Games Review: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (Switch, 2018): Rare re-invention

I can’t imagine that Retro Studios took on the job of making a new Donkey Kong Country game lightly. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it kept a lot of them up at night. Donkey Kong Country is quite rightly regarded as a masterpiece, a feat of technical wizardry and genius game design even its own sequels had to work hard to match up.

Thankfully, we all know how this story turned out — Retro crushed it, creating Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Wii in 2010 before tempting fate a second time and following it up with Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze on the Wii U in 2014. Their games successfully capture what made Rare’s originals so wonderful without being slavishly devoted to rehashing the 20-year-old SNES platformers. Now, Tropical Freeze moves from its original home on the Wii U to a new one on the Nintendo Switch. It’s a good move and one I’m glad Retro made because for any fan of the originals to sleep on this game would be a terrible thing.

The move to the Switch is a smart one and the game, like every Wii U port to date, feels right at home on the system. The game sees DK and friends under siege by a new enemy, the opportunistic Snowmads led by King Fredrick. The Snowmads freeze DK’s island home and, infuriated by their disrespect for his banana-based lifestyle, he sets out to d take back his home, bit by bit.

At this point, I feel like DK would be asking a few questions. What is it about his island that makes people want to commandeer it so often? It’s definitely not the abundant bananas, they always squash them underfoot.

The game sees Kongs Donkey, Diddy, Dixie and Cranky make their way from the bottom of the island to the top, clearing out the Snowmads as they go. Retro’s approach to level design, a merging of classic DKC platforming and more modern platformer design, is to be admired. They pay respect to the originals and come up with new and modern ways to keep the formula fresh and exciting.

It’s also surprisingly challenging. Something the original DKC game were very good at was fooling the player into thinking momentum was important. Years of Super Mario Bros and Super Mario World had taught players that you could throw yourself into the great unknown and probably put together a sweet though unintentional speed run. DKC would punish you for going too fast, yanking the level out from under you and letting you fall to your death. Tropical Freeze does the same thing, varying its pace to keep you on your toes. It’s frustrating in exactly the way you remember Donkey Kong Country being — the moreish, ok-but-tihs-time gameplay that made those games so memorable. So expect to die an awful lot, but also expect to collect a lot of lives to keep you going. The game knows it’s hard, but it’s not looking to give you a game over screen for mistiming a jump either.

The game supports two player co-operative using separate controls or individual Joy-Cons, but playing the game on your own rethinks how the original DKC’s buddy system worked. Rather than having a tagalong character that can really only be thrown or swapped to, Tropical Freeze has Diddy, Dixie or Cranky sit on your back and provide their specific power for vertical and horizontal movement or a mix of the two — Diddy has a jetpack that lets him hover in a straight line, Dixie performs her classic horizontal hair twirl but with a helicopter lift at the end for verticality and Cranky uses his cane as a pogo stick, allowing you to reach very high areas totally out of reach.

All of these moves have been designed to allow the player greater freedom in moving about each level but also in hoovering up the myriad collectibles strewn throughout. Puzzle pieces, magic bananas, the venerable KONG letters, gold coins — every level is packed with items to pick up and secrets to uncover, bonus levels to find and reasons to backtrack. Remarkable work.

This new Switch edition of the game contains a handful of changes from the Wii U original. Aside from a number of performance tweaks to ensure the game runs smoothly on the Switch when in handheld or attached to your TV, there’s also a new mode. Funky Mode is essentially an Easy mode that puts players in control of Funky Kong. Funky is usually found throughout the game selling resource kits in exchange for gold coins but as a playable character he uses his surfboard to high jump and hover in the air. He isn’t killed by spikes, he breathes underwater, he can roll forever and he even has a larger health pool. So, yeah, Funky OP. For those who want a less difficult experience, or are looking to sit down with younger players put off by the difficulty, Funky Mode is a great option but I can’t really recommend it to adult players unless you’re particularly lazy.

It’s wild to think that after all these years that Donkey Kong Country still retains the same charm and clever design of its forebears but it does. It’s smart, elegant game made by smart, talented people. What a blessing. Bottom line: if you have a Switch, you should own this.

Score: 9.5 out of 10
Highlights: DKC is back; Portability is amazing; New features are solid
Lowlights: Few, if any.
Developer: Retro Studios
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Available: May 4, 2018

Review conducted on Nintendo Switch using retail code provided by the publisher.