In a Snatch Gaming podcast episode that I will record some time in the next twenty years, I will present every single thought I have about owning a Nintendo Switch. If you want a quick taste: it’s the platform I play on the most these days, despite some legitimate flaws. As far as the games, Nintendo has done their job and more in my opinion. There is a very nice number of first party and exclusive games, as well as a boat load of smaller titles available on the eShop (for better or worse, but again, one day I’ll record that episode and tell you why).
The thing is, despite a fairly impressive library, I hadn’t found “my game” on the Switch a full year into the console’s life cycle. I think that both The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey are games that every Switch owner should buy. Very good games to be sure, but neither are a favorite of mine. Contrary to many other opinions, they’re nothing I didn’t enjoy, have my fill of, then mostly drop away from completely in favor of whatever else caught my attention next.
This all changed, however, when I ordered a copy of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. I never took the plunge on the Wii U, but I was fully aware that there were at least a few games that I would’ve played had I had proper access to them, and DKC:TF was the most prominent. I feel pretty strongly about buying old games for full price, but the Amazon discount here made it a bit easier to swallow. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised here, and far more so than I ever expected. I didn’t realize that I was buying possibly the best platformer ever made.
Before one considers whether this is a game they should play, I would present two questions: Do you enjoy 8-bit and 16-bit sidescrollers? If not, do you at least enjoy a good challenge? If one answered “yes” to either of those, I think this game is a no-brainer purchase. In the event that neither of those questions were answered positively, however, I would say pass. Tropical Freeze is a ball buster. No way around it. At times, it will induce some legitimate frustration at best, and controller throwing at worst. It doesn’t always seem fair (even though it usually is), and there are stretches that demand trial and error for all but the best reflexes and hand eye coordination.
The thing is that this game is still amazing fun provided you’re okay with actually getting stuck at times, and it does have a lot of built-in features that make it much more palatable than, say, an old Mega Man game, where you use up a few lives then have to start all over. It’s structured a little bit like Dark Souls or what have you, just in a different package genre-wise. You can make progress, but eventually precision will have to prevail. This isn’t Fallout or Far Cry, where you can simply allow yourself to become powerful enough to plow through an area (calm down, I like both of those franchises). I hesitate to use the word “skill”, so instead I’ll just say that the typical XP grind that helps your overcome obstacles in other games is replaced by you yourself simply learning the game’s patterns and overcoming that brick wall you’ve been hitting.
As mentioned, there are some updates to this old, often difficult formula. The game is extremely generous with lives. Even in the most dire of circumstances, where I was just dying over and over, I still could maintain having between 15-20 lives. Collecting 100 bananas earns an extra life, which is fairly easy as you progress, and you can visit Funky Kong’s store to buy them outright as well, and you will be able to afford A LOT of lives, trust me. Lastly, the game’s most difficult stretches often have expertly placed balloons (i.e., extra lives) that you can grab even if you fall to your death. This is the mark of a team that wanted to make a great game in the DKC franchise but also understood that a little cushion might be nice for people that are having some trouble. This enables you to try, try, and keep trying the toughest parts of the game without worrying too much about some kind of permadeath. Purists might actually say it’s an easy out for the “casual” player who isn’t up to the challenge, but I think it’s a great way to balance out the difficulty. There’s also an Easy mode which even younger kids can enjoy and make progress, where you play as Funky Kong on his skateboard.
The levels themselves are extremely colorful and well-designed with a good variety of themes. This is another game where I strongly recommend playing on a television regardless of the convenience of the Switch’s portable mode. You’ll miss a lot of rich visual detail if you mostly play on the small screen. The themes of each locale seem to ignore the whole “tropical freeze” that’s supposedly going on, but the game is better for it I think. Bosses are very original and creative as well and, much like the rest of the game, can be punishing yet you never feel like you can’t succeed.
That’s really why Tropical Freeze is so great. It can be brutal, but progress never seems completely out of reach, which I believe is the mark of a great game that also poses a challenge. To me, this is the pinnacle of traditional 2D sidescrollers with some small tweaks that bring the formula up to modern expectations. It’s not a Metroidvania, it’s not a rogue-like, it’s a straight-up “you versus the game” experience with no filler or add-ons. It’s everything we used to love about Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden, and all the rest but without the quirks of old hardware and old ideas. I can’t think of another game like this that I would recommend more highly.