Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (Switch) Review
Despite critical acclaim Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze never really had a chance to reach massive audiences on the Wii U, it’s a sad but common tale of games from Nintendo’s last home platform. But like many other titles, it’s being given a second chance to reach people on Switch, with an improved port and some new features designed to make things a little more approachable for those wary of the game’s legendary difficulty. While the changes are a bit clumsily implemented, they’re just a bonus on top of what is still one of the best platform games of recent memory.
Coming from Retro Studios, Tropical Freeze is the latest entry in the Donkey Kong Country series that gives players lush and detailed islands to explore with Donkey Kong and a couple of his pals, along with immensely challenging enemies and situations to overcome. DK feels a bit different to your normal, nimble platform character like Mario. He’s weighty and so controls with quite a bit more heft than you might expect. You can use his heft to roll into enemies or pick up momentum for your own movement – it gives DK a markedly different feeling to play, and a great feeling of reward when mastering his unusual movement and momentum.
While playing through levels you’ll find opportunities to buddy up with other Kongs, who give some extra health and offer more forgiving movement options that can help gloss over the more intensely challenging platforming sections. Diddy Kong has a jetpack that can offer a little more air-time with jumps, Dixie can use her hair to hover and get a little more height during jumps, and Cranky Kong can use his cane to stab downwards as an attack and to avoid hazardous spiky ground – Scrooge McDuck style. New to this Switch version is Funky Kong, but he works differently enough to the others that I’ll talk about him a little later. Co-operative play is a big drawcard for the game as well. Two players can control one of the Kongs each, and either play separated (on the same screen, though) or have the smaller Kong jump on DK’s back to provide fire support or just to let the main player tackle a more challenging section. It’s a system that works well to allow less experienced players play along with some freedom most of the time, but also allowing for a more experienced player to literally carry them when needed.
Levels are designed masterfully to test your skills with DK and friends, each presenting a formidable but reasonable challenge. Difficulty can be, in a way, selected through player choice. If you want to greatest challenge Tropical Freeze has to offer, you can aim to obtain all collectible items, pursue secret challenge levels or play without the help of a partner. Some challenges can be mitigated by choosing appropriate partner characters whose abilities help with specific platforming tasks, each one giving some leniency to jumping and general movement. You can also use coins found in levels to buy items which help in difficult levels, things like extra hearts, extra lives or temporary invulnerability. Even if you do choose to take advantage of buddy characters, use power-ups and forgo the extra task of collecting optional items however, Tropical Freeze offers significant challenge – and this is most clear with it’s bosses encountered at the end of each world.
These bosses, much like the environments they inhabit, are full of personality that they exude through sumptuous animation and creative action. Coming from more typical platform games like Mario whose bosses are usually impressive looking pushovers requiring little more than three bops to the head, Tropical Freeze’s boss encounters are refreshingly interesting. Each requires study and memorisation of movement patterns, along with mastery of DK’s own movement in various situations – a great test of skill and persistence. Difficult sections in the game, be they bosses or otherwise, might be the biggest point of contention with Tropical Freeze. I loved pushing up against these challenges, and watching my life count dwindle as I failed over and over only made the eventual triumph more satisfying, but Retro Studios totally understands this kind of thing is not to everyone’s taste.
To this end, we finally get to this port’s most prominent new feature – Funky Mode. You can choose to play the game through as Funky Kong, allowing for an overall less demanding experience. Funky has myriad abilities to give you an easier time through Tropical Freeze. He isn’t hurt by spikes because he lands on his surfboard, he can use the board to slowly descend from a jump, begins with 5 hearts instead of the 2 DK has, and doesn’t lose his abilities when he gets below 3 hearts like DK would with a buddy. He doesn’t fundamentally change how the game plays, but just makes every action a little more lenient, every jump can be hovered out of if you misjudged distance and you can take a few more hits without worrying about losing abilities or going back to a checkpoint. It seems like a great addition, if not for one pretty puzzling flaw.
You need to choose whether or not you’ll use Funky Mode before you begin a file. The game gives you no chance to actually try playing the standard mode to gauge whether you need Funky. You choose Funky or Standard mode when you begin a game file, and that file is locked to whichever mode you choose permanently. Nobody knows whether they’ll need Funky until they’ve actually played the game and so forcing players to make this choice before even starting a file seems misguided. If you play through the game in Standard mode and hit a difficulty wall, there’s no option to switch to Funky and push past that section, you have to start an entirely new file. Conversely, if you start a Funky file and later discover that he makes the game too easy for you to find enjoyable, you have to start an entirely new file to play Standard mode. It’s a baffling implementation of a well-intentioned feature.
Whichever way you choose to play though, the game is a feast for the eyes and ears. The art direction is wonderful, especially with the designs of the new enemies. These frosty Snowmads are far more interesting than the bland Tikis of Donkey Kong Country Returns, each one endearing in its own way. The levels are full of life, each reacting to DK’s presence in a convincing and lively way. The fact the game never seems to skip a beat, performing at what feels like a solid 60fps at all times is just gravy. It’s all brought together by a delightful soundtrack which is a mix of entirely new tunes and reinterpretations of old classic themes.
Tropical Freeze is a pinnacle of modern 2D platform games, offering an immense challenge while improving on the original, much revered original trilogy. Funky Kong’s inclusion is clearly well-intentioned. If you know you’ll need it, Funky is a fantastic way to open the game to new audiences who might have bounced off the game’s difficulty.
Its implementation is problematic, forcing you to choose whether you’ll want the handicap before you have the information to make an informed decision, but this doesn’t take away from the fact that Tropical Freeze is among the best platform games in recent memory. If you managed to miss out on the original release on Wii U or felt that the legendary difficulty might have been a bit much, you should absolutely try out this new version on Switch.
- Challenging, satisfying platforming
- Gorgeous visuals
- Creative boss encounters
- Funky Kong's implementation is problematic