What’s Good About Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze
As January continues to chug along, I’ve found myself getting more and more restless with finding games that I want to play and talk about because they either are so specific to my tastes and interests that I don’t think anyone else is interested (most roguelikes I like to play or Destiny 2) or they aren’t out yet (like Elden Ring and…The Witch Queen expansion for Destiny 2). But then I realized something. There are also games that I’ve been meaning to talk about that I haven’t gotten to because of either timing with my own life and/or pricing being a factor. Case in point, we’re talking about Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze because it went on sale for a reasonable price in Canada over the new year, and by that, I mean that it wasn’t nearly $100 after taxes because I, like a reasonable person, refuse to spend nearly a hundred bucks on a singular goddamn video game (it’s also the reason I haven’t gotten any PS5 games.) Now that that little tirade is out of the way, let’s talk about what is possibly one of the best platformers I’ve played in literal years.
The basic setup is that it’s DK’s birthday and a bunch of invasive jerks called the Snowmads (ha, I see what they did there…) show up and start wrecking shop by attacking the islands and freezing it over with the aid of a magic ice dragon. Donkey decides he ain’t having nine of it and thus begins his mission to run the invaders out and get the party back on track. It’s simple, but you don’t really need a story for games like this outside of a setup for some creative levels and it does that in spades. The Snowmads, as it turns out, are an industrious lot; wasting no time they divide the archipelago into 7 worlds, the first six having ten levels apiece (five regular levels, four hidden levels, and one boss level) and the final world having only three, but it’s the endgame, I can forgive it.
The main thing I appreciate about the approach to level design in Tropical Freeze is that all of its worlds have a strong central theme that each of the levels draws from for its challenges. The first world is a standard jungle, second is a more mountainous area with both deciduous and coniferous forests, rocky cliffs. and a sawmill, the fourth world is a fruit processing plant, and so on. The way that they use these themes to create interesting platforming challenges is one of the strongest examples of iterative game design that I have ever seen in a platformer. By adding a new mechanic to each level that is there solely for that level’s design, it gives the game leeway for how these challenges are doled out. It worked out great because these are some of the best-designed levels I’ve seen in a 2D style platformer in a very long time thanks to the escalating difficulty and the iterative nature of these designs. The one thing that I didn’t pick up on until I was near the end of the second world was that this game is difficult. This isn’t a bad thing because Tropical Freeze eases you into the difficulty curve fantastically, but make no mistake: this game will heavily punish you if you don’t pay attention or mistime your jumps. But while the game is certainly difficult, it is not unfair; multiple shops run by Funky Kong give you access to items that can bolster your survivability or make it less of a hassle to get through. For some, it may not be enough though, so the game wisely added a more accessible mode where the player controls Funky Kong in a neat and different take on the game’s platforming. Funky starts with 5 hearts as opposed to Donkey’s 2, can double jump from the get-go using his surfboard, and survive spike pits by landing on them with a said surfboard but is balanced by not having a partner Kong with him. Funky’s inclusion is a brilliant way of keeping the game’s challenge intact but making it more accessible for more players.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t play DK, because while he only has two hearts at the base he gains access to an additional two hearts through getting a partner Kong that can augment his abilities and playstyle; in the WiiU version it was only Diddy who could give you a hover jump with his jetpack, in the Switch version you also adds Dixie and Cranky Kong as partners as well, with the former giving DK a helicopter jump with her ponytail (I have no idea who that works after all these years, I’m going with “because video games”) and the latter giving you a pogo jump with his cane ala Scrooge McDuck in the Capcom Ducktales games or more recently like Shovel Knight from Shovel Knight, it’s as awesome as it sounds. Regardless of which of the two Kongs you choose to play, they both control excellently and have the perfect response times for a game as mechanically demanding as this one. It’s to the point where I want to get a full clear on my save file because there are the KONG letters to get and now puzzle pieces to get as well (nine per level) and the moment I realized that I was playing a Donkey Kong ass Donkey Kong game was when I was replaying levels to make sure I got all of the KONG letters. Yes, I’m that guy when it comes to Donkey Kong, it’s a learned behaviour.
The last thing I want to talk about before we go is the audiovisual aspects of the game. In docked mode, Tropical Freeze runs at 1080p resolution and 60 frames per second in both docked and handheld modes. This, combined with the game’s fast load times and stunning art style add up to one of the best looking games on not just the Switch, but games in general. And this is before we get into the soundtrack by series composer David Wise. It’s full of remixes of iconic themes like Jungle Hijinx, Aquatic Ambiance, and Stickerbrush Symphony as well as great new tracks like Sawmill Thrill, Big Top Bop, and Scorch N’ Torch (my favourite of the bunch) all adding up to create what is, in my opinion at least, David Wise’s best work to date.
Between its excellent platforming, brilliant use of iterative mechanics its level design, gorgeous art direction, and an absolute banger of a soundtrack, I’m shocked that I didn’t get to Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze sooner. It’s so good that I’m tempted to add it to the games of 2022 list and it came out years ago. I strongly recommend this one for sure. Just try to get it without paying full price.