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Donkey Kong’s newest game is a decade old.
I think I need to stop falling for Nintendo hype in a post-Switch world. It seems like every game that comes out on the console (this was on the Wii U, but nobody played it there) gets hyped to the point of over-inflation, always being hailed as the “best [X] ever”. Tropical Freeze is certainly no exception to this, reaching a sort of deified status as the apex of the modern 2D platformer; it isn’t even the best Donkey Kong game. It’s good, certainly. But it’s an experience carried immensely by its vibes, and they’re wrapped around a core that seems to get emptier and emptier the closer you try to examine it.
Grudgingly, I respect how heavy Donkey Kong is in this game. He is fucking slow. He’s a big, weighty gorilla, and his standard jump carries him about two feet horizontally. He will not be able to clear gaps that I could probably get across simply because of how bulky he is. You’re likely going to feel that Donkey Kong controls like shit at first while you grapple with the controls, but it won’t be much longer until you figure out the way that momentum works in this game: if Donkey Kong gets a running start and rolls into a jump, he can practically clear the entire horizontal space of the screen in a single leap. You’ll start overshooting jumps rather than coming up too short. The tools are there, they’re just a little tricky to get the hang of. What I really don’t like, however, is that the virtually worthless ground-slaps are bound to the same triggers as the roll; Donkey Kong can only get the roll from a running start, and he does the slaps while standing still. There will be many, many times that you’ll be standing on a teeny, tiny platform that requires you to roll jump to the next one, and the timing to get a running start is ridiculously tight. Most of the time you’ll risk either walking straight off the edge because you didn’t roll soon enough, or slapping the ground and then doing a slow jump down into the abyss because you pressed the roll button too early. Binding ground-slaps and roll to different buttons probably would have cut my deaths completely in half, and forcing them to be contextual on the same triggers made the actual act of platforming feel way clunkier than it needed to be.
The game is tricky, but very easily broken. I don’t know if the Tropical Freeze was balanced with the expectation you would have Dixie Kong or not, but she erases any degree of challenge from the game; playing without her feels like walking on a broken foot without crutches. Dixie Kong allows you to double-jump in the air, swim faster underwater, and she comes with a special ability that converts all enemies on screen into bonus health pickups that overheal you, allowing you to have a potential maximum of ten hits before death if you bring the right equipment compared to the usual two or four you get with anyone else. Compared to the other Kong partners, Dixie is the clear winner: Diddy’s glide doesn’t give any vertical height, which makes recovering from bad jumps nearly impossible, and Cranky needs a flat surface to do his Ducktales cane bounce off of in a game that’s 50% bottomless pits. Speaking of, you’re also allowed to bring up to three green balloons into a level at once, each of them allowing you to float all the way to the top of the screen whenever you fall into a pit. This effectively gives you three extra lives and three extra mid-level checkpoints. It makes things go from a bit too tough to way too easy. Sure, I could play without partners and without power-ups, but why would I? Not only are Dixie and the green balloons extraordinarily powerful, but they’re fun to use. Dixie has plenty of tools to expedite the platforming challenges, and the green balloons prevent the frustration of losing both your progress and your partner to a single bad jump. If you give me a choice between “optimal and fun but I feel like I’m cheating” and “sub-optimal and challenging and I’m going to tear what’s left of my fucking hair out”, I’m picking the former every time. I’d prefer a middle ground, but you’re not going to find that in Tropical Freeze.
David Wise is back to compose the soundtrack, and he does as good of a job as you ought to expect from the guy who made every song in Donkey Kong Country. While mostly solid, the songs do bleed into one another much more than they did in his earlier work on the Super Nintendo titles. It's ironic when you consider how few tracks the first SNES game actually had; differentiating music from between worlds here is easy enough, but you could shuffle the individual level themes around and not really notice much of a change. Also not helping matters is the copying of his own music from three decades ago; the generic “underwater” theme that gets used every time Donkey Kong leaps into the waves recycles Aquatic Ambience. Aquatic Ambience is an outstanding track. Aquatic Ambience becomes significantly less of an outstanding track when it interrupts the level music every single time Donkey Kong goes underwater. Even if it’s just for a few seconds, you’re gonna be listening to the opening notes of Aquatic Ambience for the entirety of those few seconds. It’s an odd choice. I was starting to get sick of it long before I had run out of bodies of water where it was going to play, and that’s not really something you want when you’re so clearly aiming to create fondness through nostalgia.
Tropical Freeze did manage to charm me, and that's laudable. There's a lot here in terms of alternate paths, secret exits, and even an entire extra world you can discover after beating the game once. I don't especially care to explore beyond the critical path, but it's not too hard to dig into if you really do find yourself wanting more. Visually, it's a treat, and mashing the triggers to obliterate end-level barrels and bosses is as satisfying as it was in the 3DS games.
It's far from bad, but it does leave me a little wanting. Tropical Freeze has a lot of potential that could have been built upon further in a later installment, but it doesn't seem as though one is coming any time soon. As it stands, the Donkey Kong franchise is going to stay in stasis for at least as long as it takes for Metroid Prime 4 to get finished or cancelled, as nobody seems interested in picking up where Retro Studios left off.
I did not play the version with the New Funky Mode.
Inspiration comes from strange places.
For many, it's bred from obligation; the need to do something, anything, bringing with it the knowledge that there's work to be done and only one person who can do it. For many, it's spite; hatred and anger, boiling within us, screaming out that it won't be quelled unless action is taken now. For fewer, it's from a desire to grow; a willingness to open yourself and expose your weakness, to be hurt, to be vulnerable, in the name of coming out stronger. Sometimes you just see someone fucking up and being so purposefully ignorant about it that it inspires you to do things properly in their stead.
Celeste is one of the greatest games ever made.
If you asked me what drives me, I'd tell you that it's spite. This is probably not healthy for me, and I don't particularly care. If you asked Madeline what drives her, she’d tell you that she doesn’t know. This is definitely not healthy for her, and the game makes sure that both her and the player understand this. Madeline has a vague, oblique desire to be better. What this entails is climbing a mountain, and it’s left unclear how this is actually meant to help. Sure, the obvious metaphor of literally climbing a mountain is as central to the text of the game as it possibly can be, but lacking any further cause, it’s little more than an act of self-flagellation. It’s hard and punishing and maybe Madeline feels like she deserves that. Celeste is hard and punishing, and maybe you as the player feel like you deserve that. After all, if neither you nor Madeline can get good purely for its own sake, what’s the point? Why bother?
It becomes clearer to both the player and to Madeline as the game progresses that this is far more than just banging your head into a wall until you get it right. It’s the purpose of the literal moment-to-moment gameplay — walk in from the left, do some tough jumps, splat, repeat until you get it right — but the narrative undercurrent gradually erodes through the surface to reveal that this is all in service of an act of self-actualization. Madeline is desperate to prove herself, desperate to understand herself, desperate to not give in to darker desires, desperate to be able to look into a mirror and see her own face instead of a stranger’s. Her desperation carries with it the price of the ascent, and the ascent carries with it the price of her. Madeline suffers in her journey. She’s leveled, brought to all fours beneath the immovable weight of her depression, her panic attacks, her inability to understand who she is. The mountain exposes her, showcasing every part of her that she keeps hidden in every reflective surface, threatening the safety of the people she cares about, reminding her of long-dead relationships with the implication that everything happening is all her fault. It isn’t, of course, but Madeline’s struggles to reach self-actualization reflect how she believes herself to be a failure.
The gameplay and story integration here is masterful, far beyond the raw difficulty of the platforming mirroring the narrative struggles faced by our protagonist. One scene where Madeline suffers a panic attack sees Theo supporting her through it, giving her a little pop piece of meditation while she waits for it to pass; all she needs to do is imagine a feather floating up and down in time with her breathing, and you as the player are tasked with keeping the feather in focus. It isn’t too much further into the game when Madeline decides that she’s gotten over all of her fears and doubts and attempts to use the feather trick as a weapon; it fails, miserably, because she hasn’t come anywhere near achieving the self-actualization that she wants to have. She tries to rush things, to force her fears down instead of process them, to conquer herself rather than accept herself as she is. It’s only after she fails and falls that she realizes that she must accept all of the bad that comes when she understands who she is, merging every part of her into the cohesive whole that is Madeline. As a reward for the player, you get a triple jump. As silly as that might sound, given how heavy the narrative has been up to this point, it’s the evolution of gameplay and the swelling of the music that makes Madeline actually feel like she’s living up to her full potential. The climb has been a struggle for you and her, but now you both have all of the tools you need to reach the top of the mountain. Once you have that, you’re unstoppable.
The narrative of the game, for better and for worse, took on something of a new life with the later explanation that both Maddy Thorson (the lead developer and former name-provider of the studio) and Madeline are trans women. For better, Celeste has remained a tentpole of positive representation since the day it released and has provided many historically-excluded people a strong, important figure to relate to; for worse, it’s incited many of the most annoying posters to hem and haw and handwring over what they perceive to be revisionism for the sake of winning brownie points. Maddy herself has written quite openly about the subject and certainly has far more insight into the topic than any schmuck like myself can throw in, but I’ve seen first-hand the impact that this game has had on the people around me. For a lot of my friends, for a lot of people I care about and respect, Celeste is important because Celeste actually gets it. This shit is hard. It’s exhausting. It isn’t climbing a mountain or beating a hard video game, because those things have a defined end. There’s a clear beginning, and a clear conclusion, and that’s that. The struggle to live as oneself and to be open and honest with who we are is a path filled with unnecessary strife and struggle brought down upon our heads by people who don’t get it. People who refuse to get it. People who benefit from not getting it. I shouldn’t need to point at any of the many, many examples of this in the United States alone, simply because there’s gotten to be too many to keep track of. It’s everywhere, as a sickness.
“This memorial dedicated to those who perished on the climb" is one of the most powerful lines I’ve ever read, and it’s the context from outside of the game’s text that defines it. Unlike any mountain, and unlike any video game, the climb doesn’t stop. The climb started before we were born, and the climb will continue after we’ve gone. For how long we’ve all been fighting, been struggling, been warring against every push and backslide, there’s always more of a climb to take on. This shit won't stop. The obvious question, then, is why we should bother to climb at all.
Celeste’s answer is simple.
To be who you are makes it worth the climb.
An absolute oddity of the early-PS2 era. Perhaps one of the most obvious tech demos a company has ever released. Completely half-baked on all fronts in service of showcasing Square doing a real-time combat system where the character models no longer have fused fingers and you're meant to be excited by both of those prospects. A beat-'em-up from an alternate universe where combos don't exist. Vertically-stretched Sora from Kingdom Hearts is here to rescue his girlfriend, Robo-Kairi, from the evil clutches of blonde Sephiroth. Marketing boasting seven to eight hours of gameplay to complete, making this the greatest lie Square has ever told.
The Bouncer is fascinating. I don't think anything could be described as a fever dream more than this. It feels like something that dropped out of another reality where games are designed for people who have shit to do later. Barely two-minute combat vignettes with lengthy save prompts bookend barely two-minute cutscenes. You'll be let out of watching a video to beat up three guys who go down in about three hits each and then you get to save your game and level up. Sometimes the levels just start going and never fucking stop, with the sequence where you have to escort Dominique past a bunch of robots who never ragdoll taking an inordinate amount of time relative to every other encounter. It masterfully embodies the feeling of beating a game when you were staying home sick from school and trying to remember what happened after you started feeling better.
Now, sure, the game is shit. The combat mechanics are playing catch-up to 2D games that came out a decade before it, the story is insipid, the music is complete garbage (save for the English credits theme done by Shanice, my god), people on original hardware are going to be spending more time watching loading screens than cutscenes. But it's important to make the distinction that not every shitty game is a bad game, and not every bad game is a shitty game. The Bouncer is shitty, but it's so entertaining in its ridiculousness that it loops back around to being fun. Why is there a man made entirely out of tribal tattoos? Why does Volt have steel demon horns? Why does the science-fiction microwave energy satellite make the love interest robot girl overclock and beat the shit out of five cyborg-men with stretchy arms? Who gives a shit! This is The Bouncer, and The Bouncer just goes. Don't waste your time or its time asking questions. Just go.
I think if this tried going on for like five more minutes than it did, I would have started hating it, but the entire game is over and done with in the span of an hour and a half. Most movies are longer than this, and most of them aren't audacious enough to try soft-launching a new franchise that immediately falls on its face so hard that all of the Nomura designs present need to be harvested for other, more successful projects for the next decade after its release. The Bouncer is ephemera, like a poster, or an internet advert. It's as captivating as it was irrelevant on the day that it released.
Volt should have been the main character.