Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a 2D Platformer developed by Retro Studios and published by Nintendo. It was originally released on the Wii U in February 2014 and received a Switch port in May 2018 with an added character and easier difficulty mode. I played the Nintendo Switch version. MSRB is $60.
The people at Retro Studios are less like game developers and more like game alchemists – they can turn any series into gold. They have this ability to distill a game into its essential elements and then repurpose them into a modern form factor.
When Rare made Donkey Kong Country on the SNES, they managed to make a 2D Platformer stand out in a genre that was already saturated in the mid-1990s. They did that by making an immersive, almost atmospheric, experience. Laugh all you want at the pre-rendered sprites, but they are an important part of the game’s commitment to realism. Every obstacle in Donkey Kong Country is meticulously crafted as a natural part of the environment. For example, the level Mainbrace Mayhem, you climb up a pirate ship’s mast and swing by its ropes. There are no blocks suspended in the air like in Mario. The player doesn’t see a HUD unless they collect something like bananas or KONG letters, and even then the HUD quickly leaves the screen to keep the player focused on the environment. It’s a minimalist counterargument to everything Platformers had done up to that point.
In the early 2010s, Retro Studio successfully revived Rare’s SNES games with Donkey Kong Country Returns. Once again I’m impressed with Retro. They captured that atmospheric magic on their first try; it feels exactly like a modern Donkey Kong Country. If it weren’t for the visuals, you’d have a hard time telling which game is Retro’s and which is Rare’s.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze builds on Returns’s foundation. Its level design and environmental storytelling is some of the most creative I’ve ever seen. Retro elevates Donkey Kong from just a good series into one of the best 2D Platformers I’ve yet experienced.
Tropical Freeze begins with the Kong family celebrating DK’s birthday. Their banana-themed celebration is cut short when a tribe of animal vikings from the south pole called the Snowmads invade DK Island and freeze it over. The Kongs are blown away and have to take their home back from the Antarctic imperialists. Thematically this game is my wife’s worst nightmare – it has monkey protagonists, an animal she despises, against penguin antagonists, an animal that she loves. I spared her the pain of watching it on the TV and played the game mostly in handheld mode.
The game’s real story, though, doesn’t happen in a cutscene. It happens as you travel from level to level. The environments progress from one setting idea into another so seamlessly. Even the first world, which at first glance seems like a generic jungle, is actually a sort of Bermuda Island filled with crashed airplanes. They’ll even fall from the trees at times. The third world begins with a Lion King festival in the first level, an ever-growing storm in the second level, and a brushfire in the third level. The best world by far is the fifth world, which begins with harvesting fruit, transitions to a fruit crushing factory, then finishes with a fruit jelly assembling line. And of course, every platforming challenge uses realistic structures that immerse you in its world, from falling leaves to collapsing cliffs to crates blown about in a tornado. This commitment to detail gives Tropical Freeze the feeling of playing a 2D game in a living, breathing 3D environment.
When I was stipulating my complaints about New Super Mario Bros. needing a more involved story, this was the sort of thing I had in mind. It doesn’t need to be much, and it doesn’t need to interfere with the action, but even gameplay-focused games can benefit from having creative settings and stories. The natural progression from level to level gives an excellent framework for an unspoken narrative structure, if only the developers can commit to it.
But this isn’t a Mario review. And I still have a few gripes with Tropical Freeze. I never liked the mine cart levels in any of the previous Donkey Kong games, and Tropical Freeze did little to change my mind. I’ll admit, though, that the spectacle of crashing planes and logs helped. In fact, many levels have these dynamic moving parts that require you to react quickly. And this game doesn’t pull any punches — it will challenge you. I thought about playing it the “right way” as DK himself, but once I tried the easier Funky Mode, I shamelessly stayed there and never looked back.
If you’re having trouble, though, Tropical Freeze has shops with helpful items you buy with banana coins hidden in the levels. You can buy a few extra lives, or an extra hit point, or even a potion for temporarily invincibility. I think this is a fair approach to difficulty. If you want some help, you can easily access it, but if you want to challenge yourself, you can also just leave the items alone. The items especially come in handy if you want to aim to get some hard-to-reach collectibles.
Speaking of collectibles, Tropical Freeze also has plenty of them, most of them hidden behind secret doors and areas. I love the feeling of finding a good secret after taking a second look at a level and noticing something out of place. I’m not a person who usually 100% completes a game, but Tropical Freeze is a welcome exception. If you collect all the KONG letters, you will unlock extra levels, and puzzle pieces unlock extra goodies like concept art.
Even if you try to find all of the collectibles, though, Tropical Freeze isn’t a long game. You could argue that it might not be worth the price of admission when RPGs and Open World games offer several more hours of content for the same $60. I understand people who have that kind of priority; however, I do not approach games that way. Quality is more important over quantity. I’d rather play 5 or 10 hours of a perfectly-paced game than a 20-hour game with unnecessary padding. In fact, I’ve started having less and less patience for games that unnecessarily waste my time. Whether the game lasts 8 hours or 80 hours, it needs to have good pacing, design, and story.
I’ve seen Tropical Freeze on sale for as low as $40, though it doesn’t happen that often. I’d highly recommend you pick it up if you do, though. Sure it’s more expensive than most 2D Platformers, but few can surpass it.