It’s all too easy to dismiss remastered versions of old games that are resurrected for the latest crop of consoles. However, in the case of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, newly revamped for Nintendo’s mighty Switch, that would be a grave error. For a start, it originally came out (in 2014) for the unloved Wii U, which hardly anyone ever owned, so the Switch version might as well be a whole new game.
Tropical Freeze developer Retro Studios retains the Donkey Kong Country blueprint as mapped out in the 1990s by original developer Rare Software, but adds modern touches such as odd sequences going into the screen rather than left or right. The famously fierce difficulty level has also been retained – Tropical Freeze will test your platforming accuracy to the limit, especially in its later stages and boss-battles – but at least the game does provide mitigating means of stacking the odds a little more in your favour.
For example, you can visit Funky Kong’s shop and buy all manner of helpful items, including banana juice, which renders you immune to the first five hits you take in a level, an extra heart which stays with you throughout a level, green balloons which rescue you if you fall out of a level, cow-catchers that add strength to vehicles and a parrot who will reveal the whereabouts of puzzle pieces. All those items are purchased using the banana coins you collect on each level, and most are surprisingly cheap. Another means of reducing difficulty levels is provided by a new feature in the Switch version of the game: you can choose to play as Funky Kong instead of Donkey Kong, who can double-jump, hover and perform infinite rolls. And if you die too many times on any stage, the next one is eventually opened up automatically.
The famously fierce difficulty level has been retained.
But playing as Funky Kong feels a bit like cheating (although it will help youngsters whose motor skills haven’t fully developed). And anyway, you can augment Donkey Kong’s basic movements – a jump, a roll, a ground-pound and the abilities to pull up things from the ground and grab onto grassy surfaces and ropes – by collecting a companion from a barrel, in the form of Dixie Kong, Diddy Kong or Cranky Kong. Having a companion essentially doubles your health. There’s also a meter which charges and occasionally lets you launch a joint attack which kills all visible enemies (except for bosses).
Armed with those tools (and a keen sense of timing), you feel fully empowered to take on a welter of classic platforming. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze looks fantastic (Donkey Kong’s fur, for example, looks much better than it did on the Wii U, and the game’s vibrant colour palette and gloriously surreal settings are a joy to behold). There are plenty of underwater, barrel-shooting, rocket-powered barrel-plane, rhino-riding and mine cart sequences, and some of the different themes that run through each world will have you laughing out loud.
It’s a pretty substantial game, too, with an exemplary level of replayability. There are six worlds containing lots of stages each, and if you manage to collect the KONG letters in every stage of a world, you’ll open up a bonus stage. The boss-battles manage to be both epic and hilarious, although you might have to cheat in some of them by equipping yourself with an extra heart plus as many bottles of banana juice you can muster (you can take five items into each stage). Plus there are those infernal puzzle-pieces to collect (one of which is in a hidden room in each stage where you must collect bananas against the clock).
Despite its venerable roots, Tropical Freeze often feels innovative, thanks entirely to the cleverness of its level design – right the way through, it feels like one big object lesson in level design (which many a developer would do well to analyse). It may only be a side-scrolling platform game, but Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze is so meticulously designed and overflows so impressively with character and humour that it might be the best side-scrolling platformer anyone has made so far. The fact that you can play it on your Switch while out and about may well lead to a major addiction.