Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze Review – Still a frozen good time

Platform:
Switch
Released:
May 4, 2018
Publisher:
Nintendo
Developer:
Retro Studios

Review

If you’re a Nintendo Switch owner then you likely have very little to complain about in your first year of owning your new console. Since its release on the market a year ago the console has had a lot of incredibly noteworthy games; Breath of the Wild, Splatoon 2, Super Mario Odyssey, Pokk√©n Tournament, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Arms and now Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. And whilst it’s true some of these titles had already been released on the Wii U, it’s likely most people will still be playing them here on the Switch for the first time.

It’s pretty obvious that Nintendo likes to drop old Wii U games and give them a second life on the Switch (something I’m particularly thankful for) and for the most part they’ve been doing a pretty good job of adding extra content to give those who may have already played or own those titles a good reason to purchase again. However don’t be expecting massive changes from the originals, small updates to the format are what you’re in for and it’s the same here with Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. And this isn’t a bad thing because Tropical Freeze is still a jolly platformer that shows us all exactly why the Donkey Kong Country concept remains timeless.

Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze Funky Kong

It's time to get Funky!

One of the new things you can expect to see in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a familiar face, who has been made available especially for the Nintendo Switch version of the game. Welcome to the line-up, Funky Kong! Not only does Funky now issue you useful items in his shop, but this time he’s also a playable character, helping to make life easier for you. And trust me, at times he is like a gift from the banana gods. When playing as Funky it’s like being given the keys to easy mode. No longer do you have the standard two hearts to begin with, instead you will start with five. Also you can now hold your breath endlessly under water instead of searching out air bubbles or surfacing for air. In addition, Funky also has a surfboard that allows you to briefly float and glide over sharp objects undamaged. On paper, Funky Kong sounds a bit too powerful, although the game still manages to pack a punch.

Within the Donkey Kong Country games you will run, roll, climb, jump and swing your way through the game’s various levels. As you do, you collect as many bananas as possible, shoot yourself from one end to the other using numerous barrel cannons, and occasionally take a ride in a mine cart or two or on Rambi the Rhinoceros. Even summed up briefly the game sounds like one heck of a platformer.

The previous entry to the DK series, Donkey Kong Country Returns, is possibly one of my all time favourite DK games. It simply had a sense of level design and creativity that not many platformers can claim to have. However, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze manages to go above and beyond, particularly in its level design. One minute you’ll be frolicking under water ready to sing a rousing rendition of Under the Sea from the little Mermaid with Sebastian and the next you’ll find yourself in an open Savanna. Clearly we all know Donkey Kong is already king so I’ll skip the obvious Disney reference here. At times the levels can feel like they require the player to learn each section of the level by heart (which is something Funky Kong remedies). However, this is also the case with essentially every large scale 2D platform game.

“I had completely forgotten just how difficult this game actually is… I found myself no more than 3 levels in and already I was comparing Donkey Kong to Dark Souls!”

Tropical Freeze has no shortage of character and zest which helps bring it to life alongside its solid level design. Actually there were times it felt more like an animated Disney cartoon, akin to that of Duck Tales or Tale Spin, and I think this is something that went a long way to help soften the blow of just how painfully hard Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is at times.

It was almost embarrassing how difficult I found the game. It took me several hours to reacquaint myself with a game I played four years ago. Either way I found myself no more than 3 levels in and already I was comparing Donkey Kong to Dark Souls!

Helplessly I watched as my balloon lives just floated away from me at a rapid rate. It was at this exact moment I shamefully changed over from Donkey Kong to Funky Kong.

Before the judgement settles in, Donkey Kong Country has traditionally been reserved for seasoned platform enthusiasts. This isn’t a franchise known for just rolling over and letting you pick off fleas like a good monkey. No, it’s a planet of the apes all-out war, which is why the addition of Funky Kong and his bag of ticks and items is great to see and valuable beyond measure. You’ll be thanking your lucky bananas come the end game, trust me.

The Frozen Few!

But it’s not all about Funky Kong (even though it totally is). Tropical Freeze has as assortment of characters all with their own particular sets of talent and skills. Diddy, Dixie and Cranky Kong are all hanging around in specially marked barrels just waiting for you to bust them out so they can sit on Donkey Kong’s back. Whilst there they’ll help you jump in an assortment of different ways. Diddy will enable you to hover with the use of his jet pack which is useful for bridging large gaps, Dixie turns her ponytail into a propeller which will help you jump higher and Cranky uses his walking stick as a pogo stick helping you to avoid spiky traps and a prickly demise.

You can play this line up of Kong characters with friends in Tropical Freeze which does add to the ease and the fun of the game, depending on who you play with of course. Sadly player one will always be tethered to Donkey Kong, player two will be granted a Kong of their choosing (minus the option of Funky) which does open up a fair amount of options to aid your journey.

Players will control their individual characters on screen at the same time and if one of you is killed in action the other can continue on and rescue their downed Kongrad by breaking them back out of the specially marked barrels. It’s important to remember though that just like single player, players have a set number of lives they can burn through and due to the fact that you can pull off some very smart double Kong moves in multiplayer, you’ll also pull off some rather unfortunate double deaths. This will eat up two of your balloony lives not just one and suddenly my adult fear of balloons is all beginning to make sense.

This bring us neatly to the controls for Tropical freeze, one of my biggest and really only issues with the game. The fact that Retro Studios has chosen to map multiple functions to the same button can be a huge pain and is a real annoyance. There’s been numerous times where I’d roll to my death as I was trying to either ground pound or toss an enemy and I truly felt like a monkey attempting to use tools for the first time. It was this lack of control customisation that (much like the monkey using tools) boggled me. With so many buttons available, particularly on the Switch’s Pro Controller, it simply didn’t make sense to me to have the X/Y, A/B, and ZL/ZR buttons perform the same functions. This unfortunately hurts the game and adds to the death count you’ll inevitably rack up whilst playing. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is already hard enough without this added annoyance.

One of my absolute favourite things about Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is its visual and atmospheric styles. The Kongs themselves are crisply detailed, as are all of their high-def surroundings, which is little surprise as it’s what we’ve come to expect from Nintendo and this generation of Switch games. But there are also a number of refined levels which show the uniqueness on offer in Tropical Freeze. These include levels where you only see the silhouette of the background and characters and levels where the camera perspective occasionally turns. For example, you will suddenly be fired from the foreground to the background to continue on your way, or you will follow Donkey Kong from behind in the mine cart on your ride, changing that expected side-scroller perspective to something more playful. Whilst these 3D and other effects are only occasionally used by the developer, they provide a more dynamic scope to the already fun and inviting gameplay.

All of these environments are rendered beautifully and are accompanied by both classic and new tunes that are remixes of old Donkey Kong Country favourites. The striking soundtrack is the work of composer David Wise (also responsible for the music of the SNES games) and not only is it a genuine delight for anyone who is a true fan of the series, it also helps make Tropical Freeze come into its own. More than just the sum of its visual design, the game’s soundtrack contains masterful remixes of previous Donkey Kong Country games, but it’s within the original tracks that Wise has composed that Tropical Freeze finds an identity all on its own. Capturing a sense of nostalgia and emotion, Wise has brought the score of Tropical Freeze into the modern era with ease, turning it into a great gaming soundtrack.

I'm funky like a monkey, Oh yeah!

Go Bananas!

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time with Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. Whilst I’ve definitely ranted and raved to myself about its sheer difficulty, it’s actually been a pleasant enough trip down memory lane. That said, you have to treat the game’s difficulty with some respect. I’ll admit I’m rather stubborn and personally promised myself to not purchase any unnecessary auxiliary items. I then went and tried to get every single collectable item, making the game significantly more difficult on myself. So in many ways I might only have myself to blame.

Tropical Freeze creates a world that feels physically alive and above all very satisfying, because it always rewards you for your patience, curiosity and taking risks. Despite having only minimal differences with its Wii U version, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze on the Switch is still a creative, colourful and challenging platformer that should not be missing in your collection.