirls of the water. Where the cave is lit up, it's alive with bright shells, creatures, and coins.
Grassland Grove (above) looks like a playable world out of Disney's Animal Kingdom, with a bouncy theme song, sunrise Savannah atmosphere and animal decor.
Ape of the year
Maybe Tropical Freeze was destined to be snubbed at GOTY time. Maybe the type of gamer that likes a seriously challenging platformer took a look at it and thought it was just for kids, or maybe that Donkey Kong Country bias of old is still in the air. But Tropical Freeze is beautifully designed and just plain beautiful. I would love it if Retro kept making these games, and I hope Tropical Freeze itself gets a second shot at life on the 3DS, just like its predecessor.
This piece is part of Polygon's 2014 in Review series. Throughout December we'll be exploring the games, people and events that shaped gaming in the past year. You can check out more 2014 in Review stories in our StoryStream.