Bring your rhythm (without the blues) and hit those gleeful high notes as you jump, grip, slip and slide into the icy caverns of Tropical Freeze. DK and his pals return to the scene of the vicious, war-torn shores of their archipelago on Nintendo Switch after four long years of freedom. Déjà vu aside, we’re ready to give more than 60 levels of mayhem a whirl once again.
Our favourite Nintendo simian has been taking a well-earned vacation for a few years. Appearing just once in 2015 for Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Tipping Stars on the 3DS and Wii U, Donkey Kong has had life relatively easy. Whilst he sips on banana juice from coconuts and basks in the glorious island sunshine, his early ’80s rival has been busy repairing the Odyssey to save Peach from Bowser’s embrace. Before the days of Tropical Freeze on the Wii U in 2014, DK’s last main title appearance was back in 2010 for Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Wii, which was then ported three years later to the 3DS. It’s no surprise, then, that we find ourselves in the realm of ports, with the Switch riding the wave of commercial success.
In 2014, Tropical Freeze was hailed by critics as one of the best – and most agonising – Donkey Kong games to grace the home console platforms in years. Developed by Retro Studios, the hallmark of platform gaming, we originally gave the title a vine-tingling 9 out of 10. After playing through Tropical Freeze twice, both in original and Funky Kong mode, it remains one of the most thrilling, tense and infuriating platform entries in the series. For those looking for new levels, outside of the ones included in the original, you’ll be sorely disappointed. This is a straight port with the same gameplay, albeit with significantly reduced loading times and the ability to play on the move.
For those in unfamiliar territory, Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze lets you assume the role of DK as he evades the pitfalls, jungle horrors and spike-laden traps laid by the Snowmads; a vicious group of Viking penguins, owls, walrus and seals. In search of a new home, the Snowmads’ invasion comes at a pivotal time in DK’s life. He’s just turned 21 (again). Surrounded by the Kong family members, Diddy, Dixie and Cranky, he makes one final wish before blowing out his candles. Sadly, crazy-eyed Tucks and his superiors such as Fugo, Bashmaster and Pompy won’t let DK and his pals celebrate in peace. So, Donkey Kong enlists the help of the Kong family to traverse the treacherous terrain across six worlds and take back their beautiful islands from the Snowmads.
As we discussed at length in our preview, Tropical Freeze for the Switch brings one new mode to the portable console. Now, players can select the fun-loving, surfing simian – Funky Kong – as a playable character in an easier mode. Between his ability to make pitfalls a breeze by hovering with his surfboard, to using a snorkel for breathing underwater or rolling infinitely on land, Funky Kong changes the feel of a Donkey Kong game altogether. While it’s great for speed runs, or finding hidden levels and collectibles, players quickly lose the sense of challenge and the title’s risk versus reward format. KONG letters can even be collected and saved separately, so there’s no need to find all of them in one level, should it prove to be too tricky. It’s this lack of urgency, lack of precision and lack of fear that enables players to breeze through levels on five hearts rather than the standard two.
But that’s not to say the mode doesn’t have its perks. You can switch between Funky Kong and DK at any time on the overworld screen for three hearts rather than five, as well as toggle your inventory mid-level; super handy for those mine cart and barrel blaster levels, should you need a Crash Guard item instead of a Pitfall balloon. Items are also cheaper too, so you can spend less banana coins on additional hearts, Diddy, Dixie, and Cranky barrels. Plus, to save players from thoroughly cheating the system, Funky Kong won’t be able to team up with the aforementioned Kong members in single-player mode. In co-op mode, however, players can select Funky alongside Diddy, Dixie or Cranky to lend a hand. Tropical Freeze is still playable in original mode from the Wii U, though you’ll need to open another game save slot to play both modes.
Playing on the move with the Switch is, quite possibly, one of the biggest commercial draws for Tropical Freeze, especially if you’re new to the game. Those who played the original on the Wii U may find the RRP a little steep to revisit the same gameplay, albeit with a new mode. The Switch version is a great re-investment if you’re likely to play with younger family members in co-op mode, giving them the chance to experience DK on a portable console without too much frustration.
As far as aesthetics go, the handheld version doesn’t feel as polished as previous ports such as Mario Kart 8 and Bayonetta 1 & 2. Despite its smooth gameplay, there are times when enemy thresholds can be tricky to navigate as the finite details are harder to see. Boss fights are also largely hit and miss on a smaller screen with darker patches, in spite of full console brightness. And while co-operative play with the Switch controllers is enjoyable, holding the small shoulder buttons when latching on to vines can be particularly frustrating as losing grip is, sadly, inevitable.
Co-operative play in docked mode fares better, thankfully. Levels such as the shadowed Busted Bayou in World 1 and Cliffside Slide in World 6 are a real hoot in co-op, while Grassland Groove in World 3 brings the African wilderness to life with David Wise’s melodic bush tones to set the scene. One of our favourites, Jelly Jamboree, lets players bounce on huge pink, blue and green jellies in order to complete the level. In those moments, whether you’re playing in single or co-operative mode, Tropical Freeze remains as one of the best platform entries we’ve seen on a home console.
It’s with great pleasure that we can safely say those horrendous loading times from Tropical Freeze on the Wii U are significantly reduced on the Switch. That’s not to say that the framerate drops have magically vanished, however. You’ll often see DK and his associates rolling through a loading screen with the hiccups. But it’s not detrimental to overall gameplay.
As a strict port, Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze has its pros and cons. If you missed out on the Wii U version, fetch your wallet. But if you’ve played the original, re-investing is simply optional and you won’t miss out on anything new. After completing the game on 99 red balloons, I have a real need to play Donkey Konga. Now, where did I put those Bongos?
A review copy of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze on Nintendo Switch was provided by Nintendo UK.