Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (Switch) Review

Retro Studios’ Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze joins Mario Kart 8, Pokkén Tournament, and Hyrule Warriors as part of the recent trend of Wii U games reappearing on the Nintendo Switch. The platformer’s core gameplay remains as fantastic as it ever was, incorporating superb level design and a deliciously challenging campaign. The new content is light, but it’s still pretty funky.

The standard campaign features Donkey Kong and friends running and jumping through deviously crafted side-scroller levels to save their home from snow-themed villains. It’s mostly unchanged from the original, so I’ll start off with the differences in the Switch port, namely the new Funky mode. This adds Funky Kong, the hip simian representation of the ‘90s, as a playable character for the first time in a mainline game. Unbeknownst to the rest of the Kong family, Funky is actually a versatile monkey. He can roll indefinitely, swim underwater without needing air, double jump, hover by spinning his surfboard like a helicopter, and stand safely on spikes, again thanks to his surfboard. These are similar to the other Kong's powers, except compressed into one all-powerful, radical character. This leads to two questions: where was Funky Kong during all of King K. Rool’s attacks and where can I get that magical surfboard?

Funky Mode is essentially easy mode. Not only do Funky’s powers make levels significantly simpler, he also has more health than the other Kongs – five hearts as opposed to Donkey’s two. The mode is also more forgiving; if you miss any collectible, including the K-O-N-G letters in each level, they remain in your collection so you don’t need to grab them next time. Furthermore, you can outright skip levels that prove too difficult. It’s a balanced update that is welcoming to newcomers, younger players, and anyone who wants to breeze through Tropical Freeze casually or to speedrun. And it doesn't alienate those who desire the core experience. Be aware that you can’t switch between Funky mode and the standard difficulty. However, within Funky Mode, you can switch your character to Donkey Kong with a modified bonus: you get more health per Kong, three hearts as opposed to two, akin to the easy mode in Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D.

Otherwise, the only other differences relate to presentation. The Switch port looks marginally better than the Wii U version, sporting a fresh 1080p resolution, smoother textures, and stable frame rate. It’s the best the series has ever looked, but it’s not overwhelmingly better, partly because the original visuals already look so lush, effectively transporting you into Donkey Kong’s colorful jungle world. Some of the more memorable levels go above and beyond, introducing a silhouette artstyle or turning the level into a playable set of The Lion King on Broadway. As with other Switch ports, the ability to play the entire game handheld is a convenient feature that doesn’t sacrifice too much resolution, and the shorter load times help when you’re on the go. The music is unchanged, which is fine considering this stands as one of my favorite David Wise soundtracks, featuring catchy jungle-themed melodies and beats, as well as some excellent remixes of classic songs from the Donkey Kong Country trilogy.

As cool as Funky Mode is, it’s the only substantial update, so it might be slim pickings for veterans. That said, the original game is still a prime example of superb modern platforming. I’ve long considered the Donkey Kong Country series to be one of the pinnacles of level design. Each level follows the effective formula of introducing a new concept, training you with incremental challenges, and presenting a final test, often with a gameplay twist. Tropical Freeze shines by building upon the formula with lively stages. The scenery often moves around you, presenting constantly changing obstacles and dynamic camera angles, forcing you to react quickly. This design principle is strongest in the fast-paced minecart, rocket barrel, and Rambi the rhino levels, all of which usually involve structures and platforms collapsing under and around you.

Every stage has a unique gimmick, keeping the game fresh throughout its six main worlds. While it doesn’t sound like much, each level is longer than the series’ average, and exploring to find the collectible K-O-N-G letters, bonus stages, secret levels, and well-hidden puzzle pieces, more than doubles the average ten hour playtime. Beating Tropical Freeze may take longer due to the game’s difficulty. Even on the easier Funky mode, the game can be brutal with its enemy, spike, and pit placements, not to mention the drawn-out boss fights that feel like they last forever. You can buy items to assist you, but strap in because this is a no-holds barred experience that finds inspiration from harder platformers of the NES and SNES days.

The jungle is alive, and luckily, the Kong family are well-adapted primates: swinging from vines, hanging on the ceiling, and pounding the ground. You primarily play as Donkey Kong, whose primary moves are rolling and throwing barrels. You can buddy up with one of three allies: Diddy, Dixie, or Cranky. Each ally rides on DK’s back, doubles your overall health, and bestows a special ability. For instance, Diddy gives him a rocket boost hover, Dixie twirls her ponytail to double jump, and Cranky uses his cane as a pogo stick. Sure, the rad Funky Kong can do this all without help, but the partner system limits your abilities to lay on the pressure. As Funky Kong, you don’t even get a partner or get to perform special tricks like the Kong Pow, an epic high-five that destroys all enemies on the screen.

The exception is multiplayer mode, which lets a second person play as a standalone ally whether you’re playing as Donkey or Funky Kong. A second person can greatly assist DK’s campaign; your friend can individually attack enemies with melee or projectile weapons and ride on DK’s back when he needs a boost. Funky Mode doesn’t benefit from co-op as much since Funky is too groovy to let others ride him, but at least you can have fun pairing up dream teams like Funky and Cranky Kong.

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a good port of an excellent game. The Switch version looks and plays nicer than the Wii U game, but only slightly. Funky Mode, as welcoming as it is to newcomers, doesn’t add much for fans who have already completed the original. Considering the Switch game’s price point is higher than the Wii U version ever was, it may not even be a cost-effective first choice if you happen to have both systems on hand and don’t mind lack of portability. All things considered, Tropical Freeze is one of the best platformers on either system, and regardless of how funky you’re willing to go, it’s worth gobbling up, especially for old-school Nintendo fans.

I am a lifelong gamer, having grown up with Nintendo since I was young. My passion for gaming led to one of the greatest moments of my life, my video game themed wedding!