Review: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (Switch)

Can you blame Nintendo for porting over a large chunk of the Wii U’s library onto the Switch? With the hybrid-console having already made mince-meat of its predecessor’s total hardware sales, there are already a fair few million users out there whom, if at least are aware of their existence, haven’t played any of these releases. While there were a few new and unique IPs along the way, a large portion of the Wii U’s most acclaimed software lies in its first-party IPs with many in that same group following up from a relatively sound formula. One of those such games was Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. Having returned to the classic side-scrolling platformer formula with Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Wii, Tropical Freeze felt like a much more well-rounded and complete return for DK and the crew.

Four years on and Tropical Freeze is just as vibrant and as challenging in its platforming as the series has routinely been ever since its original incarnation on the SNES. Quickly gaining a reputation for providing little in the way of leeway to its players — to the surprise and perhaps dismay of some expecting a quaint, albeit frosty, trek through DK’s home. Tropical Freeze on the Switch is very much a carbon-copy of its Wii U originator and for those who’ve already played (and managed to 100%) it before, needless to say that there’s little in the way of new offerings to warrant a double-dip. For everyone else, particularly for those curious as to why DK’s latest is as highly-regarded as it is, Tropical Freeze is one of the best-executed platformers of the past five-to-ten years, so far as challenge, design and visual variety goes.

Part of the genius in Retro Studios’ take on the series is in how meticulously crafted its levels are. Where a series like Mario or even stand-alone games like Yoshi’s Island encourage some manner of experimentation in order to reach the finish point, Donkey Kong has often felt a little more restricted in its demand — more akin to an obstacle course where perfect timing and accuracy are key. Even before you consider collecting each letter of the word KONG or go out of your way to uncover every puzzle piece cleverly stashed away, Tropical Freeze has that uncannily Nintendo attitude of pulling you in with its vibrant aesthetic yet keeps you focused with its tough-but-accessible gameplay loop.

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Whether it’s the traditional set-up or one of the many “vehicle” sections — the series-staple mine-cart is here of course — rarely is there a moment where the intent to trip the player up, or at least (if you’re going for 100% especially) refusing to just hand-over its collectibles on offer, is absent. So what’s exactly new in the Switch version? Well, for one, Tropical Freeze finds itself implemented with a would-be Easy/Casual mode in the form of Funky Kong. Prior to starting a new file, players must choose whether to stick with the original line-up — which consists of DK and one of three Kong compatriots — or instead go for Funky Kong with DK providing back-up.

The differences in Funky Mode (as it’s referred to) are many-fold: players have five hearts in each life, Funky Kong can double-jump not to mention land on spikes without taking damage, he can stay underwater for an unlimited period and can even equip up to ten inventory items at one given time. Items, once again, acquirable via the many shops littered about the islands — though aside from a parrot that provides you with a hint as to when you’re near a collectible puzzle piece, the vast majority of the items on display are relatively useless in the long-run, neither hindering nor aiding a player’s quest.

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Sadly, you won’t be able to chop and change between modes during the campaign, meaning that whatever option you take is locked in from beginning to end, which is an odd move considering other Nintendo platformers like Yoshi’s Woolly World allowed this such option. Regardless, Funky Mode does admittedly take some (though not all) of the challenge away, though regardless of which play-style you prefer and/or choose, Tropical Freeze remains grueling affair that offers plenty of replayability via the Time Attack mode — unlocked after a given level’s completion — or simply to hunt down the remaining puzzle pieces which, in some extreme cases, demand the keenest of eyes to scout out.

With that said, Tropical Freeze’s transition to Switch does seem lesser in regards to additional content compared to fellow first-party ports like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and the soon-to-be-released Hyrule Warriors: Definitive Edition, but needless to say the increased stability of its frame-rate, not to mention the bump-up to 1080p resolution (when played with the console docked), is a nice inclusion. A few hiccups during the loading screens and some occasional visual effects looking choppy aside, Tropical Freeze manages to maintain a consistent 60FPS frame-rate across both Docked and Handheld mode, the latter of which looks and plays incredibly well at 720p. Though there will be the odd segment or two wherein playing the game with the Joy-Con controllers can feel a little demanding on one’s fingers, Tropical Freeze in the end feels right at home when treated as a portable outing.

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Closing Comments:

Though it may not provide anywhere near the kind of substantial additions to convince veterans to invest for a second time, there’s no mistaking the care and passion Retro Studios and company have put into making DK’s most recent outing one of his best. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze for Switch remains a stellar platformer, both in its presentation and more importantly, its finely-tuned challenge. Grueling in its difficulty, yet cunning in its delivery more so, the necessity on getting every split-second move or decision right may put off some, but those keen to stick with it — even replay a level a few more times thereafter — will quickly discover Tropical Freeze’s loop isn’t so easy to put down.

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Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (Switch)
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