Every once in a long while, a game rewards you for lingering in its levels and hunting for every little detail the designers have hidden away. If that sounds appealing, and you’re up for the challenges of a truly old-school platformer, Nintendo’s new Switch port of the Wii U game Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze should be on your must-try list when it’s released on May 4.
But if you’re thinking of buying this just for kids to play, you might want to think twice.
What you’ll like
A solid game, tweaked
This sequel to the 1994 SNES classic Donkey Kong Country wasn’t warmly received when it debuted for the Wii U in 2014: Reviewers loved the visuals and music, but criticized everything from the bosses and checkpoints to the pacing. Interestingly, a fair number of people (including GamesBeat reviews editor Mike Minotti) felt that it was just the wrong game at the time for the shaky Wii U platform.
But many people loved Tropical Freeze anyway, and some even called it the best 2D platformer of its generation. So rather than starting from scratch for the Switch, developer Retro Studios went back to its work, upgraded the graphics to 1080p resolution, and added Funky Mode, a major step toward making the game more accessible for players of all skill levels.
In this mode, the surfboard-wielding Funky Kong becomes a playable character, possessing more hearts (your life meter), better jumping ability, and invulnerability to spikes. Thanks to Funky Kong, some of the game’s trickiest, old-school parts become easier for kids. But as the game goes on, jump timing and pattern memorization become more important, challenges that Funky doesn’t make easy in the typical sense of the word. Retro compensates for that by letting kids choose to skip to the next level after losing several lives, which will happen frequently.
I was excited about Funky Mode, and so were my kids, who wanted to play what looked like a Pixar movie. But once my kids started playing, I knew I’d be asked to wield the controller through Tropical Freeze’s many hard parts. Retro succeeded in making the game more accessible, but not in making the levels fully kid-friendly, unless just skipping parts of the game all the time strikes you as a good solution. Even so, I wish every future Nintendo game had a Funky Mode, because it’s a great idea with a fantastic, fun-sounding name.
Old-school gameplay, modernized
The Donkey Kong Country series dates back to a time when Sonic the Hedgehog was helping Sega’s Genesis crush Nintendo’s SNES, and TV ads made Mario look uncool. Nintendo handed its Donkey Kong characters over to British studio Rare, which married the best parts of Mario and Sonic platforming with breakthrough 3D-rendered graphics. With Donkey Kong Country, the SNES suddenly had a Sonic competitor with even better visuals and music, plus the polish gamers expected from Nintendo.
Tropical Freeze replaces Donkey Kong Country’s prerendered characters and backgrounds with full 3D models, but generally keeps the camera locked into a 2D-style, side-scrolling perspective. As you control Donkey Kong, assisted by temporary jump- and life-enhancing comrades Diddy, Dixie, and Cranky Kong, the core challenge is to hop from one surface to the next, using additional buttons to climb things and pound surfaces. (Funky Kong plays without assistants.) If you’re OK at the game, you can just jump and climb through levels, but if you learn how to pound, pull, or break certain objects, you can unlock bonus points and items.
You move rightward throughout each level, but you can often discover another route via particularly well-timed jumps, shattering walls, or falling into non-deadly pits. Pulling a plug from the ground or throwing a barrel at a target can open up either a hidden nook or a bonus room full of prizes. Collecting bananas and balloons earns you extra lives; coins purchase spare power-ups that may become necessary to help you beat tricky levels or bosses. Puzzle pieces and K-O-N-G letters unlock additional bonuses, including hidden stages.
Tropical Freeze has familiar elements from earlier games, such as underwater swimming stages, a near-invincible rhino to ride several times, and multiple mine cart areas. Power-up barrels scattered throughout levels let you pick between assistant Diddy, who lets you float after a jump; Dixie, who floats and lifts after a jump; and Cranky. The latter “old gorilla” character was added in a post-release patch to Tropical Freeze on Wii U, using his cane as a spring or as a slashing weapon in swimming stages. The companions have short life bars, so if you get hit twice, you lose their extra abilities.
Kids will find it challenging enough to just complete levels by running and jumping, but the game deliberately distracts you with so many alternatives that mere completion misses the fun of exploration. Each level is so packed with various bonuses that even adults will want to dilly-dally rather than just keep running. You can revisit a level multiple times and still not collect all of the items hidden inside — that’s the mark of a great platformer.
Beautiful graphics, great music, and generally good sound effects
From beginning to end, Tropical Freeze is absolutely beautiful, and the best-looking Donkey Kong game. Every level across the six primary island “worlds” features mind-boggling details — enemies churning in the backgrounds, objects moving from backgrounds to foregrounds, and themes that evolve from the start to the end of a stage. Even when there’s only one enemy onscreen, the art screams with personality and character.
The Wii U game was limited to a 720p resolution on Nintendo’s older hardware. This Switch port hits 1080p on a TV and, according to a third-party analysis, just below 720p on the handheld screen. It’s in no way evident that the game isn’t a full 720p in handheld mode, and — oddly, except when the game’s loading new stages — frame rates are smooth throughout handheld and docked gameplay. While it’s no longer stunning to see a game of this caliber running perfectly as a portable title, it’s still impressive.
There are only a couple of areas where playing in handheld mode isn’t ideal. Thin-walled air bubbles can look almost invisible underwater, sometimes making it challenging to keep DK oxygenated. And he can look incredibly small in some of the environments, making you wish for a bigger screen.
Even so, the visual rewards of this game are tremendous — the levels just keep getting better and more colorful or interesting as you go on. Retro has crafted dozens of set pieces that more than hold their own against even Super Mario Odyssey, which is surprising given that Tropical Freeze is several years older.
Longtime fans of the DKC series will recognize melodies and themes from older titles, including remixes of some of the original game’s most classic tracks, such as Rare’s memorably ambient underwater music. While Tropical Freeze doesn’t include songs worthy of my regular listening rotation, the all-new tracks are slightly serious but fun. That said, the sound effects are only OK — apart from pleasant item-collecting chimes, characters largely growl, whoop, and grunt, which would have been ample for a DKC game 20 years ago but feels deficient now.
What you won’t like
Great HD Rumble, but it’ll make your Switch controllers crazy loud
I loved the HD Rumble effects Retro added for the Switch — and there are so many instances where you can feel subtle and strong rumbles, such as pounding the ground, pulling out plugs, and boss encounters. But man, some of these rumbles make a lot of noise, particularly in Joy-Cons but also in Pro Controllers. Don’t expect to play Tropical Freeze in bed next to a light sleeper.
A sketchy two-player mode
The two-player mode disappointed me and my kids. It’s far too easy for one of the characters to go off-screen and get injured or taken out of the action. If the camera zoomed out more to accommodate two players, this wouldn’t be an issue, but I’d really call Tropical Freeze a single-player adventure with the option of an assistant (who might get upset or upset you).
Good, but sort of long-winded boss encounters
Contrary to some critiques I’ve seen of the Wii U game, I found Tropical Freeze’s boss encounters to be pretty excellent — charming characters with a lot of personality and great attacks. They put some of the lamer three-bop-and-done Mario boss encounters to shame. But the encounters almost always run a little too long, requiring eight or so hits across three separate segments. Again, old school gamers won’t mind as much, but younger ones will wish for an earlier reprieve. Retro probably should have saved the third stage of each boss for the game’s Hard mode.
I loved the Donkey Kong Country games from the very start, and though I haven’t been thrilled by every sequel over the years, Tropical Freeze includes virtually everything the series has done right. It’s fun to play, has a ton of levels, and wows the eyes and ears with great aesthetics. More important for a platformer, it offers exceptional replay value thanks to unlockable stages you’ll actually want to unlock. There are five islands to visit before you even get to the DK Island shown in the opening cinematics, and more to find thereafter, as well.
Tropical Freeze is not, however, a Super Mario Odyssey-style game for everyone. Despite the addition of Funky Mode, young kids might find the levels too difficult to fully play through without assistance, particularly as jumps become trickier. And the fact that a four-year-old game is being rereleased on the Switch with a higher price isn’t going to make parents — or potential double-dippers — particularly happy. Yes, it’s been updated, but not enough for a higher price.
But if you consider old-school platformers like Donkey Kong Country to be pinnacles of a nearly forgotten art form, Tropical Freeze is a game you need to experience. Having played many subpar platform games over the years (including certain uninspired 2D Mario titles), it’s a joy to experience a game where the developers obviously had so much love for their levels and characters. Their passion shines through from beginning to end.
The only question is whether you have the necessary skill to explore everything without some Funky assistance.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze comes out for Nintendo Switch on May 4. Nintendo sent us a code for this review.