Game: Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze
Developer: Retro Studios
Reviewed on: Nintendo Switch (Review code provided)
We live in interesting times. It’s widely accepted that Nintendo’s Wii U console was a commercial failure, something I’m even coming to terms with (although I still think it’s a very underrated machine) but it’s also widely accepted that the sadly lamented console had one hell of a games library that very few people got to play. The Wii U seemed destined to be talked about in the same breath as Sega’s Dreamcast; a machine chock full of essential games for the avid player to hunt down – that is until Nintendo came up with the genius idea of re-releasing them onto their far more successful hybrid console/portable, the Switch. The latest of these reissues is Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, a critically lauded platform game released in the middle of the Wii U’s relatively short lifespan.
On the surface, Tropical Freeze looks like a typical bright and colourful platform game. A horde of viking penguins (as you do) have taken over DK’s island, stolen all the bananas (as they do) and it’s up to DK and his chums to kick their black and white bums back onto their longboats. Bananas are literally DK’s Princess in these games, aren’t they? Mario has to save the Princess, DK has to save the bananas. One of them is a thankless task, one of them results in delicious bananas. I digress. Progress is made in a 2D platforming environment where DK navigates enemies, traps and mild puzzles, grabbing bananas and other collectibles, using head stomps, ground pounds and rolls to dispatch foes through some surprisingly involved levels. All very Nintendo with one possible exception – Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is a brutal game.
Hiding behind this bright veneer is a game that is designed to make even those who like to think they’re “1337 Hardcoar Gamerz” cry like small children being entertained by Pennywise the dancing clown. It’s a decidedly old school title, requiring players to have split second reactions, learn level layouts and enemy patterns and recognise repeating motifs. For example, DK starts out with only two hearts – two hits and gone. No more, no less (well, not QUITE – more on that later). By smashing barrels throughout stages you can get help from a number of support characters – Diddy, Dixie and Cranky. Each of these characters will not only give you two extra chunks of life, but also have individual abilities that will help you make it through each stage. The stages are very much assault courses, challenges to overcome. There’s a ton of secrets to discover in each one, puzzle pieces and K-O-N-G letters to collect, gold coins to discover which can be used to buy power ups at shops on the overworld, but the ultimate goal in Tropical Freeze is overcoming the obstacles to eventually make your way to the bosses. And then things get REALLY tough!
Nintendo bosses have traditionally followed a set pattern – figure out the bosses weakness, hit them a specific number of times using that weakness, win. Tropical Freeze still follows that pattern, but each boss brings its own set of challenges. They generally have three phases of attacks which are then split up into sub phases. The trick is to learn the different attacks during these phases, when the boss leaves themself open to damage and how to avoid getting hit when they’re not. Some bosses in games like Dark Souls are spoken of in hushed tones, but some of the encounters in Tropical Freeze would give even Ornstein and Smough pause for thought. These can be long, involved battles that test the players mettle, but figuring out correct patterns and the rush of adrenaline upon completing a boss is utterly exhilarating.
This may all make Tropical Freeze sound massively unappetising – but it’s really not! Okay, so, it might be to some people, but the level of challenge on offer here isn’t one you find often in modern games which are either focussed on multiplayer shenanigans or on holding your hand through a series of scripted, highly tutorialized encounters. There are also special techniques you can utilise to make things easier for yourself. Collect 100 bananas and you can activate a “Kong Pow” ability with your active partner – Dixie will turn all enemies into gold hearts which will buff your life to over 4, Diddy will turn enemies into 1up balloons and Cranky will turn enemies into banana coins. It’s an easily overlooked mechanic but when used correctly can easily make the game a lot easier. Likewise the banana coins and shops can be easily missed by players, but if you’re struggling with a level you may want to consider grabbing an extra, single use heart or perhaps picking up some banana juice for an extra strong boost of health.
So what does this Switch do-over bring to the table. Weeelllll… not a huge amount, really. Outside of a bump in visual fidelity with a docked resolution of 1080p and a solid 60fps framerate, the only major addition here is Funky Mode. Sadly this doesn’t change all the audio in the game to Marky Mark tracks. What it does do is allow you to play as Funky Kong – the games 90’s throwback and easy mode. Funky comes with five hearts as default, all of the companion abilities and the ability to breathe underwater, meaning that encounters are significantly easier. Purists will surely cry foul, saying that players simply need to “git gud” at their Donkey Kong game, but this is an optional mode that is especially focussed towards younger players who may find the more punishing gameplay offputting. In all honesty, it’s a great addition that doesn’t get in the way of the main game and speaks volumes of Nintendo’s continuing quest to make challenging games feel more accessible.
As someone who was initially very sniffy at the idea of the Switch’s library being bolstered by a bunch of reissues, I’m happy to see Nintendo’s strategy paying off. Tropical Freeze has already outsold its initial Wii U release, something that can only help the prospects of future iterations of this series; I only hope that unknowing Switch owners know what they’re getting themselves into!
It may be a reissue, but this Switch edition will finally allow one of the Wii U’s finest games to find the audience it needs. Eternally joyous, surprisingly deep, relentlessly brutal, Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is an essential purchase for Switch owners.