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!


100 Responses

  1. Ronald Flump

    July 19, 2018 11:35 am

    after watching this video, it's always fun to go watch Gamespot's review of the game where the reviewer bemoans the "derivative level design". Perfectly sums up video game journalists and what little they actually know about video games.

  2. SmokingSpoon

    August 12, 2018 7:43 am

    DK TF is extremely underrated. It had the most intelligent and quality designs I have ever seen in any platformer game.

  3. The Garden of Eatin

    August 12, 2018 11:37 pm

    It's too bad the game is utterly ruined by the worst controls/physics in the history of platform games. You have momentum…until you don't. You don't have momentum…until you do. I'd love to play this game on the SNES, back when platform games were made properly. Too bad we forgot how.

  4. Casey Coker

    August 15, 2018 12:36 pm

    You should really consider talking about some of the levels in A Hat in Time. The horror themed levels and the movie studio, including the train section, both come to mind as good candidates.

  5. Stephen Holtom

    August 19, 2018 1:12 pm

    Maybe an episode on how to name games. Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze makes me think of two things:
    1. So they'll be jungle levels and ice levels?
    2. Is it a remake of a SNES game?

  6. Sam T

    August 20, 2018 7:04 am

    I’m calling it: Tropical Freeze is the best 2D platformer ever made, with second place being DKC 2…

    and the Donkey Kong Country series has always been my favorite platforming franchise… I’ve never been a 2D Mario guy.

  7. Morton's Castle

    August 26, 2018 12:37 am

    very well described. Tropical Freeze is the pinnacle of level design it feels like. Really hope Retro is making a third DK game. And Mario needs to step it up. New Super Mario Bros is very boring because all 4 games use the same gimmicks

  8. Maverick_OS

    September 15, 2018 11:03 pm

    I got this when a bit after it first came out. I was having so much fun. But I was really bad at it's mechanics. Like, really bad. I tried to play it and have fun, but I got really stuck on the world 2 boss, and it kept resetting me to the start each time I failed. I probably played it 150 times or so. I tried to get help by abusing the regaining hp when a 2nd player jumps on DK's back, so I had a friend spawn in asap each time. I eventually just gave up, and because of that awful experience I don't think I ever will play it again.

  9. Trianull

    September 29, 2018 11:35 pm

    Honestly it's the two latest games in the NSMB line that get lazy, Mario Wii may have had a few rehashed ideas but had way more original ones than NSMB 2 & U (maybe even combined.)

  10. Divinkitty

    October 11, 2018 4:59 am

    … I question the universe sometimes. Just as you said, "Donkey Kong Country, Tropical-…" my computer froze. Blue screened, dead, needed to repair itself. 10/10 video, would get a psychic reading again.

  11. FerroSplice

    October 30, 2018 8:51 am

    This video convinced me to get this game. I remember playing DK Returns on my Wii but I never picked up Tropical Freeze for my Wii U

  12. Patrick Taylor

    November 11, 2018 12:28 pm

    My favorite level in any platformer is shields up and down, in Rayman Legends. Do you have a favorite, Mark?

  13. GenericSoda

    November 18, 2018 1:06 am

    Tropical Freeze succeeds as a Donkey Kong game because it recreates what was most appealing about the old DKC games: spectacle. Whereas the SNES games did this with killer graphics and sound for the time, TF does this through bombastic level design, swooping camera angles, and more emphasis on how DK's strength can affect the level's mechanics. It's great how Retro "gets" DKC and reinterprets its spirit in the current day.

  14. The Garden of Eatin

    January 8, 2019 7:03 pm

    I bought and played this game largely on your recommendation, Mark. I hate it. I grew up with Donkey Kong Country which had very tight, fast controls. Tropical Freeze feels like carrying a fat girl up some stairs. It's heavy, it's sluggish, everything it does to help just makes things more arduous, and the big payoff at the end just isn't going to be worth it and you already know it.

  15. SnakPak

    January 14, 2019 2:37 pm

    The transition to animate showing a YouTube channel at 6:27 is the single greatest video transition ive ever seen. It's really simple but so well done. Really nice work.

  16. Yonk

    January 19, 2019 8:02 pm

    When do we use "gimmick" and when do we use "mechanic?" It's clear that the former has a more negative, less-valuable connotation, so why use it for describing level design here?

  17. Hubblebub Lumbubwub

    January 28, 2019 4:24 pm

    Nintendo should invest more in western studios. There are many talented game designers that don’t get the budgets they deserve unless they work on some lootbox fest.

  18. Galdrack

    February 12, 2019 12:39 pm

    This video got me really hyped to play the game but after getting it I'm feeling a bit let down.
    The levels look amazing and the stories they tell are great, plus the music is amazing too.

    Though some of the levels have a last third that you need to learn off before completing (especially the mine-cart levels) rather than adapting as it comes at you.

    They'll show you a small simply problem and throw a more complex one at you while you're in mid-air.

    The later KONG letters often become obnoxious too requiring you to have Dixie Kong to get them which often means exiting the level and stocking up on spare Dixie crates just to complete the level.

    It's a big letdown as the parts that are good and well designed are great (particularly the first 2-3 Islands).

  19. Renato S.

    February 26, 2019 7:46 am

    This video isn't about hating on Mario, but now I kinda hate Mario. At least the "New" Mario games, as they never evolve since its original release on 2006.

    Donkey Kong and Rayman are now the kings of 2D platforming, and I think the only Mario game that could change that would be a "New Super Mario World" (or something related to SM World).
    Up until now, I think no other classic Nintendo game has aged so well.

  20. HDRookie

    February 27, 2019 5:45 pm

    I honestly regret not giving this game more credit after my first playthrough. The little details really go along way in showing the care put into this game. Every detail in each level of this game always serves some kind of logical purpose. It's so creative.

  21. Charles Goodrich

    March 14, 2019 1:25 am

    Hey Mark! I recommend getting into Hearthstone again. They have some single player content that is more roguelike from the past couple expansions. Definitely something fun if you're on a card drafting kick.

  22. SlimTim 178

    April 6, 2019 4:24 pm

    You know what's weird about the credits for this game? They put up David Weis' credit very briefly compared to the credits for everyone else. I wonder what that's about. 🤷‍♂️ Also Rayman Legends is a great game but best played on the Wii U which it was made exclusively for. Oh and the Switch too I guess since it has a touchpad. Otherwise it can be frustrating.

  23. Vidgmchtr

    April 15, 2019 2:03 am

    David Wise's soundtrack for Tropical Freeze served me well for my commutes to and from work. I drive on parkways for one of them so the ambiance tends to create a much more relaxing drive.

  24. diadsalies

    April 25, 2019 9:21 pm

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

  25. Austin McCarter

    May 13, 2019 1:01 am

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

  26. HighLanderPony

    June 18, 2019 6:50 pm

    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.

  27. Nicholas Steel

    June 19, 2019 2:17 pm

    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.

  28. Nicholas Steel

    June 19, 2019 2:24 pm

    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.

  29. Citizen Goose

    July 26, 2019 7:40 am

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

  30. rashkavar

    July 28, 2019 7:15 pm

    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.

  31. Squantle

    August 4, 2019 9:25 pm

    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.

  32. TJ Omiatek

    August 22, 2019 5:36 pm

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

  33. almogz 9

    August 30, 2019 4:39 pm

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

  34. Michael O

    September 20, 2019 2:30 am

    1:25 I really like how when you speed up the footage, you speed it up at exactly 2x speed so the music stays in the same key, pitched up an octave.
    Edit: you're even sneakier than that, though, and the clue was that it's the wrong song. It feels right behind your explanation, though, which is what matters.

  35. Nick Karamousadakis

    September 20, 2019 8:07 am

    It's pretty obvious to me that the lack of players for this game comes from the console exclusivity.

  36. Spongyoshi

    September 22, 2019 4:25 pm

    I played Returns & Tropical Freeze recently, those games are so great.
    Also, while I loved Tropical Freeze, I really enjoyed Returns as well and want to give a shoutout to World 5
    This world not only has the level teaches you it's mechanism and expend upon it but also the whole world keeps pushing forward the mechanisms of the previous levels in the other ones, so every stage has it's own mechanisms but you also get to expend those already learned and in the last levels, it's so rewarding to platform with all those different gimmicks reuinted together for a level that feels like the ultimate gauntlet of what you've learned during the whole world yet every level feels different anyway! I feel like it's not something that's done a whole lot but it's indefinitely gratifying and totally my favorite world of Returns!

  37. Pasta Master

    September 24, 2019 1:31 pm

    You've just put into words the exact problem I had with the newer DK County games. The level design is too much like other games. It's way too much like the current Mario games rather than DK County.

    If Retro Studios had looked back and gotten more inspiration from the Donkey Kong games by Rare from the SNES, I think we would have had a much better game in Tropical Freeze and Returns.

    But I also had a problem with the secondary character mechanic. In the SNES you could change between two characters who had their own little gameplay mechanic. Then you could use them together for something else altogether. Usually one throwing the other. In this it's just DK and any other character is just a power up.

  38. Jaswir Raghoe

    September 27, 2019 8:12 am

    There is this guy called eddynardo and he combines mechanics really well too, just like donkey kong country.

  39. zigaudrey

    October 1, 2019 8:58 pm

    That why I prefers Donkey Kong over Mario serie. It is challenging while being visually pleasing and a world exploring experience.
    Mario serie, however, it take the same formula without a new challenge. Nintendo took this advantage to make cheap games because it is the most successful. No wonder I don't remember a single thing of the Wii and Wi U game and nobody care about the Switch port.

  40. Slowpoke85

    October 13, 2019 10:03 am

    Fucking LOVE Tropical Freeze! I remember being excited for it and bought it on day one. Especially for that David Wise soundtrack! That man is a GOD. NSMBU on the other hand……. I only got it because I had no other games to play on my Wii U at launch. I don't remember ever having a good time with NSMBU.

  41. Sjono

    October 18, 2019 8:34 am

    I smh anytime people act like it took no effort from Retro Studios to make Tropical Freeze and that it should’ve a Metroid game instead for it to have any sort of merit

  42. For Cause

    October 28, 2019 2:12 am

    I wish this much thought went into New Dunk City. I'd rather see Mario in a colorful world themed after Donkey Kong.

  43. Adrian Geronimo

    October 29, 2019 9:07 pm

    If you like platformers at all, BUY THIS GAME! Here's what I love:

    -Incredible gameplay. Every level is platforming genius. This is easily one of the best designed 2D platformer out there. Every level is clever.

    -Tons of extras to find. True to form this DK game has SO many secrets tucked away. There's a lot of replay value here folks.
    Most levels are fun to play.

    -Beautiful graphics, gorgeous vistas, and set pieces. I really wish Wii was in HD to do this game justice.

    -Nostalgia overload. This game brings back so many fun elements of the original DK Country game but with a fresh twist.

  44. Allychu M.

    November 21, 2019 3:37 pm

    Awesome video here's a request can you make a video about rhythm platformers I haven't seen many game design videos about them on YouTube. Thanks 😊😎


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