Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze Review

May 24, 2018

I knew about Donkey Kong before I was first able to play as him, of course. He’s one of the most well-known gaming icons around, especially for a fan of Mario and his series of games. So I knew about him before Rare developed Donkey Kong Country for the Super Nintendo. Coming later in that console’s cycle it was a beautiful game — thanks to the pre-rendered 3D sprites enabled by Silicon Graphics’ hardware — and entirely joyful for anyone who happened to pick up the pad and play. Controlling Donkey Kong, and with a cast of characters including Diddy Kong, it was a delight and a major success. In 2010 Nintendo’s Retro studios were tasked with making a new Donkey Kong (Country Returns) game which in turn resulted in a sequel, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. That was on the Wii U and was released in 2014. Now it’s back, on the Switch, in much the same way Donkey Kong Jungle Beat made its way to the Wii after it first sprang to life, bongos and all, on the Gamecube. Games being re-released on the latest platform is not new for Nintendo then, nor it it new for Donkey Kong himself. The shame with this particular title is that whilst it looks great and plays well, it’s largely impossible to connect with it in the same way I once did with Donkey Kong Country on the SNES. With a lack of connection comes a lack of joy, a level of indifference and a wonder of “so what?”

The game itself begins with Donkey Kong and company chilling out when a penguin pirate ship reaches their island and promptly attacks it, causing it to freeze in part and in totality be ensconced by all manner of baddies. It’s all very odd. Penguins aren’t naughty in the first place typically and pirate ships don’t tend to float above an island and cause mischief. If you can suspend your disbelief despite all of that, the game proper starts off. With you in control of Donkey Kong you traverse a map of the first world, Lost Mangroves. In total there are seven worlds with each having a theme, as you’d expect, and with many levels within them having their own theme or catch. Some levels are straightforward, others have hidden exits, and each one has plenty of extra things to do in addition to just beating the level — for instance you can collect the four letters which make up KONG (to unlock bonus levels) and find the pieces of a puzzle (to gain in-game artwork). There’s plenty to do and it all works well, in a way we have seen many years ago in Super Mario Bros. 3, or Super Mario World. As a result it doesn’t feel cool, or different. It’s just well-executed stuff we’ve seen before.

Donkey and Dixie must beware the fire-breathing pig

That’s not entirely the case though. Throughout the game’s ten to twenty hours (dependent on completion or 200% completion) there is lots going on, all with a challenge and often with a healthy dose of invention. Every level is filled to make things look more vibrant, provide multiple routes from A to B and generally make life difficult for whichever of the Kong clan you have on screen at a given time. There are platforms, there are deadly drops. We have bouncy footholds and underwater sections, slippery slopes and barrel-propelled on-rails action. Donkey can work with a friend who provides some extra health — be that Diddy, Dixie or Cranky — with each allowing for a bit of extra lift or hangtime when jumping around. You can also get temporary companions like Rambi which allows you to just bash through things. Donkey can roll, he can pound the surrounding area and quite frankly there is a myriad of techniques available to enable a successful run, a complete run or the best run.

Despite the fact there’re a lot of tools at the disposal of every player, that does not mean the game is in any way easy. Quite the contrary, especially as you make your way through the levels and worlds towards the endgame. Things get rather tricky and you’ll be thankful for all the extra lives you amassed early on when things were much simpler. This does mean that you’ll need to get used to replaying levels a lot, and learning the patterns and the timings to allow you to get through. Whilst always fair, and congratulations to Retro Studios for making it so, you might well find yourself frustrated. It might be the difficulty directly causing this,but it could also be a controls challenge. I found myself asking Donkey to do something and him actually doing something else. Whilst there is an opportunity to remap some of the controls, this isn’t the case in totality and no matter how long I played for I just couldn’t eradicate it. This was using the Joy-Cons in tablet mode and when docked, so perhaps this wouldn’t impact the game at all with a Pro controller, or a different person with different hands and muscle memories.

It's a platform game, therefore snow is obligatory

There are some changes with this version of the game when compared to the Wii U original. The extra processing power of the Switch means that when docked you have lovely 1080p gaming which is always rock-solid in terms of frame rate as well, something which we’re accustomed to for any game that’s from within Nintendo. There’s also a Funky Kong mode which is basically a concession that the game is devilishly hard and for many gamers — especially newer and younger ones — is something which just can’t be coped with. This mode then gives you all kinds of ‘superpowers’ effectively and is in essence a great big cheat mode. It’s hardly surprising that there’s no more subtle, or better incorporated change, but at least there is something.

Presentation-wise the game is a delight and mechanically it works brilliantly, with excellent design and execution everywhere, and invention where possible. But none of this is over and above that which other platformers have provided since 2014, and the Switch itself has done since its launch last year. It might be for this reason that the game doesn’t engage; doesn’t just fill you with joy. It’s a slog at times to play through and a frustrating one if you have the controls issue or just get bogged down in one or more particularly challenging areas. The Funky Kong mode can’t be flipped on the fly so that’s really only useful for the newest of platform gamers. When you’ve been on Super Mario’s Odyssey, or allied with Kirby, on the very same platform where you can now play as Donkey Kong in a replay of his old adventure, that connection is something which can be found elsewhere. That engagement and joy are available in bucketloads. If you really want to feel it with Donkey go and find a copy of Rare’s SNES classic as even today it holds up better in that respect than this polished but distant update.

A well-designed and well-executed platformer which is mechanically sound; the problem comes when you realise you feel nothing and are playing for playing’s sake rather than because you’re enjoying it.

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Luciano Howard

I've been gaming for 30+ years on the Commodore VIC-20 to the Nintendo Switch and most things in-between. I enjoy all kinds of games but if I had to pick a couple right now, I'd say I adore Mario and love Dark Souls. I can talk about either ad infinitum...