'Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze,' 'Strider,' and 'Thief' reviews: Rating the throwbacks

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Even more than Hollywood, the video game industry is dominated by sequels and reboots. Last year’s top 10 best-selling games list is peppered with 4’s, 5’s, and even a 25 (oh, Madden). The prevailing wisdom seems to be: If something works, do it again and again until you run it into the ground, then wait a few years and do it again. This week sees several reboots and sequels of reboots hitting the shelves, to decidedly mixed results.

Donkey Kong Country was a hugely popular platformer on the Super Nintendo that suffered from too many sequels that offered too few new ideas in too short a time span. Nintendo wisely retired the formula for more than a decade before going back to the jungle with 2010’s Donkey Kong Country Returns on Wii, which was re-released on 3DS last year. Unfortunately, history is repeating itself, as Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself, despite running on new hardware. The Wii U is struggling mightily to make a case for itself, and Tropical Freeze does nothing to take advantage of the Wii U’s unique tablet controller.

At least the game looks good, proving that the console can pump out vibrant HD graphics. The environments are varied and beautifully rendered, and Donkey Kong’s fur has never looked more lush. But the Pixar-esque graphics are at complete odds with the absolutely punishing difficulty level. Tropical Freeze is maddeningly hard, its levels full of so many cheap shots and bottomless pits that it would likely drive its intended kiddie audience to tears — and leave adults wanting to chuck their Wii U controllers in frustration. Tropical Freeze is a solid game, and die-hard platformer fans may find its steep challenge fiendishly addictive, but it’s oddly uninspired, at a time when Nintendo could use a whole lot of inspiration.

On the other hand, Capcom’s new Strider took a great deal of inspiration from other games, namely Metroid and Castlevania, to spectacular effect. It’s been 15 years since the last proper Strider game, with main character Hiryu occasionally popping up in Marvel vs. Capcom fighting games to remind everyone who he is. But this sleek, stylish reboot will ensure no one forgets. The 1989 arcade original was a linear quarter-muncher, but developer Double Helix (which successfully relaunched Killer Instinct for Xbox One in November) has created a large, interconnected world that begs to be explored and re-explored for secret areas and power-ups. Hiryu slices and dices his way through the labyrinthine levels, constantly gaining new abilities that open up new areas of the environment. With tight controls, fluid animation and a wonderful sense of discovery, Strider pays homage to its arcade roots but isn’t beholden to the past, delivering a thoroughly modern, action-packed adventure. This is how you do a reboot.

And the new Thief shows you how not to do it. When Thief first skulked out of the darkness in 1998, it was a revelation. Most first-person PC games at the time involved only shooting things, but Thief was about avoiding conflict at all costs, creating shadows and sticking to them as you pilfered everything in sight. It helped pioneer the stealth genre and established many of the rules and conventions that remain to this day. But a lot has changed in 16 years — namely Dishonored happened — and Thief ignores almost all of its advances, hewing far too close to the original. Initially, Thief feels like it could be a first-person Assassin’s Creed, as you leap nimbly across rooftops and scramble up buildings, but its momentum soon halts and it turns into a monotonous slog through a world of browns and grays. Its gameplay is a frustrating series of trial and error, rote pattern memorization, and ultimately multiple checkpoint reloads. The characters and narrative fall flat, and sneaking into houses to collect anything that shines quickly grows tiresome. Dishonored empowered players by giving them different ways to approach each scenario and multiple outcomes, but Thief is disappointingly linear, with lackluster puzzles, poor enemy AI, and surprisingly frequent load times that constantly interrupt the flow of the game. Dishonored was clearly heavily inspired by the original Thief, but it pushed the stealth genre forward, casting a long shadow that this reboot can’t quite crawl its way out of.

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze: B; Strider: A-; Thief: C-

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