I’ve been playing Donkey Kong Country for nearly 25 years, which is most of my life. Not only did I play it a lot back then, but I still play it as part of a Zen thing. If I don’t have anything to do, I might fire up a Donkey Kong Country game and think about other things while I mindlessly breeze through the stages. So, Donkey Kong Country is actually a relatively large part of who I am, compared to most other mundane things about my life.
We got three Donkey Kong Country games when it was still a contemporary series. Though opinions vary on the different entries, they all followed the same basic template: the games were about primates, and while the expected, nebulous comedy aspect was there (insofar that apes are inherently goofy when not tearing off people’s faces), Country transcended this idea and put forth a surprisingly deep, moody atmosphere. The art was dark and beautiful, and the music rarely played up the hijinks, instead opting for elegance or a certain dire mystique. The gameplay was traditional side-scrolling with emphasis on secret areas.
Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble is usually regarded to be the worst of the three, albeit worth playing. They were starting to make an even greater departure from the tone of the original Donkey Kong Country, with more muted aesthetics and alien-looking enemies, plus sort of realistic themes to the world and stages. This usually happens by the third entry in a series, unless the creators are really committed to a particular formula. It isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing, but one way or another things may have been getting a little stale, in this case.
So, when Donkey Kong 64 was looming on the horizon, they opted to put one foot in the water and essentially reboot Donkey Kong Country rather than continue the plot of the SNES series directly. Nintendo did this to great effect with Star Fox 64, which for all intents and purposes was the same story as Star Fox. They took all the best aspects of the original game and created a superior experience, but still managed to make it feel fresh with enough seamless additions and tweaks to the gameplay. If you went into Star Fox 64 looking for a respectful successor to the original game, you were in for a delight.
The same cannot be said of Donkey Kong 64. This is about when Rare started to play up the laughs. Banjo-Kazooie preceded it by a year and soft-tossed a number of ideas that permeated Rare’s next ten years of games—more overtly cartoonish styles, gross-out humor, and a looser, easier feel to the gameplay. Rare was developing exclusively for Nintendo at that point, and the Nintendo 64 was clearly geared toward younger audiences compared to the PlayStation, so it’s expected that they were under pressure to go in this direction. Kids love cartoons, anthropomorphic toilets, and a challenge they can handle.
Now, for Banjo-Kazooie, this worked fine, mainly because it was a new intellectual property. No one had any expectations about it, other than that it was going to be inevitably held to the standard of Super Mario 64. But with Donkey Kong 64, we got something different. When you boot it up, you get slapped in the face with the “DK Rap” (and watermelon life force—hmm). Diddy, most of the supporting Kongs and animal buddies, and the Kremlings are back, but the playable roster is mostly new characters that are basically circus sideshow freaks. The Kongo Jungle is more or less recognizable, but the rest of the stages are stock settings. Again, these same things can be said of Banjo-Kazooie, but it’s not unfair to have a certain degree of expectancy with what is clearly meant to succeed or even supplant Donkey Kong Country. Super Mario 64 delivered on the promise of 3D by setting the bar very high in terms of control and functional aspects of 3D like the camera. Donkey Kong 64 didn’t produce a memorable 3D experience, and it didn’t satisfy anyone who loved the previous series.
It was playable, but no one really cared if they got a Donkey Kong 64 2. Rare would never make a Donkey Kong game again as they were subsumed by Microsoft, though Donkey Kong would survive because, of course, it was under license from Nintendo. But because Rare owned other key aspects of Donkey Kong Country, continuing the tradition was tricky. It wasn’t until almost 10 years later forces managed to conspire that allowed the series to continue, two console generations later on the Wii as Donkey Kong Country Returns.
I did not play Returns. I did own a Wii, but for various reasons I didn’t play the game—I didn’t really like the Wii, I no longer had a ton of disposable income at that exact point in my life, and I knew it wouldn’t be a true successor to Donkey Kong Country, although I suspected it was probably worth playing. If any one thing bummed me out, it was the lack of Kremlings. On paper, this shouldn’t be that big of a deal. Returns simply re-skinned them as “Tikis,” freeing them to do with them whatever they’d have done with Kremlings. But this opened up a different can of worms. For one, nobody fucking likes vacation settings. Gamers are introverts; they sit in their dimly lit rooms and avoid sunlight and socializing. Why did Nintendo get such a hard-on for this stuff once GameCube rolled around? Super Mario Sunshine, what’s next, Star Fox: Key Largo?
I play video games so I can get away from yuppies, you assholes.
By this point, I was pretty much done with console gaming anyway. I’d more or less abandoned my Wii and Xbox 360 and stuck to PC gaming for close to a decade. But I did eventually buy a Switch, mainly because I was intrigued by The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey in a way that console gaming hadn’t done since 5th generation. When Returns’ sequel Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze was ported to the Switch (having originally been a Wii U title), I decided it was a low-risk investment given that I already had the console. I knew it wouldn’t deliver on the promise of Donkey Kong Country, but what the hell—there were key people from the original project working on it, so at worst it would maybe just be a solid 30-hour-plus time-sink.
The villains this time are “Snowmads,” which are arctic creatures. Those are not altogether incongruent with the original series, which had seals and snow stages. At this point I have to be fair and point out that Returns by and large was not a vacation-themed game; it still had all the typical Donkey Kong Country stages as far as I know, it was just the Tiki shit that made it come off like an island vacation. And I realize Donkey Kong Island itself is supposed to be a tropical setting, but it was obviously more of a “Lost World” than it was a paradise. I grouped DKC more with the ambiance of cinematic platformers (i.e. Another World or Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee) than I did with Mario Sunshine.
Anyway, Freeze doesn’t take place on DK Island, but you wouldn’t really know the difference. It’s all the same stuff, just brighter, sunnier, more upbeat. The introductory level, Mangrove Cove, is a seaside jungle level. The throwbacks begin immediately, as you can turn around and run backwards into a crashed plane or something and get a red balloon, similar to how you can go into Donkey Kong’s hut in Donkey Kong Country‘s first level, Jungle Hijinxs. I say “or something” because I didn’t really watch any of the cutscenes. As I understand it, the four main Kongs are celebrating DK’s birthday when the Snowmads arrive and mess things up. This didn’t really interest me, because part of the charm of the old games was the fact that the stories were hilariously simple. However, the cutscenes and other asides do seem to feature a lot of inordinate primate screaming, which is a plus.
The first thing that hits me, of course, is the control. Because DKC was like a second skin to me, I’m quick to notice all the differences. At this point, I should explain that during the course of the main game, Donkey Kong is the only character you truly control. When you find DK Barrels, they either rotate between Diddy, Dixie, and Cranky, or they contain a specific one for whom the level is somewhat tailored. When Donkey is alone, he can do all the basic things he could do in DKC. He can walk, run, ground-pound, roll, and throw barrels. When he’s partnered with Diddy, he can hover for a limited time. With Dixie, he can use her hair to either get a small lift in the air or hover in a slightly more erratic way than Diddy (unlike in DKC2, her hair will “run out of steam”). With Cranky, he can slam downward with Cranky’s cane, which allows you to bounce high, traverse spikes, and defeat some enemies more quickly.
Donkey Kong, like in the original DKC, is not expressly agile. In the original series, this wasn’t a problem because there was always a Kong in the pair that was at least reasonably agile. In the new game, he is a bit more homogenized to account for every possible situation, but he still doesn’t feel nimble. The variable speeds take some getting used to because roll-jumping—which was an essential skill in the other games—is now much more explosive. If you’re not careful, you can far overshoot your jumps. On the other hand, if you don’t get used to and utilize this speed and power, you will find your jumps don’t reach, because DK can’t get a lot of air otherwise. Of course, this is offset by having the other Kongs, in this case not Cranky because slamming the ground is very much the antithesis of “getting air,” but with Diddy and Dixie. That is to say, if you don’t gauge your jump very well, you can sometimes adjust with hovering.
Here’s where they kind of dropped the ball. For one, Cranky is just not that useful. There are a handful of levels and one boss fight where he is essential, but most of the time he’s either not practical or, in the case of levels based primarily around pitfalls, entirely useless or even detrimental. Cane-bouncing is fun, but most of the levels just don’t really have situations where it comes naturally. Even when there are floor hazards you can bounce across, there are still vines above them because the game knows you might not necessarily have Cranky. Furthermore, although he can kill enemies with one stomp that would normally take three, you are pretty much depriving yourself of free loot this way, because you get more bananas and coins the longer you sustain a stomp combo.
Diddy is basically useless, or rather he is functional but wholly inferior to Dixie. I think the advantage is supposed to be that his hover can cover more ground, but I find that it’s far more likely I need the extra height than I do the extra few feet horizontally, because Donkey Kong can propel himself great distances as it is with the roll-jump. So Dixie will be your bread-and-butter, although the characters have other benefits. You can play as them separately in Hard Mode, and they have projectile weapons. As I understand it, each Kong also has an underwater benefit, but I find these never come into play except that you need Dixie for certain strong currents that lead to optional paths. You also have “POW” abilities—charged-up powers that affect every enemy on the screen and are different for each supporting Kong. Diddy turns enemies into red balloons, Dixie turns them into heart armor, and Cranky turns them into banana coins.
Coins are for Funky’s shop. There, you can buy various temporary buffs, figurines, and Squawks, who helps you find puzzle pieces in each level. Puzzle pieces are roughly equivalent to Kremcoins and Bonus Coins from the other games, although K-O-N-G letters are also more important now. Each world has a number of levels, some of which have alternate exits à la Super Mario World that lead to side levels, and if you get K-O-N-G in every level, you open up that world’s “challenge” level which has no checkpoints and tends to be filled with pits (sorry, Cranky). There’s also an extra world like in the other games provided you get all the bonus content and beat the final boss. Funky is also playable in the Switch version; he can’t travel with a second Kong, but he’s stronger and has a bunch of unique abilities, so it’s sort of like playing as Richter in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. So for content, the game gets an “A.”
But does it capture the magic of the originals? Not really. I only bring this up this unfair comparison because clearly Nintendo was trying to capitalize on this. They listened to the fans that wanted the classic characters like Donkey, Diddy, Dixie, Funky, and Cranky, as well as iconic animal buddy Rambi (who was conspicuously absent from DKC3). They also enlisted David Wise who worked on the original three games’ soundtracks, and made sure to include cues from those games. They knew which songs people liked, and remixed “Aquatic Ambiance,” “Stickerbrush Symphony,” as well as other lesser musics like the bonus rooms’ victory or defeat tunes. Although I appreciate this, I find the soundtrack to be too reliant on these throwbacks, and ultimately not to have much charm of its own. Not to mention, the remixes aren’t really anything to write home about. I also didn’t care for the symphonic music that plays in the last world when you play the “siege” levels. I get that they were going for a Nordic thing with the Snowmads, but it just makes me feel like I’m playing Ape of Thrones.
Ultimately, although the moods are too bright compared to the original games and the controls not as satisfying, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is still a solid video game. I can’t be too picky about the changes in the series because I know that if it was too derivative, that would be even worse. There are things that even the developers can’t control that make a true successor a virtually impossible task, so it’s best just to appreciate the honest effort they made here, which resulted in a good challenge that gets most of the key aesthetic elements right.