Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze – Mario’s Level Design, Evolved | Game Maker’s Toolkit


Hi! I’m Mark Brown, and this is Game Maker’s
Toolkit. Man, I totally let Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
pass me by. But, please, don’t make the same dumb mistake I did because this game is not
only tonnes of fun, but it has some of the most creative and ambitious level design in
a platformer. Like, ever. I mean, in what other game would you ride
a rocket-powered barrel past a giant wheel of cheese? Or platform on the side of a cliff
mid-way through an avalanche? Or start a level by jumping through mini cyclones, dodging
lightning bolts and ducking underneath windswept enemies, only to find yourself trapped in
the middle of a raging tornado? It’s madness. And to achieve this, Retro had to really go
beyond the level design patterns that had been used in Nintendo’s 2D platformer games,
starting from the NES days – and lasting all the way up to games like New Super Mario Bros
U. In that game, almost every level is a showcase
for a single idea. It might be a type of platform, like these stars in Spinning Star Sky. It
could be a new enemy type, like these goofy bipeds in Bramball Woods. It could be a hazard.
Or a big enemy who chases you through the stage. This single mechanic is introduced, and is
then repeated through the level but in more and more difficult versions. You might have a swinging platform, like the
one in Lemmy’s Swingback Castle. Then you have to jump between two of them,
with an enemy in between. Then jump between two more, but now with fire
underneath you. Then have fireballs pop out of the lava. Then start offsetting the pattern of the swinging
platforms. Then have the platforms dip into the fire,
while you race to collect red coins And, finally, chuck it all together for one
final gauntlet with loads of platforms, and loads of fireballs, before Mario can reach
the goal and go fight the boss. The level might feature a small complimentary
mechanic – like, Switchback Hill explores these platforms that move when you step on
them, but you also have to dodge bullet bills. But these secondary mechanics are pretty much
always from another level – so, bullet bills were introduced as the main gimmick way back in 3-4. Anyway. Mario has used this design for decades,
but so has Donkey Kong. In the Donkey Kong Country games, made by Rare, we got levels
like Stop & Go Station, where freaky enemies run back and forth until you hit these barrels.
And Red Hot Ride, where the Kongs stand on balloons propped up by hot air vents. And for Donkey Kong Country Returns, now made
by Retro Studios, the same pattern emerged for most of the stages. If you look at level
like damp dungeon, you’ll see that the whole stage revolves around these water wheels,
which get more and more complex as the level goes on. And this is a good way to design stages, don’t
get me wrong. I’ve advocated for similar designs in the past. With this sort of level
layout, these games can be filled with loads and loads of unique ideas – and by devoting
a single level to them, the idea can be properly introduced, and then explored in all sorts
of different ways before it’s thrown away in favour of something fresh. But, it does has some drawbacks. Levels can
end up being very short because there’s only so many ways to spin each idea, stages
can become quite predictable, and you’re eventually going to run out of one-shot ideas:
I mean, you can find the same hazards cropping up in all four New Super Mario Bros games. So, when it came time for Donkey Kong Country:
Tropical Freeze, this pattern was broken. Look at a stage such as Horn-top Hop. This
is a level about horns. You’ve got horns that blow out enemies, horns that can shoot
you into spikes, and giant horns that Donkey Kong can ride on. But it’s also a level about falling leaves.
You climb up leaves, float down on leaves, there are leaves with enemies on them, and
leaves that drift into fiery hazards. And, also, it’s a level about leaves and
horns, at the same time! At multiple points in the level, the two mechanics come together,
like this section which mixes the falling pattern of the leaves, with the quick, rhythmic
blast of the horns. So, where classic Nintendo levels were almost
always about exploring a single idea – a typical Tropical Freeze stage might introduce two
or three, or even more – and then weave them together at different points in the level. Rickety Rafters, for example, has three mechanics:
it’s got switches you pull, switches you stand on, and switches you throw berries at
– and while each is introduced and explored just as well as a typical Mario mechanic,
we get even more interesting challenges when we stick them together. Like here, where we
pull a switch, to reveal a button which we can throw some fruit at. In Baobab Bonanza, we again see two different
mechanics – but it seems like they’re kept separate. You’ve got some sections with
flowers that bend under Donkey Kong’s weight, and then some bits where spiked nuts roll
down hills. And this would be good enough because each mechanic gives the other time to breathe,
and stops the level becoming predictable and samey. But then at the end, the two mechanics combine
in a really surprising way, as a giant spiked nut chases you, while you jump from flower
to flower. Surprise is the name of the game in Donkey
Kong Tropical Freeze, and it feels like the level designers are in a constant arms race
to outdo one another. And so even in the few levels that stick more closely to the old
style of level design – like the cart level Sawmill Thrill, which is largely just about
these circular saws, Retro finds so many surprising ways to spin that idea. It’s not just about
making these saw blades faster or bigger, or putting them in larger groups – but the blades carve platforms out of wood, chop up timber hazards, and throw up new bits
of track to jump on. Single mechanics are the exception, not the
rule, though – and Tropical Freeze is stuffed with stages that combine a handful of ideas.
And as Turbo Button noted in his video about the level Harvest Hazards, Retro managed to
keep these ideas cohesive, by finding some kind of thematic link between all of the different
ideas on show. Consider a stage like Scorch ‘n’ Torch, which
has maybe six different mechanics, but they’re all related to the same theme, of a forest
fire. You’ve got water berries, which can put
out flames. Burning trees that fall apart when you stand
on them Ropes that are on fire Burning statues that fall to the ground Hot coals that keep you moving fast And flames that fall from the sky Hoo boy. But still, each one is introduced
in a careful way. The first statue, for example, squishes this enemy, and lets you know what
would happen if Donkey Kong was underneath. And each mechanic has its own evolution through
the level, from a tree that simply loses its leaves at the start, to a row of trees that are all
burning to the ground at the end. But they can also combine, like burning statues,
falling onto hot coals, just before a burning rope. Or using water berries to extinguish
a burning rope, while dodging falling fireballs. Remember – it’s only fair to throw this
sort of mix at the player, if the mechanics have been taught earlier in the stage. More good theming can be found in Fruity Factory
– we’ve got cleavers and conveyer belts that chop up watermelons, drills which mush
through grapefruit, blenders that spit out fruity platforms, and swinging arms that smash
up watermelons. By thinking less about individual mechanics, and thinking more about the theme
of a fruit processing plant, Retro could come up with all sorts of wacky ideas. Actually, this whole world is a theme. You
see the Snowmads picking fruit in level one, slicing, crushing, and processing it in the
next three, turning it into jelly in level five, and freezing it into ice lollies in
level six – which all pays off in the boss fight… There’s more to a Donkey Kong level, of
course, than just a series of evolving and interweaving mechanics. For example, the stages sometimes have an intermission of sorts – Windmill Hills is all about windmills, obviously, and weak wooden
platforms that fall apart – which then combine for windmills with weak wooden platforms on
them. But there’s a whole section right in the middle where you climb up a tower and
then race back down on a cable car, which has nothing to do with the main mechanics but serves to break up the level. You also get tiny mini-games, built into the
stages like in Harvest Hazards where you can test your skill with this rock-to-roll platform
to collect bananas. Like the red coin sections in Mario, this gives you a nice risk vs. reward system for players who want to push their skills. These levels also feature two types of collectibles.
Puzzle pieces are about exploration, and so are hidden in secret areas. The KONG letters
are more about platforming prowess, and so they’re very visible but they ask you to
put yourself at risk to grab them Your reward for getting these is yet more
brilliant – though, absolutely maddening bonus levels, like Precarious Pendulums which has
swinging platforms and electrified floors and – yep, you guessed it, the two mechanics
come together in cool new ways. Oh, and I shouldn’t forget the cute background
stories, like in Twilight Terror, where you blast past these penguin dudes chopping fish.
And in Reckless Ride, there’s this penguin, who parachutes away from his wrecked machine.
Oh, bless him! Oh, oh he’s dead. Of course, to fit all of this in – the stages
are a lot longer than your typical platforming level – Mario stages, for example, often have
just one checkpoint, while a Tropical Freeze level might have two or three, to fit these,
sometimes 10 minute long stages. Despite this, Mario U only has about 10 more levels than
Tropical Freeze, but who’s counting, eh? Hah, sorry, this wasn’t supposed to be about
hating on Mario. My sweet, beautiful boy. I mean. the New Super Mario Bros. games have
a certain old-school purity that I really like, but they also feel a bit lazy, if you
ask me. But, anyway, this more about celebrating Donkey
Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. Because, from the crazy background art, to the bonkers set-pieces,
to David Wise’s beautiful and humongous soundtrack – there’s an incredible amount
of love and attention put into each and every stage in this criminally underplayed game. But the real takeaway has got to be how Retro
took the level design pattern that had served Nintendo so well, for so long – and then evolved
it to the next step. By thinking about themes, as well as mechanics – Retro managed to forge
an incredible set of levels that all modern 2D platformers should be judged against. Which, maybe we’ll do in some upcoming videos.
Nintendo ain’t the only kid in town after all, so it could be fun to see how other games compare. Like Super Meat Boy, N++, the Rayman duo, the new Sonic games, and Shovel Knight. Who knows, we’ll see. Till then, Game Maker’s Toolkit is powered
by Patreon, and these are my top level supporters. Do you have a favourite level from a platforming
game? Let me know in the comments, below. Ooh, that rhymed!

22 comments

  • BurningheatX134

    10:05 , its the twilight chomper from Garden Warfare 2

    Reply
  • diadsalies

    'Featuring Dante from the Devil May Cry Series' I had to freeze frame a bunch to finally catch that LOL

    Reply
  • R3CAV

    And then there is the Hard Mode…

    Reply
  • Austin McCarter

    I love that you devoted a full 20 seconds to showing how samey the new Mario games are?

    Reply
  • HighLanderPony

    This game was great, except for three major things.
    1. DK handles like a cinderblock which makes for some frustrating platforming at parts.
    2. Most levels are pretty easy for the most part then have a big difficulty spike right at the end, sometimes of trial and error nature. This makes the levels feel longer than they are and you end up doing segments that are easy over and over just to get to that very short part that's keeping you from finishing the level. This can get tiring and infuriating. Looking at you, Levitation Station.
    3. All temple levels could use a buddy barrel at the start. Not only this makes some of these levels less frustrating by removing the potentially abritrary difficulty of doing them with only DK but it also makes more sense than having to go to another level or the store to bring a buddy into them should you want to do them with a duo and not just DK. It'd just make the choice of doing this simpler and less annoying, I see no downside to this.

    And another thing, screw underwater levels. They're boring, slow, and disable most of what's fun about your moveset and the hitbox issues come up frequently.

    Reply
  • Nicholas Steel

    Like Donkey Kong Country Returns, it's a pretty decent Single Player game and a terrible Multiplayer game. Rocket Barrel and Minecart levels where you're supposed to work co-cooperatively because you're sharing a vehicle, are best played with the most skilled Player doing everything while the other Player either literally doesn't do anything or literally holds Down the entire time (shared minecart).

    Then if you pick up your companion you'll share a single Life Pool… that results in damage negatively affecting one of the players until their demise, before damage starts affecting the other player (talk about unfair!).

    It would've been sweet if they retained the option of both classic turn based modes that the SNES games offered.

    Another big problem with the games is that neither of them have any semblance of the SNES control scheme even though both games gameplay designs could easily incorporate it and relegate new features to the new L2 and R2 buttons etc.

    Reply
  • Nicholas Steel

    Uh, there are muliple Red Hot Balloon levels and multiple minecart/rollercoaster levels in the first 2 Donkey Kong Country games, building on previous experiences with those same mechanics. Donkey Kong Country 1 and 2 are largely about building on previously introduced concepts across multiple levels.

    Donkey Kong Country 3 was the first Country game to follow a New Super Mario Bros. style game flow to its detriment (no good difficulty curve since each level introduces a new mechanic and has to start off teaching you it and then the only level it's used in will evolve in to hard gameplay for a brief moment towards the end of that single level that uses the mechanic).

    Super Mario Bros. 1, 2, 3 and Super Mario World largely build upon previously learned ideas from previous levels too. It wasn't until the New Super Mario Bros. series first launched that overall game design went steeply down hill for the classic 2D platforming series of Mario games.

    DK Returns is in-between NSMB and DKC1&2 gameplay designs while DKTF leans a fair bit more towards the DKC1&2 style.

    Also DKC 1, 2 and 3 do the per-world theming stuff too. They just don't have a very good progressive narrative/story when going from level to level.

    Reply
  • גור איגר

    0:14 Featuring Dante

    Reply
  • Sam T

    "spiked nuts"

    Reply
  • BubblewrapHighway

    1:07 That's from Super Metroid.

    Reply
  • Jesus From Hyrule

    Honestly people be sleeping on DKC TF

    Reply
  • Alium Alium

    That pun though at 2:52

    Reply
  • Crack Crackers

    country returns will always be better

    Reply
  • Citizen Goose

    If you are indie, stick to the Mario method. The dk method is better, but keep in mind that the studio was really big.

    Reply
  • rashkavar

    Huh, interesting; I have a categorization of platforming (based more on the feel of the level than technical/structural analysis) that paints each of the old SNES DKC games in a very different light: Gimmick Levels and Skill Challenge Levels.
    Gimmick Levels are like the minecart challenges and the like. You're using a skill that is unique to that level (or similar ones) that is sometimes interesting, sometimes fun, but has very little transfer in skill to other levels. Minecart navigation isn't useful in non-minecart levels, for instance.
    Skill Challenge Levels are where you're largely using core mechanics. Jumping, running, swimming, etc.

    I played all 3 of the DKC games in order. First game had a good mix of Gimmick and Skill Challenge levels. Second game has a lot of Skill Challenge levels and relatively few gimmick levels. Third game has a lot of Gimmick levels. The first game is generally the best, the second game is what I play when I want a tough as nails challenge (each level ramping up on the last makes for some real hard levels in the end). 3 was…bad. Got to the point where everything felt like a gimmick, even when it was objectively not.

    Reply
  • Jonathan Evans

    That Bramble Blast at the credits gave me chills.

    Reply
  • Squantle

    Tropical Freeze is genuinely one of my favourite games of all time. I’m so glad it’s Switch port gives the game a second spotlight as it was sorely under-looked upon release because of the console it came out on.

    Reply
  • TJ Omiatek

    The Super Mario games have used the word "New" more times than Todd Howard re-releasing Skyrim again.

    Reply
  • Morte Nera

    Why does everyone ignore DKC Returns?

    Reply
  • almogz 9

    Game makers toolkit :explains why dk tropical freeze has a phenomenal level design
    Gamespot:UNiMagINaTivE lEveL DeSIGn

    Reply
  • Kaizoch Beats

    Modern DK was made by Rare, not Nintendo

    Reply
  • Goldrusher 3000

    Do a shovel knight one

    Reply
  • William Hitchcock

    I love stickerbrush symphony

    Reply

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