"Okay, where are the minecart levels?"
That's a novel, ill-advised question when it comes to platformers, but Retro Studios achieved the improbable with 2010's Donkey Kong Country Returns (updated this year with a 3DS version). The side-scrolling platformer knew how to do a good minecart level, exhibiting creative design in a realm meant to be firmly on tracks – sometimes the whole track would curl up and break loose, rolling forward as you spun around a makeshift motorcycle cage.
The rickety rail-jumping returns in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, along with some of the other special traits that rightly suit Nintendo's tie-wearing gorilla. I played a handful of levels set at various points of the game, getting a sense of its challenge and momentum. As before, Donkey Kong and an optional companion – the diminutive Dixie Kong joins this time – run from left to right, leaping and swinging to avoid flames, falls and the fury of nasty animals marching about. The backgrounds are a vivid mix of jungles, caverns and cloudy skies, and all benefit from Retro's graduation to HD on the Wii U. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a straightforward sequel that builds on Retro's approach to level creation: introducing a variety of hazards that don't undermine the game's core challenge, which is, simply put, "Where and when do I jump?" It sounds trivial, but the game colors the question with elaborate masks, all easily deciphered in the moment. Tree canopies blacken and burn as a fire rages in the jungle beneath you – there goes your platform! – and a giant shark-thing snaps in front of your minecart, prompting you to leap to a parallel track. The game is simultaneously challenging and easy to read.
Retro Studios is also trying to maintain that balance without sacrificing the old-school game inside Donkey Kong Country. Whether it's Diddy Kong or Dixie Kong, you have the option of carrying them like a backpack full of help. Dixie Kong, for instance, spins her hair and lifts Donkey just a tad higher, whether it's to grab an enticing banana (any banana) or escape a botched jump. Yeah, it's a double-jump, big whoop, but it's perfect for those who have yet to become fluent in the language of where to move when something's about to smash, burn or drop you.
For its many grim fates, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is still a bright and silly game. The mega-fish biting through your train tracks are joined by sinister penguins, showboating seals and a level filled with various cheeses. And yes, a large portion of it will try to kill you.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is on track, Nintendo says, for February 2014.