Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze Review

Some have called this the best Donkey Kong game ever made, but does it live up to the hype? Here is our review!

Release Date: May 3, 2018Platform: SwitchDeveloper: Retro StudiosPublisher: NintendoGenre: Platformer

For many gamers, the best Wii U titles exist in this strange area that’s close to legend. You’ve heard others speak about them in hushed tones of awe, but having never had the opportunity to play them yourself, you’re forced to fill in some of the gaps regarding what your own experience with the game will be like.

However, now that Nintendo has begun re-releasing some of the Wii U’s best games on the Nintendo Switch, it’s no longer necessary to fill in those gaps. In the case of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, you’ll mostly be glad that you have the opportunity to experience this game for yourself, even if some aspects of the title prove to be at their best when they’re being described by the game’s biggest fans.

Initially released for the Wii U in 2014, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is the second Donkey Kong Country game from Metroid Prime developer Retro Studios (the first being Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D for the 3DS). Much like Donkey Kong Country Returns, Tropical Freeze leaves you with the impression that Retro felt Rare had stumbled upon the basic formula for how these games should work way back in the Super Nintendo days of the franchise.

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As such, Tropical Freeze will feel instantly familiar to anyone who remembers those titles. Much like the Donkey Kong games for SNES, Tropical Freeze is a mostly 2D platformer that gives you control  ofthe Kong family – mostly Donkey Kong in this case – as they battle a group of cartoonish invaders who are trying to disturb their peaceful way of life.

Assuming that you don’t go into a Donkey Kong Country looking for a great story – which is a smart move – let’s get down to the heart of the matter. Tropical Freeze is just as difficult of a platformer as the DKC games for SNES. Indeed, the difficulty of this game has become one of its defining traits.

Tropical Freeze has earned its reputation as a challenging title. Unlike the SNES DKC games, though, much of Tropical Freeze’s difficulty feels less like a crutch or a by-product of technological shortcomings and more like the result of the game’s brilliant level design.

What separates Tropical Freeze’s often extraordinary levels from those found in a lesser platformer are their liveliness and brilliant segmentation. The “liveliness” of every level certainly stem’s from the game’s colorful design, but it has more to do with the little touches that Retro Studios has populated every environment with. From forests on fire to penguins dancing on the remains of wrecked planes, Tropical Freeze is trying its best to distract you from the mission at hand and will sometimes succeed in doing so.

It’s the segmentation of every area that lends this game it’s brilliant difficulty, though. By segmentation, I mean the way that each area is essentially divided by invisible vertical lines. Each of these individual sections presents their own challenges and, more often than not, the challenges they present are expanded upon in the next section. This leads to you feeling like you’re constantly learning what the game expects from you as you make your way through every level.

While that subtle method of progression does a good job of keeping things from feeling overwhelming, there are a couple of levels and areas in this game that will break even the most accomplished of players. Unfortunately, there are also some areas that are downright cheap or even unenjoyable. That’s especially true of the underwater areas, which suffer simply from the fact that underwater areas in platformers are generally awful due to the way they limit player movement. The less said of the game’s underwater boss, the better.

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To combat the game’s difficulty, Nintendo has implemented the option to play as Funky Kong in the Switch version of Tropical Freeze. Funky Kong comes equipped with several abilities – like a double jump and some hover moves – that are specifically designed to help you navigate the game’s most challenging areas. Think of him as Tropical Freeze’s easy mode.

At the risk of criticizing those who prefer such an experience, I’d caution against using Funky Kong in Tropical Freeze. The fact is that much of the fun in this game stems from its difficulty. The highest highs this game offers come from the feeling you get when you finally clear that challenge that has frustrated you for so long. When that element of the game is removed, the overall experience feels far less rewarding.

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In some ways, that flaw has existed in this franchise since the SNES DKC games. Once you get past the beauty of Tropical Freeze’s levels, and whenever you aren’t being challenged by some platforming puzzle, you start to see the flaws in Tropical Freeze’s core mechanics.

Unlike other excellent platformers, like Mario and Rayman Legends, Tropical Freeze does relatively little to expand upon the few simple platforming mechanics that are introduced early in the game. Instead, the game’s variety stems from sections such as its vehicle levels and brilliant barrel shooting areas that strip away those core mechanics almost entirely. That’s fine, but there comes a point late in the game when you’re just jumping around and avoiding falling platforms where everything starts to feel a bit too familiar. This issue could have been avoided if the other members of the Kong family were used for more than just minor ability boosts and a larger health pool. Such as it is, the extent of Donkey Kong’s basic move set is exhausted fairly early on. 

The game’s most familiar sections are ideally amplified by the game’s item collection system, but collecting those classic K-O-N-G letters, puzzle pieces, bananas, and balloons is really only something that will fully appeal to completionists. Collecting coins is a bit more meaningful given that they can be traded in for items, but the only thing the average players will feel the need to go out of their way for are the secret exits that open up some incredibly creative – and incredibly difficult – levels.

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However, even when Tropical Freeze is at its most mechanically monotonous, the game’s colorful levels, fantastic soundtrack, and general atmosphere of fun do manage to compel you to press on. The game also runs beautifully in the Switch’s handheld mode, which is always a plus whenever you’re talking about a Switch title reliant on visual design and the lack of input lag.

With the exception of the Funky Kong option, though, Tropical Freeze for Switch feels remarkably similar to the Wii U version of the game. While there are certainly other elements of this game that could have been refined via this port, I’m mostly glad Nintendo didn’t make any other major alterations to the title.

While Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze is slightly compromised by the game’s shortcomings, we’re ultimately left with a platformer that will likely still be talked about for years to come by those who first enjoyed it in the Wii U era and those who are finally getting the chance to experience it for themselves on the Switch.

Rating:

4 out of 5