I’ve always felt like I missed out by not owning a Wii U. I know that Nintendo’s ill-fated system has become a punchline on this site and elsewhere, but I frankly don’t understand why the system gets so much flak. Sure, maybe the tablet controller was a bit uncomfortable and Nintendo’s messaging in trying to move units was garbled, but there are a few titles on the Wii U that I’ve been dying to play.
Thankfully, the Switch’s weird positioning as something like a mid-generation relief pitcher for the Wii U is breathing new life into some of the Wii U’s forgotten gems, among which I’d now count Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. As a brand-new player, I’ll say up front that Tropical Freeze is a thoroughly entertaining and delightful platformer. However, if you’ve already played this on the Wii U, the game probably doesn’t give you enough reason to purchase it twice
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze sees Donkey, Diddy, Dixie, and Cranky Kong traveling across six worlds to reclaim their home on Donkey Kong Island after the marauding Snowmads kick them out and claim the land for their own. Along the way, you’ll jump, swing, roll, and swim your way through traditional 2D platforming levels, ride minecarts through a handful of other levels, and occasionally pilot a rocket-powered barrel.
The first thing that really stands out in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is the level design. If Mario levels can be thought of as jazz pieces where some amount of improvisation is not only encouraged but required, Donkey Kong Country levels more closely resemble classical symphonies where every little piece has its place. Tropical Freeze’s level design is no exception. Every platform, every obstacle, every enemy is placed where it is for a reason, often with incredible cleverness and imagination. The best part is that the game’s difficulty constantly ups the ante, but earlier levels never leave you unprepared for what’s to come. Even the minecart and rocket barrel stages offer a few keen surprises. For example, one variation of the standard minecart level was so inspired and ingenious that I actually laughed out loud when it happened. The underwater levels didn’t even drag down my enjoyment as they usually do in other games, thanks to more clever design and a merciful margin for error that’s absent from the normal platforming levels.
What makes traversing each level so fun is how Donkey Kong and his cohorts feel to control. As with Donkey Kong Country Returns, Donkey Kong can get a little support from Diddy Kong, who rides on Donkey Kong’s back and provides help with platforming in the form of a jetpack that allows players to hover across gaps and propel through the underwater levels. Tropical Freeze elevates this buddy system by adding Dixie Kong and Cranky Kong as companion characters, each with their own unique abilities. Dixie Kong’s ponytail lets DK gain extra height with each jump, as well as a floating ability that makes landing with precision a little easier. Meanwhile, Cranky Kong uses his cane like a pogo stick, allowing players to carefully time jumps on top of spike traps without taking damage, as well as adding verticality to Donkey Kong’s normal jump. Each of these three companion characters add a small amount of experimentation to each obstacle and keep things interesting throughout the 10 to 12 hours it will take you to complete the game (or more, depending on how many collectibles you go for and how many secret levels you find).
It doesn’t hurt that Tropical Freeze looks amazing. Most of my playthrough was handheld, and the game looked great on the Switch’s smaller screen. The colors are vibrant, the details are crisp, and the animations are full of life. Small details like Donkey Kong’s fur, the sway of Cranky Kong’s beard, the small steps that an aging enemy turtle takes, and the burst of confetti after popping open a plant or treasure chest all have a ton of character, adding to the feeling of a living, breathing world. The entire area of Juicy Jungle is packed with amazing colors and fruit-flavored visual gags, like a mad scientist genetically spliced a punch bowl with a Rube Goldberg machine. This is one of the most cheerfully colorful games I’ve played in a while, and its visual exuberance will keep you playing even if you get stuck at one of its handful of tricky parts.
The sound design also stood out to me as particularly clever. Every action has a corresponding goofy, cartoonish sound effect to it that adds an extra layer of sensuousness to Tropical Freeze. The heavy sound of Donkey Kong landing a jump or the small ticking sound that plays every time you collect a banana, paired with every level’s unique music, only helps to further the experience. The sound is something that, I think, can go underappreciated in a title like this, where there aren’t massive explosions and powerful guns to really drive home the importance of sound design—so the extra attention to detail is really worth noting.
Playing the Switch version of this game does offer one unique advantage, and that’s being able to use the Pro controller. I still maintain that the Pro controller is one of the most comfortable controllers I’ve ever used, and that’s kind of important for a game like Tropical Freeze, which often makes some pretty wacky demands on your dexterity. That being said, playing in handheld mode with the Switch’s Joy-Cons is doable. I played at least half of the game that way, and only in the later levels did I find the Joy-Cons’ small sticks to be a hindrance. One small issue I did have is that the vibration on the Joy-Cons can be kind of intense, to the point where it’s shaking your entire system. You can’t turn this option off—at least as far as I could find—and it’s sometimes jarring when your entire system is shaking in your hands. It didn’t really stop me from making any jumps, but it was definitely distracting enough that I noticed.
The only other thing that the Switch version really offers is Funky Mode. Funky Mode lets you play as either Funky Kong or Donkey Kong and will make the game easier in a few different ways. If you’re playing as Funky Kong, not only will you have five hearts to lose before you die, but you also have a surfboard that will let you float through the air and land on spike traps without taking damage. Playing as Donkey Kong in Funky Mode is basically the same experience as the normal game, except that instead of two hearts, you get three.
Personally, I’m very much against the addition of these easy modes in platformers, but I’ll spare you my diatribe. Funky Mode will allow more players to experience more of the game, and that’s… fine. But as far as being a selling point for players who already own the Wii U version, Funky Mode falls far below the standards that have been set by other Wii U-to-Switch ports, namely Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Pokkén Tournament DX, which included a ton of extra content in their transitions to Nintendo’s new console. This lack of extra content won’t matter to players like me who missed Tropical Freeze on the Wii U, but it does give critics out there justified reason to be cynical in calling this a cash-in.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze came with the reputation of being a challenging platformer, but seasoned platformer players shouldn’t have much trouble at all getting through the game. Finding all the K-O-N-G letters and puzzle pieces definitely adds an extra bit of difficulty, but it’s the fun kind of difficulty, and it’s almost never opaque about what you need to do, leaving it entirely up to your timing and precision.
Even if Tropical Freeze isn’t the most challenging platformer, it is a blast to play from beginning to end. Fans of the series who might have missed it the first time around need to give this game a second life on the Switch, because I have a feeling it didn’t get the commercial recognition it deserves. Playing with friends can be fun if a bit chaotic, but playing alone is where you’ll really come into your own as a player and be able to savor the detail and artistry that the developer put into a game about a banana-crazy ape.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze makes another strong case for the argument that Nintendo needs to port every single one of its Wii U games to the Switch. DK’s latest adventure is one of the most clever, joyful platforming experiences I’ve had in a while, and it adds just enough newness to the series to keep the formula engaging without going overboard. There might not be enough (or anything) to convince Wii U owners to play it again, but long-lost Nintendo fans who came back for the Switch have another must-play game to add to their growing libraries.
E – Everyone
|Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (Switch) is available on Nintendo Switch. Primary version played was for Nintendo Switch. Product was provided by Nintendo for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Michael Goroff has written and edited for EGM since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter @gogogoroff.