Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (2014)

Great old school platformers can be tough to come by in modern gaming. While there are some retro gems out there like Celeste, Shovel Knight, Sonic Mania, and A Hat in Time, it feels like major studios have mostly abandoned the concept of a pure platformer. Sure, plenty of games have platforming aspects to them, but it is rarely the focal feature. When a game like Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze comes along, anybody who is a fan of platformers should stop what they are doing and play it as soon as possible. It’s a fantastic game consisting of imaginative and fun visuals, superb difficulty, and tightly-crafted level design.

As far as Nintendo platformers go, Donkey Kong Country games have always been the most challenging of the bunch. That being said, I was impressed with how approachable Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze was. The first zone of the game was fairly straightforward, and the difficulty of the game slowly ramped up as time progressed. There are tons of powerups that you can buy if you need an extra boost, and if you are really struggling there is a Funky Kong mode available on the Switch port that serves as an easy mode. But what’s more impressive is the numerous hidden aspects that can crank up the difficulty for experienced players looking for a challenge.

In each stage there are hidden puzzle pieces for completitionists to hunt down. While I ignored those for the most part, the more visible “K-O-N-G” letters were my main focus. The letters are easy to spot, but often require a more difficult or risky jump to collect. And if you collect all four letters in every level in a zone you unlock a secret stage. The secret stages are where the meat of the game’s challenge was for me. I found most of the regular levels to be tricky enough that I needed to play well, but not perfectly. The secret stages often required such precision and timing that I felt like I really needed to master them. And if you manage to conquer all the secret stages, you unlock a challenging hidden zone with three more devastatingly difficult levels. And if you succeed in that you unlock Hard Mode.

Of course, you can entirely ignore the puzzle pieces, letters, hidden exits, secret levels, the bonus zone, and Hard Mode entirely. But the fact that all of these things were included as extra little ways to incrementally tune up the difficulty was wonderful. Letting the player pick what is important to them is a great way to introduce some optional difficulty instead of just giving the player five different difficulty modes at the start. But the most impressive thing about Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze was how the level design facilitated multiple styles of play.

A majority of the standard levels in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze are designed such that you can mostly take your time and think about what you are doing before you make the leap. While there some frantic and exciting sequences requiring you to move quickly, it’s a game that can be taken at whatever pace the player desires. But something interesting happens when you try to go as fast as possible through a level. You realize that everything lines up perfectly. As you bop from one enemy’s head to another to maintain your momentum, the platforms and enemies seem carefully placed to facilitate this level of speed. That’s because they are. While every level seems like a standard platforming stage at first glance, there is a deeper complexity behind the speed running curtain. I was extremely impressed by the level of thought and effort put into every single level in the game.

On top of the effort put into the gameplay and flow of each level, there was also a tremendous amount of care put into the visual experience. There are so many fun settings that make it feel like you are running and jumping through an animated movie. Not only is the background a spectacle, but the visuals tie into the gameplay. You can ride a rhino and dodge fireballs as a volcano erupts in the distance, or swing between decorative floats during a Lion King like celebration in the savannah, or jump between platforms as an avalanche sweeps away the platforms below you. There are tons of memorable stages that will go down as some of my favorite platforming levels of all time.

My only complaints with Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze are fairly minor. It could be frustrating to get to the end of a level, notice that there is a secret exit, and realize that you have the wrong power-up to access it. This meant that you would have to restart the entire stage with a certain Kong partner and make it all the way to the end without dying or taking more than 2 hits of damage. I say this is minor because these are completely optional stages, but still, I rarely enjoy having to redo a level through no fault of my own.

Furthermore, I was not a huge fan of the boss fights at the end of each world. They were often pretty long with no checkpoints. They usually had three phases, getting progressively more challenging every three times that you hit them. But I found that the first and second phases were simple, and the final phase was fairly difficult. It could take a few attempts to learn the final phase patterns, and having to go through the entire boring lead-up every time could be a bit boring.

Overall, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is an excellent platformer in a world deprived of the genre. It combines imagination, visual spectacle, and exciting gameplay to create a spectacular experience. The level of care put into the level design is astounding. Whether you are someone new to the genre or an experienced platformer player, you can definitely find what you are looking for in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze.

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