Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (Switch) review

I’m really glad that I didn’t play Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze on Wii U. It’s a very good game, but so frustratingly difficult that I doubt my controller would have survived the experience. For anyone masochistic enough to enjoy that, the Switch version of Tropical Freeze offers the very same experience in its “Original Mode”.

For everyone else, the new “Funky Mode” makes the game much more approachable. It’s still the same game, with the same brutal platforming challenges, but Funky Mode gives you a few layers of safety nets that smooth out the more unforgiving corners of the original game.

When playing in Funky Mode, you get an extra pint of health, and partner characters—who augment Donkey Kong’s own platforming abilitues—can similarly take an extra hit before they disappear. If you die too many times in a level, you get the option to skip it and jump ahead to the next one. For people interested in collectibles, Funky Mode also lets you keep any K O N G letters you pick up if you die, and you no longer need to collect them all in one run through a level like you do in Original Mode.

If you want to go one further, you can play as the surfboard-wielding, sunglasses-wearing Funky Kong. Funky is a lot more athletic than Donkey: he can double jump, he can hover in the air (by spinning his surfboard with his feet, naturally), he can take an impressive five hits before he dies, and he can breathe underwater indefinitely. He can’t summon partner characters, but only because he doesn’t need them—the abilities you’d usually get by bringing Diddy, Cranky, or Dixie Kong with you are all part of Funky’s natural skill set.

As you can imagine, that makes overcoming Tropical Freeze‘s various obstacles a lot easier. You have more room for error, more capacity to fix a bad jump and land safely, and you can sometimes just bypass certain jumping puzzles outright. You don’t need to worry about managing your oxygen during the game’s numerous swimming sections, or pay any mind to character-specific puzzles when you’re searching for collectibles and secrets.

Finally, Funky Mode gives you (almost) free reign to use beneficial items, like invincibility potions and balloons that save you if you fall. These items are available in Original Mode too, but you can only bring three with you per level, and once they’re gone, they’re gone. In Funky Mode, you can carry five at a time, and you can replenish your stash from the pause menu at almost any time. As long as you have stock in your inventory—which is easier to amass in Funky Mode, because the items are a lot cheaper—you can replenish the items you have on hand as often as necessary.

The neat thing about Tropical Freeze—and something I hope all developers learn from—is that you can pick and choose which of these assists you use and when. Playing in Funky Mode, but using Donkey Kong rather than his funky cousin, gives you a slightly more forgiving version of the original game. Using Funky Kong makes things a lot more approachable, and liberal use of items can make you borderline invincible through most parts of the game.

However, despite all of Funky Mode’s helping hands, stingy checkpoints are still a nuisance. Tropical Freeze dishes up challenges back to back, especially in the later levels, but checkpoints are relatively few and far between. Death typically results in getting sent back some way, forcing you to trudge through a swathe of obstacles that you’ve already gotten past; that’s frustrating enough on its own, but even more so if you find yourself stuck on a particular part of a level. That sort of marathon challenge is fitting for Original Mode, but a few extra checkpoints in Funky Mode wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Whether you’re playing in Original or Funky Mode, the creative level design and plentiful secrets make Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze a whole load of fun. It follows the classic sidescrolling platformer formula, but almost every level feels like it introduces something new: vines to swing around on, ziplines, pressure plates, collapsing buildings, icey floes, volcanoes, mining carts, rockets… everything builds on what comes before, and before you know it, you’ll be flinging yourself through all manner of hazards on instinct more than anything else.

Sometimes that’s a curse—in its later levels, Tropical Freeze has a tendency to drop things on you with almost no time to react, and it sometimes feels like dying to something is the only way to know it’s coming so that you can avoid it on the next attempt. But when you know a level, know how to deal with what it throws at you, and execute that perfectly, it’s exhilarating.

In true Donkey Kong Country fashion, there’s also a wealth of secrets and collectibles. Each level has four letters to find (K O N G) and a handful of puzzle pieces; the former are needed to unlock secret levels, and the latter get you artwork for an in-game gallery. Certain stages also have alternative, hidden exits that in turn unlock extra, more difficult stages. Naturally, finding and reaching all of these secrets is a lot more challenging than simply getting to the end of the level, and getting 100% completion will be a feat—particularly in Original Mode.

Also in typical Donkey Kong Country fashion, Tropical Freeze plays it very light on story. The Kong Islands are under attack from the “Snowmads”—animal vikings, essentially—and so it’s up to you to stop them. That’s about the extent of it, and while I’m sure nobody plays Donkey Kong for the story, something more substantive wouldn’t hurt.

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a brutal game, but challenging and occassionally frustrating as it is, it’s an excellent game. With the addition of Funky Mode (and a much bigger install base), the Switch release that many more people will be able to enjoy all that this game has to offer.

Recommended


Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is developed by Retro Studios and published by Nintendo. It’s available now for Nintendo Switch (reviewed) and Wii U.

A copy of the game was supplied by the publisher for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.