Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze Nintendo Switch Review by SwitchWatch

Developer: Retro Studios

Publisher: Nintendo

Release Date: May 4th 2018

Price as of Article: $59.99 USD, £49.99 GBP

Game code provided by Nintendo UK for review

Introduction

The Donkey Kong series has had its ups and downs as a franchise. It’s hit the high notes with its vintage arcade lineup, then the Donkey Kong Country series and then finally the Country Returns series. Huge highs, but with lots of time in between. It was Returns on the Wii that brought DK back to the limelight (also re-released on the 3DS) and that game’s sequel took it to the next level, with Tropical Freeze on the Wii U. To the surprise of absolutely no-one, Tropical Freeze has now been ported from the Wii U to the Nintendo Switch to reach a greater audience than the meagre Wii U user base. And for those who didn’t play it on the Wii U, you are in for a treat.

Story

As is always the case with Donkey Kong Country games, the story is hardly the most in depth of things. There’s very little set up when it comes to these sorts of games but that doesn’t really matter because that’s not the reason you’re playing it. The plot for this one is fairly straight forward.

donkey kong tropical freeze dynamic camera

Donkey Kong is celebrating his birthday! How old is he? Well, probably even Nintendo doesn’t know. Not that we need to. What we do need to know is that invaders are coming. The Viking-inspired Snowmads are coming to bring a tundra to the once tropical islands the Kongs inhabit. Obviously they aren’t standing for that and so Donkey, Diddie, Dixie, Cranky and now Funky Kong are on a rampage to take back their little place of paradise.

Obviously a DK game is not usually where you look for a story, and so there’s very little to hold on to in that regard. You have your goal, you get to it. There’s a lot of style in cutscenes, I must say as you’d expect from a Nintendo game. Even if they often lack a deep narrative they still make up for it with humour and style, although we can’t help but wish there was more of them.

 

Audio

The audio is just pure class. David Wise returns to composing duty as musical lead after a long absence. The original Donkey Kong Country Returns had a decent soundtrack but it feels right at home with Wise back at the helm. Brining in old themes to the present as well as adding much flair and newness to the franchise, it’s a classic for sure, even if certain themes may not stick with you forever like some tracks did in the Super Nintendo games.

There are nice little touches that you probably won’t even notice in the sound. For example, if you jump on Rambi (the rhino) the music gets an extra layer of instrumentation to it, kind of like when riding Yoshi in Super Mario World. It’s not something you would probably notice but it’s the kind of touch and class you see from a game made with love.

The music is just class overall, lots of different styles and moods; well worth checking out for a listen.

Visuals & Performance

Graphically it’s not exactly sucking every last drop of the Switch’s power even when it was out on the Wii U, despite being kept to 720p resolution. The cartoony nature the Donkey Kong Country games means that it doesn’t need to be realistic or anything. The art style is what completely makes the game though. Boosted up to 1080p resolution in docked mode for the Switch, it looks magnificent. The colours and detail look more vibrant than ever before and if you compare the Wii U and Switch versions side by side you can see some nice tweaks here and there to the graphics. You probably wouldn’t otherwise notice, but at least they’ve spruced it up a little to take advantage of that increased resolution.

DK tropical freeze water

What I love is just how completely dynamic and alive every single level in this game feels. They always start basic but develop as you play into something grand and spectacular. The camera pans around in 3D at times which adds to the excellent direction the game has, really showing off how levels morph and change, becoming more chaotic or destructive over time. Even though I’ve played Tropical Freeze a lot before, coming back I was still wowed by even the more simple levels. Each one is a whirlwind rollercoaster ride of set pieces that can’t help but bring joy to your face, even if you’ve died 19 times at the exact same point. It just has so much style.

I don’t know how Tropical Freeze was developed but it feels like every level had its own director and the producers told them that this one level is your baby, go to town on it, make it the best it can be. It really does feel like they were made with love and care. Each made by one auteur director. 

donkey kong african theme

In handheld mode Tropical Freeze looks just as great, much better than it did on the Wii U’s Gamepad for sure. It might be in 720p resolution but I wouldn’t have noticed. It looks lovely and performs very smoothly as far as I can tell.

Another huge point in performance are the load times. On the Wii U Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze suffered from some lengthy load times. The magic of the Switch cartridge has basically remedied that and load times are now very brief. It may not sound like much, but those load times of the past really were horrendous. This is a big step up in efficiency.

Visually and audibly it’s just a superb package. Maybe from screenshots you can’t see or feel the pure magic Tropical Freeze exudes when it all combines together in motion. There’s such an attention to detail with everything; how the music builds up and how the levels develop over time until they all culminate into one amazing, fantastic theatrical performance. They really went all out on this one. It’s like they created the fantastic original (Donkey Kong Country Returns) and felt they had some serious unfinished business to take care of with the DK franchise.

Gameplay

The gameplay is almost perfection. Side scrolling platforming at its finest. There’s no doubt that Tropical Freeze is a bit special in the platformer universe. The often free flowing platforming precision is fantastic. It keeps it fairly simple, never getting too complicated, at least not any more than the original Country games of the past did. That’s to its benefit too. It gives you time to master this small but very useful pool of abilities.

You have Donkey Kong as your primary character but can be assisted by his family members who each offer something of an augment to his primary abilities of rolling, ground slapping and grabbing things. All three of Diddy, Dixie and Cranky will allow Donkey Kong to roll indefinitely if you spam the button. Dixie gives her her hair spinning helicopter flutter, Cranky uses his cane to bounce Ducktales-style, even over dangerous spikes and Diddy… well poor Diddy has become completely outshone by Dixie as his Rocket Barrel boost is just a slightly worse version of hers. I have very few complaints about Tropical Freeze as you will see, but having Diddy be worthless is the biggest shame. I’m sure they could have figured out something else he could have done to replace why he was so awesome in Returns but sadly they didn’t. Diddy is redundant, poor little fella.

As you jump, roll and rocket barrel your way through the thrilling, adventurous levels, DK can pick up a variety of items such as the KONG letters as well as puzzle pieces but it’s the normal platforming gameplay that really shines like a beacon in gaming. As mentioned the rollercoaster ride of levels always gives something new and inventive to experience. Usually each level has their own mini gimmick that’s highly expanded upon and of course there are the odd mine cart and rocket barrel levels which are just amazing. Now with the 3D camera, you’re switching between lanes and seeing spectacular set pieces like never before.

DK Switch hot air balloon

There’s such a diversity to the levels too, somehow kept within similar themes. World 3 is a classic example of diversity. This African-inspired scrublands will have you outrunning a tornado, making your way through a forest fire and even jumping between poles of paper made animals in a tribal like fashion.    

It’s difficult. Occasionally on the frustrating side if you keep messing up at the same place over and over. But I absolutely love the challenge on offer here. It’s never impossible and rarely ventures into cheapness. It’s all on you and your mastering of the pinpoint controls. Do you have the reaction times when zip-lining between three vines while also hitting bells to unlock to doors? Some of you will be pushed to your gaming limits here. It’s fantastic and it feels so good accomplishing it, even if it makes you covered in sweat and your heart beating faster than should be medically advised. I love it.   

When compared with rival platformers on the Nintendo Switch, the first that will come to mind is the recent Kirby game which I also had the chance of reviewing. Many of you were displeased at how much of a walk over that game was. Well Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is the cure for the “too easy” ailment. Tropical Freeze will test your reactions, precision and timing throughout the journey.

Boss battles are genuinely fantastic. They’re not quite as grand or elaborate as some of the level set pieces but they are a nice relief when compared with the majority of Nintendo boss fights of old. It’s not a three hits and done, oh no, Tropical Freeze wants to be more epic than that. These fights are truly a dogged battle. Switching between attack patterns, getting more and more furious  (and of course, more difficult), plus with tonnes of personality; you’ve got yourself some very accomplished boss battles. At first you’ll be clenching your buttocks and wiping the sweat from your hands as you cling on to your last heart dodging the bosses attacks. After you’ve done it a few times though, and you know what’s coming, there’s almost a ballet routine to the fights as you gracefully dispatch them. Well, except that glorious pain in the back side pufferfish boss who still makes me want to throw my controller out of the window.

There are absolutely tonnes of secrets in Tropical Freeze. Each level is packed with hidden areas big and small and it’s an absolute joy to find them all. If you want to 100% the game you will need to explore every nook and cranny of the levels. You think this would slow the game right down, but no, the levels are so delicately designed it’s still a very streamlined experience. Finding all of the secrets will make sure that you unlock all the little extras of the game like music and concept art. Not only that, but in some stages there are secret exits to find that will take you to optional bonus levels. Finding them can be quite fiendish but worth it for the fact that most of the bonus levels are actually some of the best in the game. The developers went all-out on these ones and they presents some of the toughest and experimental experiences. Search these out!

If you’ve done all of that; found all of the Kong and puzzle pieces, all the extra levels, secret exits and you still want more from this game; there’s also the Time Attack mode for each level accessible once completed. This is for the most hardcore players of all and even though you can tell I’m a huge fan of this game, it’s a bit of a step too far for me. A great opportunity for those who have mastered the game though. 

tropical freeze bell tower

In this Switch edition, the primary addition is that of Funky Kong. It’s an odd choice of character if you think about all the Kong’s that could come in, but when you realize what he does, his cool, badass persona allows it to make perfect sense. Funky Kong is almost Mr. Invincible. He has five hearts of health and is immune to spikes on the floor and the only thing that can truly stop him are the bottomless pits. Not only that, but he possess all of the Kong family’s abilities for himself. He has Dixie’s helicopter hover (which is indefinite this time), he has Cranky’s spike repeller (this time automatic) and a double jump in light of Diddy’s rocket barrel. He’s master of all trades and as such is segregated to his own mode: Funky Mode. In this mode he is the sole player, unassisted by the rest of the Kong family, because really, they’d just hold him back anyways.

Now I know what you’re going to say. Why bother putting in an easy mode and market it as an exciting new feature? Well, I hear that somewhat. I think they’ve made a bigger deal out of it than what it’s actually worth, but it does have a nice purpose. Not only does it make this fantastic game accessible to gamers of lower skill or on the younger side, but it also presents a great speed running opportunity for the ever increasing popularity of that gaming style. Funky Kong allows you to blitz through the levels faster than ever before and I’m sure some gamers will be eager to take up the challenge of completing the game as fast as possible in this way. Personally I don’t see much in it myself as I love the challenge of the normal game.

 

Value

On the eShop Tropical Freeze is prices at $60 and £50. A lot of people are bewildered at that price. A port of an old Wii U game with not too much added, how can they charge such a price? Maybe because it’s one of the best platformers ever made? It’s more expensive than it was on the Wii U which is probably be a bitter pill to swallow and I do take umbrage with that a little and I think a slightly lower starting price would have caused much less fuss or controversy. The retail copy is cheaper though and will probably become lower over time. If you want to experience this game, the retail price is where it’s at for me and I would say that it’s worth such a price thanks to its high quality.

You could make the argument of picking up the now cheap Wii U version and that’s fair enough, but this port is just so much more suited to the Switch. Playing it on the go is worth the price alone. Easy access multiplayer with detachable Joy Cons means it’s a more easily shared experience. The improved visuals, load times and a more accessible mode make this a far better proposition than the Wii U original.

Pros

P

Phenomenal gameplay

P

Excellent level direction

P

Excellent music

Cons

P

Poor Diddy

P

It's more expensive than the original