- The Washington Times - Monday, March 3, 2014

A legendary ape and his pals attempt to liberate their homelands in the chilly adventure Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (Nintendo, reviewed on Wii U, rated Everyone, $49.99).

It’s hard to believe a franchise that began back in 1981 can still deliver loads of classic, old-school-style, side-scrolling, fun for new and older players.

Yet, Kong pounds out the laughs and really challenging action in his latest epic as he scurries, swings, rolls, pulls, dives, charges, rides (a rhinoceros no less) slides, swims, floats and flies across six worlds and more than 40 levels while collecting coins, bananas, balloons, golden hearts, puzzle pieces and letters along the way.

After our fearless hero’s birthday bash gets interrupted by an invasion of Nordic Snowmads (amusing penguins, walruses, sea lions, rabbits and owls in Viking gear), the simian teams up with either Diddy Kong (with a jet pack to float higher), Dixie Kong (her long hair is used as a propeller to jump higher) and Cranky King (his cane works like a pogo stick) to reclaim his turf.

The animation moves players from a lush forest to tall mountains, a grassy savannah and sea port all with a torture chambers’ worth of environmental obstacle courses, enemies throughout and bosses at the end of each.

Many levels contain hidden surprises such as secret chambers or barrels that blast a character into the backgrounds for timed banana-collecting sprees.

The underwater moments are exceptional with Kong swimming about while exploring and bumping into sharks and assorted sea life.

Although, the game is an arctic blast to the eyes, it is, as always, an unforgiving affair for the solo player. Our hairy heroes can quickly perish at the hands of an unskilled Konger.

Actually, the difficulty level is eye-watering. I’ve never played a more difficult game alone. Getting through the levels in just one world is enough to cause me to pound my fists on the floor, but meeting a boss is a hair-pulling affair.

With only limited health available (displayed as hearts) for the hero on each course level, just a couple of questionable moves, say a discrete touching of a penguin wielding a spear or wrongly timed bounce on a dodo bird, and he collapses in humiliation.

Kong then floats down from these heavens holding a balloon and back to the beginning of his last checkpoint (look for the professorial pigs in the barrel).

That is, if a player has balloons to spare. Thankfully, those accumulated gold coins come in handy. Stop by Funky Kong’s shop to buy balloons as well as other items to carry into battle such as banana juice, hearts, shields and extra barrels containing Kong’s friends.

The true enjoyment of the game lies in the multiplayer. One player handles Donkey Kong and the other chooses one of his pint-sized partners. The onscreen chaos that ensues with characters frenetically moving around combines with teamwork elements (the partner does not need to stay on Kong’s back and can freely move around) for some hilarious play sessions.

Despite the extended fun, I’m amazed the game takes zero advantage of the Wii U interactive pad. It’s actually easier just to use the Wiimote controller to play through the levels.

Although the Wii U is apparently running out of steam with gamers these days, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze gives some remaining life to Nintendo’s magical console.