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Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze Switch review: "Donkey Kong has never looked so good"

Pros

  • Great presentation
  • with lush graphics and charming music
  • Incredibly challenging
  • but never feels unbeatable
  • New Kongs encourage different playstyles

Cons

  • Will simply be too difficult for some tastes
  • Co-op play is a disappointment

There’s a brilliance in Nintendo’s strategy to remaster and re-release games from the Wii U back catalog for the Nintendo Switch, because it resurfaces excellent titles like Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. Most people missed out on Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze the first time around because it was a Wii U exclusive, but what you (and I) missed out on is a gem of a 2D platformer that’s widely regarded as one of the best Wii U games ever. Thankfully it’s an experience that translates beautifully to Switch, whether you’re going portable at 720p or full TV mode at a wonderfully colour-popping 1080p full HD resolution. Donkey Kong has never looked so good. 

You can read our full Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze review below, but it’s a 2D platformer that excels at being just that. You side-scroll through a variety of stunning levels, which aren’t all frozen wildernesses as the title suggests, but instead flow from underwater idylls marred by giant octopus tentacles, to seriously hot levels bombarded by falling volcanic matter, and forest realms where you ride on the back of your ever-faithful rhino, Rambi. It doesn’t exactly break the platformer mould, but thanks to an increasing variety of enemies and challenges, it never feels dull. And boy does it help that it looks fantastic and is best played with the soundtrack on full blast. 

For this port, Switch exclusive features aren’t plentiful, but when the original game is as good as Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze, why mess with what’s already a top notch game? What you do get though is Funky Kong. The fan favourite character spawned all the memes as soon as the game’s ‘Funky Mode’ was announced, and although he’s brilliant, Funky basically takes the difficulty level of Tropical Freeze all the way down. He’s basically an easy mode. With Funky, you get extra health hearts, he can use his surfboard to stand on spikes unharmed, and even gets a jump boost and slow landing with a surfboard spin. You can get all that with Donkey Kong, but you’ll have to find a barrel first that gives you Diddy Kong for the jump and health, or Dixie for the slowed landing and health. Funky Kong is the entire package from the start. 

Although this is ultimately a better looking version of the Wii U classic with Funky Mode thrown in for added fun, the Switch version of Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze is proof that even Wii U games can age like fine wine. This is a beautiful, smooth experience when taken out and about on the Switch, and only gets better when you whack it on the big screen. You’ve got no excuse to miss out this time around on Tropical Freeze. 

Original Wii U review

Seeing everything there is to see in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a privilege, not a right. While some platformers present their content to you on a silver platter, daintily spoon-feeding each level into your eager mouth, Tropical Freeze tells you to go out into the snow barefoot, run around, and find your own damn stages. And as someone who's always loved DK's run-'n'-jump franchise, I wouldn't have it any other way. This demanding 2.5D sequel on the Wii U might refuse to go easy on you, but if you can handle some trial-and-error punishment, progressing through this frosty jungle is a gratifying delight.

Unlike Hell, Donkey Kong Island has frozen over, courtesy of the arctic Viking animals known as Snowmads. Donkey Kong makes tracks to reclaim his banana-laden home, with Diddy in tow--and this time, Dixie and Cranky Kong are joining the fun. If you played Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Wii U or 3DS, then you've got a good idea of what to expect from Tropical Freeze: vibrant graphics, catchy music, precision jumping, and more secrets than Cranky could shake a walking stick at. Oh, and a few levels so difficult that they make you want to rip your fur off with duct tape, just to feel alive again. But don't worry--that challenge is a good thing, because Tropical Freeze is difficult for all the right reasons.

First off, you've got far more control over the Kongs this go-around. No more awkward Wiimote waggling to perform the most basic of moves--Tropical Freeze ditches motion controls entirely, which is a godsend when traversing over the trickier chasms and collapsible platforms. And with three piggy-backing buddies to choose from, you set the pace of your play. Diddy's jetpack is great for beginners who need a little leeway on their jumps, Cranky Kong's invincible cane bounce is unwieldy but invaluable once mastered, and Dixie's extra mid-air lift is a happy middle ground between the two. Usually, you're given your pick of the three; this creates an awesome dynamic where you can experiment with everyone or endeavor to truly master one Kong.

All the backup Kongs get a chance to shine in the inventive levels, which stay varied from start to finish. No imaginative gimmick gets reused, save for the prerequisite mine cart and rocket stage--and contrary to what you might expect, Tropical Freeze isn't a game composed entirely of snow levels. The six islands (with more awaiting completionists) unite a ton of nifty themes, from savannah brushfires to sinking ships, and the difficulty scales up at just the right pace. That said, the challenge starts pretty steep as it is, with hidden exits and devilishly shrouded collectibles showing up even in the first level.

That challenge is perfectly encapsulated by Tropical Freeze's boss fights: grueling, but never insurmountable. You might expend upwards of ten lives figuring out how to reach a single checkpoint or overcome a single patterned attack from a boss, but you'll collect 1-Up balloons like candy, softening the blow of each fatal learning experience. Tropical Freeze has a helpful item shop stocked with extra lives, additional hearts, and one-time life savers, but there aren't any permanent upgrades--just Band-Aid items to help mend the damages of a single level.

Pro(ish) Controller

I played through the majority of the game using the Pro Controller, which felt comfortable even in the trickiest of platforming sections. But I have one minor quibble: Why can't I remap the controls to my liking? Tropical Freeze refuses to let you recreate a SNES controller layout with the D-pad, Y to roll, and B to jump; I was forced to use the joystick instead. Again, it's a trivial complaint, but it seems silly to make configuring a truly old-school control scheme impossible.

Unlike the generous New Mode in the 3DS port of Returns, DK and his cohorts can only survive a mere two hits in Tropical Freeze. You'd think this would make each stage feel like a treacherous slog, but it somehow has the opposite effect: Tropical Freeze forces you to improve at such a drastic pace that you have no choice but to get better. Soon enough, you'll be cruising past obstacles you once found overwhelming, and it feels pretty awesome when you feel your skill increasing with each level. If you're determined to collect every last puzzle piece and KONG letter, your journey won't end until you've achieved nothing less than platforming expertise.

Alas, this kind of exacting difficulty translates miserably in co-op play, which boils down to two kinds of experiences: a frantic circus of same-screen confusion, or the second player sacrificing almost all their agency by hopping on DK's back. The latter is nice for your lesser-skilled sibling or parent, letting them play along by shooting enemy-stunning projectiles. But true cooperative play is so discombobulating that it just doesn't feel worth it, especially in the later worlds.

The benefits of Tropical Freeze being on Wii U are subtle, but they're definite there. At first glance, Tropical Freeze looks like a slightly more polished version of Returns--which isn't a knock, because that game was gorgeous to begin with. But when you take the time to examine the smaller features, particularly when you're not the one playing, the graphics really start to shine, with impressive depth and detail to each backdrop. As for the GamePad, it might as well not exist. Tropical Freeze makes zero use of the second screen beyond off-TV play, though that in no way detracts from the experience.

Tropical Freeze is a bit like Cranky Kong himself: it expects and demands so much from you, but always with your best interests at heart. Those not looking for a challenge have virtually no reason to play this game--but frankly, it wasn't made with them in mind anyway. Tropical Freeze caters to players who derive fun from overcoming adversity, which the game offers in near endless supply. If you can fall down a pit 16 times and still eagerly drift down on your 17th balloon, this is the Donkey Kong you're looking for.

If you crave a challenge, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze will bring out the best of your platforming abilities. Those expecting a cakewalk will feel like they slammed headfirst into a brick wall of difficulty.

More Info

GenrePlatformer
DescriptionThe Wii U installment of the Donkey Kong Country in all of its platforming glory
Franchise nameDonkey Kong Country
UK franchise nameDonkey Kong Country
PlatformWii U
US censor ratingEveryone
Release date21 February 2014 (US), (UK)