Platformers aren’t quite what they once were; whether they’re 3D or 2D we’ve had a bit of a mini-renaissance with them in recent years, but they hold nowhere near the draw that they did in the '80s and '90s. What a shame then that one of the best and most polished games of the genre happened to not only launch after these golden years, but on a console that - for the most part - passed most people by. In case it wasn’t already obvious enough given the title, we are, of course, referring to Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, the latest entry in the revitalised Donkey Kong Country series. It made a splash with the handful of people who bought a Wii U, but it received nowhere near the commercial success it deserved. Blasting back onto Switch, is it finally time for this game to shine, or have the years been too cruel? It’s the former, let's not even try to pretend.
As stated in our review of the Wii U original, Tropical Freeze takes everything that made Donkey Kong Country Returns great and doubles down on it. The running, jumping, and rolling that made the original games so enjoyable has been refined further and tightened to the Nth degree. The higher resolution also pays dividends in allowing you to see more of the level from afar, meaning you can react more appropriately when pits or enemies lie ahead of you. The Wii U version was only able to display at 720p, but it still looked good. This new version, however, boosts it up to a gorgeous full 1080p that fits the style and aesthetic so well we didn’t even notice. It’s a real testament to the art direction.
Other changes are fairly minimal, as shown by Digital Foundry's recent video comparison. Shading appears to be marginally different and DK’s fur is a bit nicer to gawp at, but overall the biggest change is absolutely the resolution. The frame rate remains the same, solid 60fps as well, which has proven absolutely unshakeable regardless of what’s going on on screen. For a hardcore platformer like this that stability is essential, and they’ve completely nailed it.
Speaking of hardcore, let’s address the gorilla in the room. The biggest new addition to this version of the game is that of Funky Kong, the bodacious ape that’s totally tubular or mondo, or whatever. When you start a save file for the first time you’ll be asked whether you want to play in Original Mode or Funky mode. The former is the game just as it was with absolutely nothing changed beyond the previously mentioned resolution and fur and stuff. The latter Funky mode, however, is a totally 'hang-ten' way to play, noticeably reducing the difficulty thanks to Funky Kong’s shiny new move-set.
He behaves much like DK, only he can roll forever just as though he had a partner Kong with him (although when playing as Funky you can never use a partner Kong), double-jump, slow his descent by using his surfboard as a makeshift helicopter, obviously, and also stand stationary on spiked floors without taking damage. You’ll also have five hearts to play with rather than the standard Kong default of two each, allowing you to take a lot more punishment before returning to your last checkpoint.
You’ll not be locked into this new way to tackle the game’s challenges however, as at any time you can switch to playing as good old Donkey Kong should you wish, provided you’re not in the middle of a level. You’ll get a smidgen more health than if you were playing in Original Mode, so it’s not heading directly from one extreme to the other. Whichever mode you choose to play in, that decision is permanent, so make sure you’re absolutely certain what kind of challenge you’re after. Of course, there’s nothing to stop you starting a new save file in the other mode, as well.
While some of the more seasoned players may be put off by the idea of taking the sting out of the game’s difficulty, it really is a superb addition. The fact that save files are locked in either mode means no matter how tempted you are, you can’t quickly beat a tricky level as Funky Kong before reverting back unless you’ve specifically selected Funky Mode. If you’re committed to playing it in its original form, you lock yourself into that decision, and the game offers no relief at any time. If you want a challenge, it’s still here, and it’s still chuffing hard.
For less experienced players, this is an absolute godsend; what was once a bright and colourful yet deceivingly devilish platformer is now much more accessible to those new to the Donkey Kong Country formula. That’s not to say that Funky Mode is straight-up easy though. Despite having played through the Wii U version several times we still found our time with Funky frustratingly unforgiving at times. It’s certainly easier than with DK, but it’s by no means something you can blitz through without taking a hit. Enemies are exactly where they were before, pits are just as big, and Funky’s new moves aren’t as overpowered as they may seem on paper.
Despite having the ability to slow his descent to a crawl by holding the jump button, when you’re doing so your horizontal movement is cripplingly slow. Unless you’re about to miss a ledge by a very small margin, you’ll probably still end up tumbling to your death, albeit gradually. Standing on spikes is all well and good, but it’s just standing. You can’t run or even walk, meaning you have to jump each time you want to move forward, which can put you in troublesome situations if an enemy is approaching you. Being able to roll forever also has its drawbacks, as it’s not as easy to come to a stop when doing so, and on several occasions we’ve blasted ourselves into spear-wielding foe before we can stop ourselves. So can all this hardship, even in Funky Mode, be worth it? Absolutely.
The difficulty balance is borderline perfect. Levels are tough, but each time you die you’re painfully aware that it’s your fault and you’re the one who misread the situation or mistimed that jump. We believe we only encountered one instance of what you could call a ‘cheap’ moment where we didn't have had enough time to react, and even then it was only a single hit from an enemy rather than an instant death. It was during one of the infamously tricky ‘K’ levels which can only be unlocked by finding all the KONG letters in a world.
The sense of accomplishment for finally completing a level you’ve been struggling with is undeniably wonderful, yet no single level is so frustrating that it made us quit out of anger. Every time you’ll progress a little bit further, you’ll learn where you went wrong, and you’ll improve for the next run. Again, we feel this is largely due to the almost total absence of cheap, artificial difficulty spikes.
Let’s quickly round up by talking about the presentation. It’s totally and utterly gorgeous, with every screen looking entirely original and unique and bursting with colour, a soundtrack to make Mozart jealous, and animations smoother than butter. Everything is refined to a T, from the gameplay, to the presentation. Sure, the rough charm present in the Rare titles is missing, but that's to be expected; those games were created by a different team with different sensibilities using much cruder technology. Tropical Freeze is a glorious refinement of Rare's approach, but we can see how some diehard DKC fans might prefer the SNES originals, perhaps due to the use of rose-tinted specs.
There's no doubt about it, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is one of the most refined and enjoyable platformers money can buy. The levels are all beautiful - not only because of their delightful new 1080p resolution, but also their structure; the characters move with fluidity and brilliant responsiveness, and the inclusion of Funky Kong brings balance for those who have less experience with brutally tough platformers. It’s so well-made that it’s almost too well-made; there's an absence of a certain 'rough-and-ready' charm found in the original DKC trilogy. This is, however, a complaint so minor it's practically insignificant. Donkey Kong’s first appearance on Switch is streamlined, rewarding, and immensely good fun; any fan of 2D platformers simply has to get this game.
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