Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is the follow up to the Wii’s 2010 Donkey Kong Country Returns, that brought the franchise back to prominence from Retro Studios and was originally released on Wii U in 2014. Four years later the game comes to the more successful Nintendo Switch, so let’s see if this port of arguably one of the best side-scrolling platformers is worth another purchase.
Release date: May 4, 2018
Approximate Size: 6.6 GB
Genre: Side-Scrolling 2D Platformer
Developer: Retro Studios
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch; also available on Wii U (Played)
The game’s story is a simple one. As the Kongs sit around a banana birthday cake for titled protagonist Donkey Kong, a fleet of anthropomorphic animals and creatures that are Viking inspired launch an attack on the main island. The attack sends Donkey Kong and his family flying out the island and the game then sees the player controlling the Kongs to get back and regain control of their home. It’s not the most dynamic story out there but it sets the foundation for more subtle storytelling and gives you a purpose for what you’re trying to accomplish.
As you play through the levels, certain stages have a story of their own that plays into the grand scheme of things. Without spoiling anything, you see a lot of levels start off one way only to transform into something completely different at the end. It’s wonderful and shows the player that, even though you aren’t being bombarded with cutscenes, the plot is affecting the world around you and the innocent do actually need your help. It’s something we’ve seen a lot in gaming over the years, but few do it as well as Retro Studios.
In the end, the story is light-hearted and not with a lot of emphasis. It’s there if you want it and not if you just want to enjoy the challenge the game offers. I’ve never really wanted a story driven Donkey Kong or one that equally balances gameplay and plot. This game, the way it’s set up, is the ideal way to have a narrative in a Donkey Kong game in my opinion. It’s a strong emphasis on challenging gameplay and a light narrative with the possibility of some more through subtle, un-interrupting, storytelling.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Breeze is as pure as a 2D platformer game can be. Your goal is to travel through the level and reach the end, gathering collectibles and finding secrets along the way. The player controls Donkey Kong and can take the aid of different Kongs through the level; these Kongs are Dixie, Diddy, Cranky, and now for the Switch version Funky. Diddy is still great at crossing over large distances, Dixie is great at reaching hard to reach platforms above, and Cranky can defeat enemies others can’t and bounce off of hazards without taking damage. We’ll discuss Funky in a few. These Kongs can also team up to unleash a powerful attack and there is a co-op mode that allows the second player to choose which Kong they want to control; Donkey Kong is tied to player one. As you traverse through the level, there are hidden areas where you collect coins and puzzle pieces. After a certain amount, you’ll receive a life from the coins and balloons also give another life. The game is challenging, and I learned quickly that my frustrations were due to my carelessness. Never did I feel the game was truly unfair or designed in a way to purposely make me fail. Tropical Breeze won’t hold your hand and rewards the player who learns the mechanics and executes them in proper fashion. Funky Kong runs a shop that you can access in between levels and you can buy health and buffs to aid you in the levels.
The platforming elements in this game are great, enemies are fantastic, and the different Kongs add another layer to the game. Very few games make me want to take over the player 2 spot but this game does. The highlight of this game, and those familiar with my review structure know where I’m leading into, are the boss fights. Tropical Breeze has a ton of boss fights and none of them play the same. Even with the limiting gameplay elements 2D platformers provide, Retro Studios shows that this is no excuse to have poor boss fights in a game. They are all great to fight, needing different tactics to defeat, and is the best reward for finishing a world. Few things are as satisfying as completing challenging levels to eventually reach a boss encounter and earn that victory. A true cherry on top of the entire experience. There are also other types of gameplay elements besides the tactical platforming and fantastic boss fights; levels that are paced completely differently. The swimming levels are more relaxing than the others, with a slower pace, but due to how they control in these levels you have to be more cautious as you proceed. Then there are also the minecart levels where you take off at a speed faster than normal and must use precision as you jump because a mistimed jump could result in instant failure. This game is always switching it up, giving the player more to do, and this variety makes the game more wonderful. Retro Studios, as I’ve said in the past, cannot make a bad game or experience and I look forward to whatever it is they produce next.
Exclusive to this version is the aforementioned Funky Kong. He gets his own exclusive mode that really serves as an easy and almost introductory mode. You can switch him out with Donkey Kong but you cannot use the companion Kongs. Funky Kong has five hearts opposed to two, can double jump and hover in mid-air for easier access and control, stand on environmental hazards with the aid of his surfboard, and has unlimited oxygen when swimming underwater. When you play with Donkey Kong in this mode, you can use the other Kongs with you and each will have three hearts. This mode is good to those who are completely new to platformers or young children, or those who want an extremely relaxed experience or simply want to play with Funky and, well, get funky.
If someone were to tell me that this is the greatest 2D platformer ever produced, you’d get little argument from me. The game overs variety in gameplay, its challenging, its fun, the co-op element is fantastic, the boss fights are a blistering good time, and it does all of this by looking and running spectacularly. If Bayonetta 2 hadn’t released in 2014, this would have been my game of the year that year.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze was a looker back when it launched on Wii U back in February 2014 and that is still the case four years later. Graphically, you are receiving identical visuals in this port only with a higher resolution at 1080p when docked. The game retains the slick menus and UI, only it now moves much smoother and loads faster, and the overall package is still as wonderful as it was when it launched on Wii U. Let’s break down more of what makes this game a visual masterpiece.
Character designs still have me looking in awe at how detailed they’ve managed to make them. All the Kong’s bodies are fully detailed to the point that you can make out the various strands of hair on their bodies. The amount of work that must have gone into this, to also have them sway to the will of the wind and react to encounters with the environment and enemies, is beyond impressive. I did it on Wii U, I did it as I played docked, and even in handheld mode, I found myself constantly impressed how they pulled this off. Despite this attention to detail and implementing this element of real-world realism, the game still manages to ensure it keeps its cartoonish art style and design that has come to define it since 2010’s Donkey Kong Country Returns.
Speaking of character designs, the enemies in this game have also received the same love and care. The game switches up enemy designs and models so you never get the fatigue of fighting and encountering the same enemies constantly. A diverse range of anthropomorphic animals and creatures to battle against. Retro Studios is filled with some of the most creative developers in modern gaming and the choices they’ve made for Donkey Kong’s visuals are a constant reminder of how phenomenal they are. This is most evident in their boss designs. You will fight against a polar bear that looks to have walked out of Asgard, a massive owl that puts the Harry Potter ones to shame, and a giant pufferfish in need of an attitude adjustment. That is only a small taste of the assemble cast off bosses to test your skills against. Each one visually appealing and creatively executed with intricate designs upon a simplistic canvas. The Viking inspired designs works well with the changes brought upon the world.
Nintendo games are known for their colorful palette and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is no exception. Colors are vibrant, the world full of life, and the use of light is unique. The entire experience, at times, can be breathtaking. You will find few games that look this good with such a wide array of colors on display at any given time. The greens are deep, the ocean the clearest blues, and the fire radiating heat. Retro Studios knew that the gameplay needed an equal level of polish on the graphics to complement it and they nailed it. The world is beautiful, the effects are magical, and the overworld is fantastic. The gushing could go on for pages but, to put it in simple, the game looks damn good. What makes this even more impressive is that they manage to switch environments often, so the player never gets a chance to feel fatigue from similar landscapes of beauty, there is always something around the corner with either equal beauty in a different format and color scheme or something far more grander.
Another thing Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze executes nearly flawlessly is its soundtrack. All the music is upbeat and full of life, energizing players and making them feel more engaged. Like the rest of the game, the audio is impressive. Some levels will have those upbeats, as mentioned, but then you have more mellow and melodic sounding melodies in the quieter levels and they succeed in making you feel relaxed. It inadvertently can become a gameplay element because if you get too relaxed, you may become too careless and it’ll cost you. The boss fights also have tension and, in some cases, cheers from an audience that spectates, and you’ll feel the hype in the entire encounter. It’s excellently done and makes this entire game feel far grander and more fulfilling than many might see at first glance.
The game’s sound effects are also nicely done. The Kongs all grunt and make their primal sounds and enemies express themselves. It’s all done remarkable, everything was meticulously crafted with care and love. I have no complaints, no issues, and I’m filled with love for my enjoyment of the game’s sound design and music. Spectacular.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a fantastic 2D platformer that is challenging, filled with collectibles, and has a nice handful of characters to choose from. The game is beautiful, and the soundtrack is spectacular. The co-op element is wonderful, and the game is a ton of fun. Judging the Switch release without taking the Wii U version into account, this is definitely worth a purchase. However, here is the problem… Other than the higher resolution, the faster loading times, and Funky Kong, it’s the same exact game that can be picked up for Wii U and a fraction of the price.
Donkey Kong Country fans will not need convincing but for those who own the game on Wii U, the only reason to get this game is for the portability aspect of Switch. It was enough to warrant another purchase for me, but will it be for you? Other than that, this release doesn’t add any incentive to double dip. For those who love challenging 2D platforming, this is definitely worth the purchase because of its extremely high fun factor and the challenging difficulty.
Regardless of platform or year released, this entry is still a wonderful showcase of Retro Studios creativity and talent, a near masterpiece of exceptional gameplay and design.