Fun fact: This re-release of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze was the thing that finally pushed me over the edge to buy the Nintendo Switch. As a fan of the franchise, but not a Wii U owner, I was disappointed that I never had the chance to play the sequel. So when Nintendo announced plans to bring the title to it’s smash console, I finally hopped onboard the Switch train. There are many reasons to own the console, of course, but my love of Donkey Kong and company was strong enough to warrant dropping the cash on a new system. Spoiler alert: I made a wise decision.
Building upon the mechanics used in Donkey Kong Country Returns, which are, uh, not too different from the original SNES Country trilogy, Tropical Freeze is a fairly standard 2D platformer. Across six different worlds, DK will jump, roll and swing has way through a perilous adventure to reclaim Donkey Kong Island from the magic-infused Snowmads. Joining him on his quest to reclaim his home are three of his closest allies: Diddy, Dixie and Cranky. In order to team-up with either of his associates, though, Donkey will first need to beak open a barrel that sports their initials. Each partner features their own unique ability: Diddy has a jetpack, Dixie can provide a boost with her hair and Cranky can deliver blows with his cane. Obviously, certain characters work better for specific situations, but you don’t need to tie yourself to any of them if you don’t want to.
Despite the sizable gap in between releases, the gameplay of the series really hasn’t changed that much over the years. For some, that may be a bit of an issue, specifically due to the slightly slower pace at which the series can move at. Since I have such an affinity for the franchise, though, Tropical Freeze was more of exactly what I wanted. The controls are tight, and there’s no one to blame (other than yourself) when you plummet to your doom. These mechanics perfectly match the carefully crafted levels Retro Studios dreamed up for this adventure; from bone-chilling ice caverns to sky-high fruit chopping factories, almost every world is filled with memorable and enjoyable levels. Retro put themselves on par with Rare when they released Returns, but with this entry, they have staked their claim as the King of the Jungle.
As a traditionalist, though, I wish there weren’t as many gimmicky levels in this title as there are. Each world either includes a mine cart level or a Rocket Barrel level, and I didn’t particularly care for either. The mine cart stages were a chore back in 1994, and even with additional flair and variety, still aren’t fun to play. The Rocket Barrel levels are even worse, with the flying gimmick feeling more and more strained the longer you play. I was also not entirely enthused with the water-based levels of Tropical Freeze. These areas are the one section where the typically precise controls falter, which makes navigating each underwater death-maze a real pain in the ass. I’m fine with them in limited bursts, but considering one world is set almost entirely underwater, that’s not the case here.
Boss battles have never been the franchise’s forte, and that unfortunate trend continues here. I harbor no love for any of the boss battles featured in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. Each one follows the same basic pattern: dodge some attacks, hit them back, wash, rinse, repeat. It’s not a terrible formula, but it’s also one that is not enjoyable to play. And not only are they dull to play, but they also drag on for longer than they probably should. They just go on and on, and considering how difficult some can be (looking your way Fugu Face-Off), you can easily get stuck on one for an extended period of time. I understand the need for boss battles, and the actual character designs for the bosses are great, but there’s definitely room for improvement.
For the title’s arrival on the Switch, developer Retro Studios hasn’t added to much to the prior package. The biggest addition is the inclusion of another member of the Kong family, Funky Kong. Funky previously manned the shops found in each world, but you can now complete the entire campaign with the hip monkey. Funky differentiates himself from Donkey through both his extra lives, but also his surfboard. The board allows him to not only glide through the air, but also land on spikes without taking damage. He can also hold his breath underwater for an unlimited amount of time, which doesn’t make sense, but is certainly helpful. Even without the ability to tag in other members of the Kong family, Funky Mode is an easier way to tackle the tough challenge of Tropical Freeze. Personally, I think it dulls the difficulty down to the point of making it boring, but for those that are stymied by the campaign, it’s a decent enough way to finish it.
I can’t speak from experience on this, but the additional power afforded by the Switch appears to fix one of the bigger issues that Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze faced back in 2014. Based on what I’ve been seeing, the Wii U release suffered from some rather extravagant load times. I’m happy to report that the Switch version runs smoothly, and the load times are basically minuscule. For something that requires the precise timing that this necessitates, that’s a very important thing to have. Just to cap off some of the Switch talk, I played the game with both the Joy-Cons and Pro Controller, and found both to be more than adequate. I actually preferred the Cons, and preferred playing on the Switch screen over an actual TV, but either option is fine.
While it may not look as sharp as it did back in 2014, Tropical Freeze still looks pretty darn great in 2018. Part of that may stem from the improved textures that came with the Switch upgrade, but the art style the title possesses just stands the test of time. The levels are layered with detail, and each one pops with gorgeous swaths of color. The trio of silhouette levels look even better, and their style still stands out today. The character designs are fairly basic, but Retro Studios still manages to give each one a unique personality. Seeing how DK and whatever ally he was stuck with react to each boss almost made these encounters worth revisiting.
I can rave about how great the music is, but that is well-worn ground at this point. I’m not sure the David Wise soundtrack matches his previous work in the series, but it’s great nevertheless. Whether it’s the awe-inspiring Seashore War or Mangrove Cove, which pulls from Wise’s previous work, every level features an excellent accompanying track. It’s the type of soundtrack that I would listen to outside of playing it, which, at least for me, is a rarity.
Even four years after it’s original release, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze still sits near the top of the 2D platformer pantheon. Its levels are beautifully designed and boast a frequently twisted challenge. With the exception of the dull boss battles and frustrating gimmick levels, it’s as perfect as a series of stages as you can get. What really makes the game shine, though, is its excellent presentation. From the gorgeous art design to the splendid soundtrack, Retro Studios makes every piece of the title stand out. The brutal difficulty may scare some off, but for those willing to stick it out, you’ll be rewarded with platforming bliss.
This review was based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game, which we were provided with.
Beautifully designed and wickedly challenging, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze remains a top-tier platformer, even after four years of being marooned on the Wii U.