Poor old Donkey Kong. Despite having helped make Nintendo a key player in the world of video games in the 1981 arcade title bearing his own name, he’s always been cast in Mario’s shadow. I’ve often found it hard to fathom exactly why his character doesn’t have quite the same appeal – it’s a gorilla in a necktie, for heaven’s sake! – but the apathy has snowballed over the years, so that when Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze came out some four years ago on the Wii U it was met in some quarters with little more than a shrug.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
- Developer: Retro Studios
- Publisher: Nintendo
- Format: Nintendo Switch
- Availability: Out May 4th on Switch
Some of that apathy is understandable, admittedly. The Wii U’s paltry install base meant it was never going to get a rousing reception, regardless of its quality, and there’s always been a slight stigma around the Donkey Kong Country series. Rare’s original SNES trio were fine games – and fine looking, of course, thanks to the ACM technique responsible for their unique look – but they never really displayed the same level of craft and ingenuity as the very best of Nintendo’s output of the time.
Couple that with the sense of disappointment that developer Retro Studios was taken away from the beloved Metroid Prime series for this most unlikely of reboots back in 2010 – and the subsequent dismay that Retro Studios would also make what looked like a copy and paste sequel in 2014 – and it’s no wonder that it all went a little unloved. A small shame, really – for my money, Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze is a rival for the original Metroid Prime as an example of Retro Studios’ very best work.
Maybe this Switch port is the time for it to really shine. It certainly sparkles a little brighter than the Wii U version – DigitalFoundry has the full breakdown, and essentially you’re looking at a bump up from 720p to 1080p when docked – and, for a game that’s renowned for its difficulty, is a little more accessible too. The big addition here is a playable Funky Kong, complete with a moveset that makes a mockery of the challenge the later levels pose; there’s a double jump, invulnerability to spikes and the ability to float slowly to safety once mid-air. It’s a neat way to sidestep the brutality that Tropical Freeze presents, and worth having on tap for when frustration mounts, though by large I’d recommend against it, given how it compromises the exquisite design of Retro Studios’ levels.
They can be harsh, yes, but Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze is a game to be savoured. Take your time, plot your course then work on nailing the execution – repeatedly, as the case may often be. It’s the least you can do, really, given how Retro Studios has nailed the not inconsiderable task of taking some fairly dusty old platformers and crafting something that feels vibrant and alive – and it’s all done in the detail. There’s a refined physicality to Donkey Kong’s movement – another thing you lose when playing as Funky Kong, sadly – with levels there to be bashed and bounded throuch. Bar Tokyo EAD’s bongo-infused Jungle Beat, no other game has nailed the heavy-palmed, gamboling momentum of Donkey Kong so effectively.
Its simplicity is deceptive, too. Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze might just be another 2D platformer, but good god does it make an effort in putting on a spectacle. Its levels are a succession of set-pieces, their complexity masked by a dynamic camera. Levels take single ideas – the underwater chase of Irate Eight, the minecart run of High Tide Ride or the storm-whipped savannah of Frantic Fields – and work them to just before the point of exhaustion, and then gleefully toss them aside for something new.
It’d be exhausting if it wasn’t delivered with such verve. The art of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze might fall a little short of what Nintendo’s internal studios can conjure up – this series has always looked a little Dreamworks in contrast to the Pixar of EAD and EPD – but it has a coherence which is entirely its own. And let’s not forget David Wise’s soundtrack, which weaves together old classics with new compositions, all of which provide a strangely soft-edged and chilled-out counterpoint to the action’s more forceful challenge. `
Given some of those returning themes – and who couldn’t be moved by the ethereal whisp of Aquatic Ambiance – Tropical Freeze is evidently a game that’s literate in the series’ history, something played upon to great effect in bonus levels that ape Donkey Kong Jr’s rope swinging or extended nods to Rare’s 1994 SNES Donkey Kong Country. It’s literate in so much more, too; I love it for how its underwater levels, with their dancing tendrils and coral-coated caves, directly reference classics such as Gradius and R-Type; how its minecart levels, with their beat-perfect leaps, feel like a Guitar Hero track brought to life via steel rails.
And Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, with its challenge and its craft, its energy and its ingenuity, feels like nothing less than a display of pure mastery over the 2D action genre. That might not be as exciting as when Retro Studios brought Samus Aran into the third dimension with Metroid Prime, but it’s an achievement that in its own way is just as remarkable. More remarkable still is how Tropical Freeze sits comfortably alongside the greats of Nintendo, that venerable master of the 2D action genre.
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