Games that receive a ⭐ have a score of 95% or above. This is purely from a game design perspective and is not in any way related to our morality/parental warnings section.
Disclaimer: Writer is an investor in Nintendo.
Back in 2014, I was not very good at video games. Sure, my brother and I could beat New Super Mario Bros. U in just two days, but that series is well known for its low difficulty (outside of the bonus levels). What a wake-up call it was, then, when we got a copy of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. This game was challenging. No more could we cheese boss fights with a multiplayer mode that would spawn in powerups if we were struggling, and many levels demanded split-second reaction time that 2014 me did not have.
We tried and tried, but just couldn’t do it. Always short on lives, our adventure was a stressful one that made us aware of our unperfected platforming skills. I think we gave up about halfway through, and several years later we eventually returned and conquered, but not without difficulty. I recently went back and booted up the ‘ol Wii U to check our progress, and although we had indeed beat the final boss, we had gotten our hands on very few collectibles and unlocked hardly any bonus levels.
Well, recently I took yet another shot at the game, this time on the Switch. I may have already beaten the game, but I hadn’t truly conquered it. There was a lot of content I hadn’t seen, and with probably a thousand hours of platforming behind me, I was confident I could do it. Sit back and relax while I recount my experience with the modern yet demanding 2D platformer, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze.
The game begins as the Kong family are celebrating Donkey Kong’s birthday when a fleet of ships belonging to the “Snowmads” makes its way to the island, and with one blow of some magical horn unleashes a snowstorm more impressive than anything Elsa could pull off. Why exactly they are able to do this is not explained in the slightest. Once the storm hits, the Kongs are blown many islands away while the Arctic colonizers settle into their new, wintery paradise.
This actually brings me to the first issue I have with the game. Despite the subtitle, there isn’t actually as strong of a winter theme as I would like. Sure, most of the enemies and all the bosses you encounter are Snowmads themselves, but when it comes to the actual levels, it really just felt like a typical adventure. Yes, many of them are quite creative, and I love the savannah and autumn levels in particular, but aside from the final world, you just sort of forget about what the Snowmads have done.
I wish they had found some more ways to incorporate the theming into the levels beyond enemies. Who says a beach with certain frozen-over trees or random patches of snow wouldn’t be cool? Or, what if the Kongs were able to get some sort of power-up that would allow them to freeze enemies? It’s a relatively minor issue, but I think it’s important to note that it feels more like you’re playing “DKC Returns 2” rather than “Tropical Freeze”.
Let’s forget about the issue I have with the setting while talking about the graphics, because man, this game is beautiful. Seeing as it’s almost ten years old, it’s more the design that stuck out to me today than the sharpness of the models or quality of the lighting. As you adventure through the different islands, you’ll find yourself jumping off melting popsicles, narrowly avoiding falling debris that destroys the path in front of you, and marveling at the detailed background and just sheer beauty of the environment. You don’t tend to notice fewer polygons when you’re platforming on giant leaves as enemies in the background blow horns to the beat of the music. It’s all quite whimsical and at times impressive that the developers were able to make things work together this seamlessly when considering the sheer number of environmental assets that are also things the player interacts with.
Of course, graphics are not as much appreciated if you aren’t enjoying all the running and jumping. I’m thankful to say that besides DK’s somewhat unusual controls, it’s still an enjoyable experience. You can really feel the weight to DK, and he falls quickly and takes a couple frames to get off the ground. It fits a giant like him perfectly, but often slowness makes a character less enjoyable to control. This is mostly counterbalanced by his roll, which accelerates him quickly, and even lets you jump out of it if you go off a ledge.
Of course, there’s other Kongs besides the famous monkey in this game. Diddy, Dixie, and Cranky are all usable by a second player, or as a partner if you’re playing solo. They all have unique abilities – Diddy Kong’s got a jetpack that lets you hover for a bit, Dixie has a ponytail that is apparently functional as a helicopter rotor, and Cranky Kong has a cane which you can use to bounce high and over spikes. While Cranky’s my favorite, I admit Dixie is probably the “best” when it comes to usefulness, since you get both horizontal and vertical leeway. Bah humbug.
There’s even more to spice up the platforming than just characters though. Throughout the stages you can collect banana coins to purchase items from Funky Kong’s shop. For those just trying to beat the game, I recommend the bonus heart, as it sticks around even after dying unlike the banana juice. If you’re going for all the collectibles, make sure to save lots of coins for Squwaks (you’ll need him) and the figurines. Oh, and if you’re wondering what the collectibles in levels do – getting all KONG letters in one world unlocks an extra challenging level (and something even better if you get every one in the game), while getting all the puzzle pieces in a level will net you a nice piece of concept art. I don’t recommend going for all the pictures for most people, but if you’re up for it, getting all the letters is probably worth the investment.
Last thing to mention before we move on to the faith perspective. Let’s talk about everyone’s favorite Monkey, Funky!
When Retro ported this game to the Nintendo Switch, they tried to address the complaints many people had about the difficulty. Now, playing this as a young college student, I didn’t have any problems with the regular mode. After the first world, I don’t think I ever dropped below 80 lives, even when tackling the extra-tough levels. Sure, I was certainly challenged, but I could see someone much more casual than me making it through. Nevertheless, I see no reason not to make a game more accessible, as long as it can be done without taking away from the experience. The new Funky Mode added to this port does this perfectly fine.
Firstly, you have to choose the mode upon starting a new file, and can’t switch this later. I’m never a fan when accessibility blurs the line of what the “real” game is – I don’t want something that’s just toggled on and off at random, or on a gradient. You either play the whole game in Funky mode, or you don’t. I like to be able to know for certain that I conquered a decent challenge in the way that was intended. Being able to switch to easy mode just for one hard level feels cheap, ya know? I’m sure many will disagree with me, but this is my preference.
After beating the main game, I gave Funky mode a shot, and was pleased to see that the developers chose several different angles to ease up the difficulty that makes it distinct from the original mode. Funky Kong gets five hearts instead of the usual two, can roll indefinitely, has a double jump, and more. What this means is that less skilled players can play as Funky on their first go, and try out the regular mode later after they’ve familiarized themselves with the levels and controls. Meanwhile, the experienced players can use the new abilities to fly through the game taking new paths and making jumps that were impossible in the original version.
Yes, it would be nice if we got more significant additions seeing as the game’s still priced at the original $60, but it sure didn’t stop Switch owners from buying it. I don’t think it’s worth it for those that already played on Wii U, but if there was anything that this game needed most, it might just have been Funky Mode, and I’m glad it’s now here. Besides, who can say no to the true king of the Kongs? If he doesn’t show up in the Mario Kart 8 Booster Course Pass, I will riot.
From a faith perspective
You may be surprised to hear me say this, but the Kongs have something we should imitate – and that’s family. One of the biggest issues plaguing our society today is the erosion of the family unit. Children are no longer seen as a blessing, but as a curse. Why would you want to have to deal with the enormous cost and effort of raising children when you could just get a couple dogs instead? Why bother to take care of Grandma when I could pass her off to a nursing home and work a side gig? Despite the economic prosperity of modern times, many people are opting to distance themselves from the gift of family in exchange for self-indulgence. As a result, birth rates in many developed countries have plummeted while loneliness continually becomes a bigger issue.
Yes, it costs money to raise children – so we need to show what other kind of value the family brings. I’ve seen a lot of people working several years in food service, and the saddest folks I’ve seen have always been by themselves. I genuinely just thought of this now, but almost all of our legendary rudest customers were also at the restaurant alone, maybe with one other adult. Sure, I see plenty of Moms and Dads dealing with energetic children that can’t sit still, but they tend to work through it like a champ and are often forgiving if we mess something up. They just… care. They care more about their behavior, because they need to have a positive impact on that child looking up at them. Everything they do means more, because their actions don’t just affect them, but someone else they love. They’ve discovered purpose, and are better people because of it.
I think sometimes the best argument for the Christian way of life is to just step back and look at its effects. As cheesy as this might sound, if you decide to play this game, take note of how the Kong’s togetherness seems to give them a reason to fight, and heightens their abilities. They aren’t clashing with the Snowmads to take back the island for themselves, but for the family. Donkey Kong doesn’t bat an eye when Diddy hops on his back, because he knows why he’s there, and that he’s not going to let him down. As a result, the Kongs are able to pull off some crazy partner moves with buttery-smooth swiftness that could only come from those who really know each other.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is one of the few games I would label as a “modern” 2D platformer. The only other title I’ve played that competes with this is Rayman Legends, which I also enjoyed playing on the Wii U. Sure, awesome platformers have come out since then like Celeste, but they could have been done with lesser tech. Through their game, Retro Studios showed the world that this genre still has room to grow. I can only hope that some big studio picks up where they left off, because it’s been nearly a decade with no news of a sequel on the horizon.
Scoring: 97% ⭐ (EXCELLENT 2D PLATFORMER)
Gameplay: 4.5/5 (-0.5 for the tedious requirements to “200%” the game)
Violence: Light, slapstick cartoon violence. While DK might drown or get hit by a big saw blade, he just falls off-screen. Same sort of thing for enemies.
Magic/occult: The Snowmads have a magic horn that lets them control the weather. Some of the bonus levels also feature monkey-themed temples (golden bananas!), but really just for aesthetics and mystery.
Online connectivity: Each level has a time trial mode with an online leaderboard where you might potentially see inappropriate usernames.
Sex/Nudity: Just mentioning for little kids, one of the bosses is a baboon which means he has a big ol’ red rear.