Just two worlds into Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, you hit a stage that shows exactly why the game excels as a platformer: iteration. Lots of platformers have memorable mechanics, but what makes Tropical Freeze special is how it introduces new ideas to you and then complicates them in fun and challenging ways just as you’re wrapping your head around them
Set in an alpine forest, the level is called Sawmill Thrill, and it’s a take on the old minecart levels from the original trilogy on SNES, which were wild, borderline-nonsensical roller coaster rides that had you hopping from rail to rail on a runaway car. Those levels were always fun—offering a faster-paced challenge to the usual running, jumping, vine-hopping and such—but Sawmill Thrill not only recreates their high speed excitement, but goes even further, pushing the player to adapt as the classic minecart they’re comfortable with is replaced with a new vehicle (and all new jumping mechanics.)
You start out in a sort of moody grove. There are secrets here, as usual, encouraging exploration and rewarding players who dip into various nooks and crannies. Soon, you enter the runaway train portion of the level. The first few jumps are pretty easy, letting the player get a feel for the mechanics of the train without plummeting to their death right away.
But a minute or so in, things change. You are swapped from your familiar minecart into a log raft that speeds through the flume that runs the course of the entire level. Suddenly, the physics change, too: After all, a minecart and a log raft are different vehicles.The arc of the jump changes. The water moves you a bit faster on downhills and slower on level areas. You jump not only over obstacles, but also down into the water, which necessary for nabbing some of the bonus items. Aesthetically, thematically and mechanically, everything shifts, and the first time it happened, it was a pretty rad surprise.
Then, after a few precarious jumps and ducks, you float back into the factory, and jump back into a minecart. Only now, the gloves are completely off. You need to navigate the stage as a giant buzzsaw threatens both you and the level geometry itself. By the end, the rails are completely chopped up, requiring you to make harrowing last-second adjustments in order to jump to safety and make it through to the end.
The thing is, this sort of rapid mechanical switch-up isn’t the exception in Tropical Freeze, it’s the rule. The game marries two key elements: satisfying game mechanics and level design that brings out the best in them. There is a constant loop here, in every level: new elements and features are introduced, iterated upon, and spun into new challenges. The game keeps moving with this, so each new stage offers a steady drip of surprises and challenges.
There’s a level in world three (Cannon Canyon, if we’re keeping track) that introduces swinging ropes with bombs on them. At first, you’re introduced to the concept in a nice, safe way, with a big beefy platform underfoot. On the very next platform, you have to make a little jump to avoid its arc. Within seconds, you’re already learning how to deal with this new thing.
From those humble beginnings, the level adds new ways of splashing your guts on the canyon walls until you are feverishly firing from barrel to barrel, timing your traversal perfectly to avoid lines of swinging bombs hanging seemingly everywhere.
It’s a rush, and it feels amazing when you start to get the hang of the timing and nail it. It makes you feel like a Kong God, and it’s really all down to that kind of atomic level design. That, in turn, makes playing this game a tremendous pleasure, even when things get tough.
And they will: Tropical Freeze is a difficult game. Thankfully, the designers learned from Donkey Kong Country Returns (the first in the rebooted series), and that game’s 3DS iteration, offering a store with helpful items: a “crash guard” that gives you a free screw-up on a minecart level, an extra heart, the ability to enter a level with one of the Kong buddies, etc.
And new to the Switch iteration is Funky Mode, essentially an easy mode for the game. In it, you can play as Donkey (with extra hearts) or Funky, who carries five hearts, doesn’t take damage from most spikes, has unlimited air underwater (he has a snorkel!) and has a super-long float on his jump, courtesy his surfboard. It’s a brilliant edition: I’m glad that more people will be able to see this game to the end thanks to Funky.
Otherwise, classic mode is the same game as before: with the same collection of Kongs that enhance your jumping abilities—Diddy and his slow-burn jetpack, Dixie and her height-adding twirl, Cranky and his pogo stick. It has the same rewarding level progression and multi-stage boss fights that test your skills starting from world 2’s notoriously cranky owl. And it has the same rewards for diligent exploration: bonus levels, secret exits that lead to mysterious “special” levels. There are concrete reasons to collect those KONG letters and puzzle pieces, if you want to.
Here’s an early one: there’s a secret exit in an early level that requires you to keep a sharp eye near the end of the stage, and employ Cranky Kong’s pogo jump to get extra height. Noticing an irregularity nets you access to a secret portal, and from there, a secret stage called Busted Bayou, a gorgeous forested stage that plays out in silhouette.
This feeds directly into another element of the level design that Tropical Freeze does so well: a sense of pacing and flow that strays from predictability.
You move very quickly through much of the game. Donkey Kong (and Funky) is a brawny dude: he moves with purpose and momentum. For many of the obstacles you face, you need that momentum to carry through. Sometimes, finding secrets means having lightning quick reflexes: the ability to see that puzzle piece after a challenging jump in a minecart level, for example.
But often, the game encourages you to take a minute and look at your surroundings. To explore—poke and prod a little. See if you can make that weird jump if you time it just right off of that enemy penguin’s head. Lives are plentiful, even in classic mode. It’s ok to sacrifice a few to messing around. Tropical Freeze is a difficult game, but not a punishing one. It rewards this kind of play often, not with little doodads (I mean, yes, you can unlock extras like that as well), but with levels and secrets that give you more of what you actually want if you’re enjoying the game.
Oftentimes, just noticing a few floating bananas (there are a LOT of bananas in this game) or a tiny piece of scenery that looks askew means you’ll find a hidden puzzle piece or bonus room for your efforts.
And even if you don’t discover a secret in your off-the-path explorations, there are tiny intrinsic rewards to running around and seeing everything. This game is beautiful. The many layers of scenery (and fantastic soundtrack) create a world that is cartoony, yes, but complete. Internally consistent and nuanced. Early on in many stages, you’ll see elements in the background that you’ll interact with later, sometimes, even whole sections of levels. You see that in Alpine Incline, which starts you out in a chill little forest village, with the harrowing, creaky bridges you’ll soon be hopping and bopping over far off in the distance. It’s a subtle cue, but a worthwhile one, priming your brain for the kind of action you’ll soon be embarking upon.
This is where Tropical Freeze goes from being “merely” an exceptionally well-designed 2D platformer to one of the very best in this generation. It’s not an exercise in minimalism, paring down movement to precise inputs in the Super Meat Boy tradition that’s had some traction in indie platformers of the last ten years. It’s difficult, but not about difficulty fetishism, and it gives you all of the tools you need to meet its requirements.
It’s a game about noticing details and learning. It’s about pacing and iteration, the constant introduction of new elements and ever-present creativity in showing off newer and tougher ways to contend with them.
I first reviewed Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze when it first came out in the early days of 2014, and I revisited it in my very first piece for Waypoint back around the site’s launch. It’s a little more difficult than it really needs to be, but minor quibbles aside, it’s one of the very best 2D platformers of its generation, with level design that consistently surprises, challenges, and delights.
And now that it’s on a platform that people have actually been buying (the Switch!) I’m excited for people outside of myself and Giant Bomb’s Dan Ryckert to actually play and enjoy it.. Use Funky Kong if it helps, but play this game. It’s a joy from top to bottom, and a masterclass in 2D level design that even the finest minds in the field can learn from.