The Wii U wasn’t Nintendo’s greatest moment — that has been conferred on the Switch. But the ill-fated previous console had some mighty impressive games in its limited library, and many of those have been ported over to the Switch. The latest is Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, a tough-as-nails platformer in the vein of the equally tough SNES original.
If you’re used to Mario’s platform games, which start off slow and easy and gradually ramp up the difficulty to mind-bending, then Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze will prove to be a little shocking. The game takes it easy on you for the first stage or two before turning matters up to bananas and breaking off the knob. Up for a challenge? This is where you’ll find it.
Somewhat of a story
Nintendo’s platformers are not exactly known for their deep stories, preferring to tell whatever tales they have through the action, setting, and using mostly environmental cues (see: every 2D Mario ever). That said, there’s at least a reason why this tie-wearing gorilla is traipsing around stomping on animals that prefer much, much colder environments.
These critters are called the Snowmads and they’re basically just out to take over Donkey’s island paradise. That’s it. Viking snowbeasts show up to wreck your home, something they manage in the opening cutscene using a magical ice dragon, er, thing. You, as the titular gorilla (and pals), will have to kick them out, using every vine, banana, regular barrel, rhino, rocket barrel and mine cart you can get your hands on. But it’s not going to be easy.
Perfection is required
So you think you’re good, do you? You’ve got all the Mario titles locked away in a cupboard, you’ve beaten Rayman Origins and Legends and this is just another platformer to you? Okay, you might be right — especially if you’ve had the patience to get through Getting Over It. But the game still sets the bar for platforming precision. You’re going to be challenged right out of the gate, with the difficulty curve climbing up to the opening boss fight and then rocketing close to vertically from there.
Players will find that their skills are taxed as the game goes by, with collectables becoming more and more elusive and the margin for error shrinking like an ice cube in a blast furnace. Eventually things get to a point where you’ll be hard pressed to just clear a level, never mind pick up anything along the way. Never fear, though. By the time you’ve reached the endgame madness, heading back to previously tough stages will seem like a simple task. Even then, a single error can spell doom for Donkey and his friends Diddy, Dixie, and Cranky. Diddy has a small rocket pack, Dixies hovers using her ponytail and Cranky, well, he can bounce off spikes using his walking stick.
That trio can be played, either as a second player (see below) or as a backup for Donkey. Picking up one of their barrels and setting them free gives you access to extra hearts — which you’re going to want, since each enemy hit or spike drop will consume one. Lose two and you lose your buddy. Lose the other two and you’re heading back to your last checkpoint. You’re likely not going to mind too much, though. Tropical Freeze makes even those frustrating insta-die spots a challenge to be overcome rather than an obstacle to be screamed at.
And if you really are battling to come to grips with the diverse set of highly challenging locations — perhaps you just keep on falling into ravines and off the stage — there’s hope. Besides collection the KONG pieces, puzzle pieces, and bananas, players harvest coins during play. These can be spent on a variety of consumable assists which will let you bypass some of those horrible obstacles. Keep on falling? Try the green balloon. Need some help with an underwater level? The blue one is for you. And you can also recruit Diddy, Dixie, and Cranky to be summoned to your side at a moment’s notice. Provided, that is, that you spend some time in Funky Kong’s store.
Okay, maybe not so much perfection
You don’t have to do things the hard way, however. The originally Wii U version of this game only had the two-hits-and-you-are-toast difficulty setting but the Switch version has got Funky Mode for those battling to do things the really old-school way. That way can be tough, even with the assists thrown in, but there’s hope. Funky Kong wasn’t playable in the previous version, acting only as a vendor for all things enhancement-related but on the Switch, he’s the key to getting through some of the seriously tough stages… like the second and third level in the first world. Okay, those are maybe not quite so bad.
Funky, you see, has five hearts available from the outset. He’s able to land on spikes without harm and he’s also able to hover, using the surfboard that accompanies him everywhere. How this works is left up to physics to figure out but all you need to know is that playing through as Funky is a lot easier than er… not. Even collecting those elusive KONG letters, which typically reset if you restart a section, is simpler as Funky. Snag one and it’ll stay snagged, just like those artwork-unlocking puzzle pieces.
It wouldn’t be much of a game if there wasn’t the option for multiplayer. This is Nintendo we’re talking about so of course it’s an option; using the Switch’s two Joy-Cons you can have two players traipsing through the jungle levels just as quick as you like.
If anything, playing Tropical Freeze with a second player is an even tougher proposition than playing alone. You can play on the classic difficulty, in which case you’d better be skilled communicators, but it’s also possible to play in Funky Mode. Whoever plays as Funky Kong will have all the benefits of the character and the other player will find themselves hauling around an extra heart in their life-bar. Some extra skill will be required, in that case.
Put two players on one screen, whether it’s in portable mode or with the console docked and the result is either going to be madcap fun in the jungle as you bounce around each other or more than a little frustration as one or another player lags behind. But that’s based on player temperament and has nothing to do with the game itself. Mostly, though, it’s madcap fun. Go and have some.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze Verdict
Is this the perfect platformer? Uh… no. That title still belongs to Super Mario Bros. 3. Yeah, we checked. But if you’re making your first foray into the world of Donkey Kong Country or you’re a fan from back in the SNES days, you owe it to yourself to pick this one up for the Switch. Even if you played Tropical Freeze on the Wii U, it’s worth revisiting just for the portability aspect of this tightly-controlled and expertly tweaked thumb buster of a platform game. Your reflexes won’t thank you initially, but eventually you’ll build the sort of hand-eye coordination needed to snatch flies out of the air with chopsticks. You don’t have to actually do that. You will just be able to.