Donkey Kong is one of Nintendo’s evergreen characters. He has come a long way from his first appearance as the enemy in Jumpman, the precursor to Mario. The great ape was quickly turned into a hero in the Nintendo universe and has since made an appearance on every generation of consoles. Donkey Kong’s last outing was Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze for the Wii U, and it is an updated version of this that is now gracing Nintendo’s latest console.
Tropical Freeze catches up with the Kong family as they celebrate Donkey Kong’s birthday. Just as he is about to blow out the candle on his cake, a cold breeze beats him to it as a snowflake floats in through the window and snuffs the candle. A shadowy enemy blows on a giant horn and unleashes an ice dragon that goes about freezing everything in sight and blowing our family of heroes away from their hut and into the distance. To get back to his home, Donkey Kong must complete levels on each island; these culminate in a boss fight which enables him to progress to the next island. Once you get to the sixth island, you’ll face off against your ultimate foe.
As easy to follow as the story is (this isn’t exactly War and Peace or A Song of Ice and Fire), it’s never that important as it just provides an excuse to offer different game mechanics as you go on. What this game focuses on is gameplay and challenging, yet creative, platforming; fortunately, this is also where the game excels. Donkey Kong is easy to control, and his movements are precise, allowing a true level of finesse to his movement. His family helps out, when the game deems it necessary, by adding new abilities. Diddy Kong allows you to hover for a short period. Dixie Kong allows you to stay in the air for longer and go higher. Cranky Kong allows you to pogo on spiked areas.
Controls are extremely simple. Nearly everything is done with just two buttons and the control stick. This makes the game very simple to learn but does find you battling your controller on occasions. The X and Y buttons do the same thing, and that is either bang on the ground/enemies or starts you rolling. If you are stationary when you press X/Y, Donkey Kong will bang on the ground. If you are moving, then he will roll. This sounds fine, but it can lead to some frustrating deaths later on in the game as things become more chaotic and you find yourself pushed for time. If the developers had mapped ground pound to X and rolling to Y, it could have made for much easier control of the heroic ape. However, whenever I died, it did always feel like it was my error or lack of ability rather than because of the context-sensitive controls.
The six islands that you will traverse are all brilliantly presented, with great themes, bonus levels, and boss fights that seem to get more epic with each one. Each level has two sets of collectables, KONG letters and jigsaw pieces that normally require multiple playthroughs to discover where they all are. Fortunately, with level design as top notch as this, it’s rarely a chore to go back and try again. Checkpoints are spaced throughout the level, and while the game will push your patience, as well as your ability, it’s never past breaking point. Interest is also piqued at points by changing up the gameplay through minecart and rocket barrel sections. These levels don’t so much offer a change of pace as broaden the gameplay palate by adding a little extra colour to proceedings.
So far, so Wii U. This is a direct port of the game from the last console, but Nintendo has added a few new things. The headline addition is being able to play the game as Funky Kong. This basically works as an easy mode due to Funky’s extra health, double jump, and surfboard that protects you from spikes, etc. You’ll also find that you are able to stay underwater indefinitely thanks to Funky’s snorkel. The other improvements are more technical. In docked mode, the framerate is native 1080p while keeping a silky smooth 60 frames per second. The loading speed is also dramatically improved with you only having to wait 10-15 seconds to start a level.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze was a near-perfect platformer on Wii U, and that hasn’t changed in its transition to Switch. The gorgeous art design, bright graphics, and smooth animations are all still intact and improved by the higher resolution in docked mode. Controls are still sharp and make the tough platforming achievable. Being able to play as Funky Kong provides a more accessible way into Donkey Kong’s world as well as adding a more laid back way for experienced players to revisit the game. Tropical Freeze is pretty much as good as 2D platform games get. It’s not an easy game but rewards skill, and with checkpoints never too far away the difficulty is never soul-crushing. It may only be a remaster, rather than a brand new game, but when it’s as good as this, it’s very hard to be disappointed.