Review: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze – Still Top Banana

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze never got the attention it so desperately deserved on the Wii U. It was clear from start to finish that Retro Studios had put their heart and soul into the game, building diverse levels with a great line between fun and difficult. Most ignored it, but with the Switch Nintendo has given the great ape another chance. They have not made any meaningful additions, but at its core Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is still the same amazing game from the Wii U, and this time around deserves to be noticed.

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze starts with a simple premise: Donkey Kong and his friends are celebrating his birthday, when the Snomads, a group of arctic animals, bust up the celebrations by storming our hero’s island, and in a cold breeze blows them far away. From here the group must travel across various islands and make their way home to take back their island from the Snomads. It’s a simple premise, but does enough to set the stakes and explain what is going on.

At the cornerstone of this adventure are the carefully designed levels; you can’t make a good platformer without offering diversity or creative design, and Retro knew what they were doing when they made Tropical Freeze. The game is set across six islands, each home to a different theme, with different ideas spread across each stage.

From start to finish, it never feels like Retro reuses ideas. While the basic concept is to get from one end of a course to the other, the diversity in how this is done is impressive. As you travel across the game you will face traditional jungle type levels, an African-like savanna, a frozen version of Donkey Kong island, an island that processes fruit, and even a variety of underwater focused stages. With different themes pulled from each area’s idea, Retro created some really unique situations. Take, for instance, the fruit-processing island. You can bounce on jellied fruits, and in one stage you ride a rocket barrel through the factory.

The level design is really clever, offering unique ideas that you are unlikely to find in other games. One of these is riding a minecart through a sawmill and having to utilize the platforms the mill throws out while avoiding others it throws in your path. Halfway through said level, it transforms into a raft ride. There is another level where you run across the savanna with trees and platforms dancing to the music. This level offered some great timing challenges and was very charming; then soon after, you are running through the savanna during a huge storm, then journeying through the aftermath by dealing with fires that are everywhere. No two levels feel alike, even when similar aesthetics are at play. At each step, Retro managed to throw in a random idea that feels fresh, and it makes coming back to each level better since that idea is nowhere else. You will probably have levels you like more than others, but you will remember all of them, because each feels unique.

Water levels returning after their absence in Returns is welcome. Unlike the original trilogy, characters actually require oxygen, which helps add tension in lengthier water stages. As you wade through some of the clever obstacles such as spinning spiked platforms or octopus tentacles, you need to watch your oxygen and search for an opportunity to refill it with bubbles found throughout the level. It feels more realistic, and the tension constantly builds through these stages, making them more dynamic.

To get through all of these levels, you can get the aid of three different partner characters: Diddy, Dixie and Cranky. Diddy is back from Donkey Kong Country Returns, and he can ride on Donkey Kong’s back to offer a temporary hover on jumps, making it easier to reach distant platforms. While Diddy was certainly valuable in the last adventure, his uses here have wavered with Donkey Kong’s newer partners. Diddy is the character you only get if you have to, thanks in part to his abilities being lacking compared to the much more versatile capabilities of his fellow Kongs.

Cranky is a little more useful as you can use him to pogo jump over pits of spikes or platforms that would otherwise be deadly to cross. Dixie was by far the best partner you can get; her hair enables you to get a lift when you jump, making it easier to reach otherwise out of reach spots. Her boost is a little more versatile and seems like many of the levels were made more with her help in mind, so she is often the character you will pick.

It seems that Donkey Kong games are infamous for their difficulty, and Tropical Freeze lives up to this. Once you get past the first world, the difficulty ramps up to offer many wonderful levels that require near perfect precision, with timed jumps, quick thinking and deadly obstacles aplenty. There are few levels that don’t challenge you as you will find yourself dying a few times on a jump you can’t seem to get right. Enemies also help as there are a variety of foes throughout the game, and you will regularly find foes that will block your path and require a different tactic to overcome. They might also mess up your rhythm in your jumps, making upcoming obstacles a challenge. For Tropical Freeze, the difficulty of its stages is part of its charm.

So why would they offer players a way to make the game easier and do away with some of the challenge? Enter the Switch release’s big-selling feature: the new Funky Kong mode. Rather than making any new content that will add to the game, Retro chose to make an easy mode. Funky Kong may be a cool character, but he takes away the challenge of relying on partner characters and being careful, since he can completely avoid paths that Donkey Kong would need to use.

Funky also makes it possible to do water levels without worrying about oxygen, and he has more chances to live with a varied move pool and more hit points. Yes, it is nice that the game is more welcoming to new players and those that are less experienced, but upon starting up the game, Funky Kong mode is the first thing you see, and it treats the proper experience like a side mode. If you play Tropical Freeze, you should play in classic mode, experience the game as it was intended, and only after beating the game mess around in Funky Mode.

It’s a shame that this is what Retro did to make a selling feature for this release. It is nice to have a different way to play, but Retro could have done more than add an easy mode. Some of the smaller issues from Tropical Freeze could have been amended to make the game better. They could have fixed the bonus rooms found across the game. These are simple challenges that feature only a few designs where you aim to collect all the bananas and earn a collectible. It would have been nice if they could have made these less generic and created some actual challenges for each instance, perhaps inspired by Donkey Kong Country 2’s more diverse bonus library.

Ignoring Funky Kong, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is still the same great game that Wii U owners got back in 2014. The vibrant and clever design helps keep a smile on your face from start to finish, even as the challenge has you tearing your hair out. This game feels unique at every turn as it introduces several new ideas that are simply fun to play with, and it brilliantly carries its ideas through a single stage, playing with them in various ways to keep things fresh. If you’re looking for a good platformer, don’t overlook Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. This is the best Donkey Kong yet.

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