What we're playing: 'Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze'

Nintendo still has a few Wii U greats left in the hopper.

This month, Reviews Editor Jamie Rigg discovers one of Nintendo's many slept-on classics. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze came out back in 2014, but because the Wii U wasn't the most popular console around, it didn't exactly sell like hotcakes. Four years on, Nintendo has a hit console on its hands and is rereleasing Tropical Freeze for the Switch.

Jamie Rigg

Jamie Rigg
Reviews Editor

The Switch sold more in nine months than the Wii U did in its entire lifetime, which is very good news for Nintendo. It means the company's formula of quirky hardware plus treasured IP is working once more, but better yet, there's a whole wave of Switch owners out there who will have skipped the Wii U altogether. And if they didn't, they more than likely picked up a game or two and let the console gather dust in between major launches. This presents Nintendo with a unique opportunity to recycle some of its better Wii U titles for a new, Switch-wielding audience. The fact that Nintendo did this very thing with Mario Kart 8, positioning it as a Switch launch-window title, did not sit well with me. But putting a less cynical hat on, it does mean people get a chance to play games they would've missed out on had Nintendo tried to forget the Wii U ever existed (like everyone else).

Case in point: I'd never even heard of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze until a colleague flagged it, and I had a Wii U. (It's in a cupboard at a friend's house right now, where it will probably live forever.) What particularly interested me about this DK game was that it's a 2D platformer in a very real sense. Franchises like Zelda, Grand Theft Auto and Mario have conditioned us to expect sprawling 3D worlds as the norm, and yet Tropical Freeze plays almost exactly like the original Donkey Kong Country released on the SNES almost 25 years ago. Outside of some great indie games, I couldn't tell you the last 2D platformer I've played from a big developer. Little Big Planet 3 is the closest thing I can think of, and that's a completely different type of game, really.

I would say Tropical Freeze is the ultimate archetype of a 2D platformer, but then Nintendo basically defined what makes a game like this good decades ago, so no surprise there. This starts with a completely random and unimportant storyline. The opening cutscene shows a fleet of ice-covered ships crewed primarily by penguins encroaching on Donkey Kong Island, presumably seeking warmer shores. They spoil DK's birthday party with the family, so they have to be sent packing. I think that's what's happening, anyway, but who cares? You're not here to get wrapped up in believable storyline; you're here to bounce off penguins' heads and beat the game.

Name a platformer trope, Tropical Freeze has it. A little map of the world you navigate to move between levels? Check. A set of collectibles on each stage for the completionists among us, à la Crash Bandicoot? Absolutely. There's also the mid-level power-ups -- in this case, Diddy, Dixie and Cranky Kong, which hop on Donkey's back, give him more health points and augment his jump to make everything a bit easier. The DK version of Yoshi, in other words. What's relatively unique about Tropical Freeze is that on each world, there exists a shop. You collect coins within levels, which can be exchanged for things like extra lives, fall saves or a Kong on your back when you start the level. I find the parrot particularly useful, which squawks when you're near a secret, helping massively with hard-to-find collectibles.

It's very easy to bank up a shedload of coins, though, and since none of these items are anywhere near essential to completing levels, they feel like an element you could completely ignore if you wanted to. Perhaps in time I'll come to value the help more, because I haven't actually played that much of the game yet -- not through lack of trying, but because it's really hard. Don't let the cartoony graphics and cuddly characters fool you: This is a precision platformer. It feels almost like Super Meat Boy meets Super Mario, only the deaths sting that much more. It's worth noting here that I'm playing on the classic setting, not the new Funky Kong mode that's exclusive to the Switch edition launching May 4th. In fact, it's the only major difference between the two versions.

Playing as Funky Kong is the game's equivalent of an easy mode. He has a double jump, air glide, permanent roll attack and way more health points. He also looks pretty rad, with a California surfer–style outfit, shades and a board. I couldn't resist playing the game the way it's meant to be played, though, which by comparison is brutal. Accurate jumps and timing are essential to making it through even the early levels. Tropical Freeze isn't particularly unique in its level design, though it does an excellent job of rewarding exploration of your limited 2D plane. After a while, you'll start to see hallmarks of where a secret area might lie, concealed in plain sight. Otherwise, the game is about jumping between platforms, vines, etc., and avoiding enemies or bopping them on the head for extra height.

That sounds easy enough, but Donkey Kong has a weight to him. The character physics are subtle but extremely important. DK has a turn rate, a short acceleration period and a braking distance. In many levels, you'll get into a rhythm and find a line: this platform to that vine to that enemy's head, and so on. If you get off-beat with a poor jump (assuming you didn't fall right away) and you've got too much or too little momentum, it can be hard to recover. It can get frustrating when you can't settle in, but it makes it all the more satisfying when you cruise through part of a level at optimum speed. Throw some light problem-solving into the mix and you've got yourself a charming platformer.

Every time it starts to get a bit samey, the game throws another enemy type or mechanic at you to keep you interested. After completing anything particularly hard, you typically get something easier to cruise through, like a runaway mining cart level. This gives you a sense that progress is always being made. While I'm now invested to the point that I'm going to have to beat the game and find every secret, which is praise in and of itself, there is room for improvement. In my experience, you've no choice but to die occasionally to see what comes next, which is a lazy way to make something challenging. Similarly, you can find yourself in an awesome rhythm and then an enemy spawns out of nowhere that seems intentionally placed to ruin your flow. Mid-level checkpoints are rarely well positioned, either. You often have to repeat a really easy, mundane section collecting bananas and coins before hitting the harder element you're likely to die on a few times.

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is the type of game I rarely play anymore. It's not competitive, requiring countless hours of practice, nor is it some grand story you're immersed in for weeks or months. You grab a controller, blast out a level and then go make dinner. Not having to invest too much time and energy into a game and feeling like you're getting somewhere is refreshing. That said, I imagine you're going to need to be pretty excited about the title to feel comfortable spending $60/£40 on a Wii U rerelease.

"IRL" is a recurring column in which the Engadget staff run down what they're buying, using, playing and streaming.