Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (Switch) review

Nintendo / Retro Studios
Switch, Wii U (Switch version reviewed)

We all know the Wii U was a dismal failure.

Despite having a decent helping of excellent exclusive games, the negatives surrounding Nintendo’s sixth home console outweighed the positives, and as a result it would take someone truly delusional to argue that the Wii U was anything other than a giant lemon.

Naturally, when life gives you lemons you make lemonade, and Nintendo has been happily squeezing the Wii U’s software library to allow owners of the far more popular Switch to have a taste. Of the lemonade. This is an analogy, go with it.

The point I’m making in a horribly complicated way is that some of the Wii U’s finest games have already found their way onto the Switch.

The Switch ports of Mario Kart 8, Bayonetta 2 and Pokken Tournament have already outsold their Wii U forebearers, and Nintendo is surely hopeful the likes of Hyrule Warriors and Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker do the same when they’re released in May and July respectively.

Before those turn up, it’s time for Donkey Kong’s Wii U adventure to get a second crack of glory. And in this case, it’s fair to say it deserves it.

For those not among the million or so who bought it the first time around, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is the fifth game in the Donkey Kong Country series, and the second of the modern era (following Donkey Kong Country Returns on Wii).

As with its predecessor, it was developed by Retro Studios, and does its best to nail the feeling of the SNES Donkey Kong Country trilogy, which it succeeds in doing for the most part.

The SNES games were well-loved for a number of reasons, but they way they looked and sounded were high on that list. Tropical Freeze doesn’t betray that legacy, once again offering a platformer that’s a treat for the eyes and ears.

Visually, it’s one of the finest-looking examples of the genre on any system, not just Nintendo ones. Each stage is lavishly detailed, from the brilliant environmental detail to the fantastic camera work (some of the barrel shooting sections look incredible) to the occasional artistically stylised sections: the return of the silhouette style from Returns is a particular highlight.

It sounds superb too. While Donkey Kong Country Returns’ soundtrack – composed by Nintendo’s Kenji Yamamoto (Metroid Prime) – was great in its own right, Tropical Freeze brings back David Wise, who composed the music for all three SNES games, and it immediately fits like a well-worn glove.

The visual and aural side of things should appeal to fans of the series, then, but that’s not the only way in which Tropical Freeze is authentic. As you make your way through the game’s six main worlds (there’s more after that, but let’s not spoil things), the general feel of the SNES games is more or less replicated too.

As in the 16-bit trilogy, you have a roll attack which lets you plough into enemies like a simian Sonic the Hedgehog, or you can simply jump on enemies’ heads if you’re feeling more traditional.

And if it wasn’t 16-bit enough for you, there’s always the classic impossible mine cart stages

There are also two moves that are new to the modern games (Returns and Tropical Freeze): the first is a standing ground pound move in which DK slaps the ground to weaken certain objects and make secret collectibles appear.

The other, meanwhile, is a grab mechanic. Holding a certain button down makes Donkey Kong grab levers and the like so you can pull them, but it’s also used to grab vines and climb things.

It can take a little getting used to – especially if you’ve been playing the SNES games recently and expect to just grab things automatically – but it eventually becomes second nature and the act of physically pressing a button to emulate grabbing feels quite satisfying.

Along the way, Donkey Kong is assisted by other members of his family. Diddy Kong is back from DKC Returns on the Wii, and once again he sits on Donkey’s shoulders and uses his jetpack to let you fall slower while in the air.

This time though, you can also be accompanied by Dixie Kong and Cranky Kong instead (neither of whom were in Returns). Like Diddy, they too can sit on DK’s shoulders and give him new abilities.

Dixie can spin her hair around and give you a bit more height on your jump: it’s pretty much identical to Yoshi’s flutter jump. Cranky, meanwhile, can use his walking stick as a pogo-stick (DuckTales style) which allows you to travel over spikes.

So far, so identical to the Wii U version (which is no bad thing). But there’s another character who’s been added to the Switch port and could prove to be a little more contentious among fans.

Funky Kong – otherwise known as the greatest character in video game history – is now a playable character in the game too, but he’s only available in the new Funky Mode, which is essentially an Easy mode.

Although the game itself is identical in Funky Mode, Funky Kong has a bunch of abilities which make playing as him a lot less stressful. He’s got a double-jump for starters, making it easier to reach higher platforms.

He’s also able to land on spikes without taking damage (including jumping on spiked enemies), he can hover with his surfboard, he can swim underwater for an infinite time and he’s got five life hearts instead of DK’s two (four with a partner).

Of course, all this clearly does make the game easier, and purists will sneer at the prospect of taking a Donkey Kong Country game – a series that’s notoriously difficult at times – and making it more manageable.

Ultimately, though, it’s only an optional mode, and it doesn’t make the game so easy that it isn’t still fun to play: it most certainly is. And if it’s going to make the game more accessible to younger players who may not have grown up with hardcore 16-bit platformers, then all the better.

Masochists needn’t worry: there’s still plenty of pain in here should that be the sort of thing that pumps your nads (or the female equivalent). ‘Classic mode’ is the same difficult game that was on the Wii U, complete with its knuckle-gnawingly hard time trial medal challenges and other, even harder goodies available after you beat the game (no spoilers!).

Needless to say, if you’re worried that the addition of Funky Mode will dilute the game somewhat, come back to me once you’ve beat the game with 200% completion and I’m sure you’ll confirm, with blood streaming from your eyes, that this wasn’t the case.

The big question remains, then: should you be buying this one? As ever, that depends on your previous experience with it (or lack thereof).

If Tropical Freeze passed you by when it was on Wii U and you fancy yourself a bit of a platformer fan, then it’s an absolute no-brainer: it’s a gorgeous game packed with inventive levels and should present you with a serious challenge (even on Funky Mode). If this game is new to you, I can’t recommend it enough.

If, on the other hand, you already bought and played through the Wii U game then it really comes down to how eager you are to play it again, or do so in handheld mode (which looks just as good, incidentally). There’s barely anything new here compared to the last-gen version, and the only big addition is one that makes the game easier, which may not appeal to those who’ve already taken on the challenge.

Personally, despite having beaten the Wii U version a few years back, I had a blast playing through it again in Funky Mode, which I found to be a more relaxed experience. Your mileage may vary, though, and if you already cursed your way through it back in 2014 then the value of going on a second journey is entirely your call.

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is out on Switch worldwide on 4 May for £49.99 / $59.99. You can also buy it for £40 (at the time of writing) from Amazon UK.

In order that I could write this review, I received a free copy of the game from Nintendo. The content of my review and the opinions therein were in no way positively influenced by this.

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