Winter Is Coming: “Tropical Freeze” gets deserved second chance on Switch

TORONTO — Donkey Kong is giving an encore performance of his latest adventure, and this time he’s expecting a bigger audience.

“Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze” makes its way to the Nintendo Switch this week. The challenging platformer starring one of Nintendo’s oldest characters was originally released in February 2014 for the Wii U, earning critical acclaim but seeing its sales limited by the console’s modest install base.

The Switch, however, has easily outsold the Wii U in just one fiscal year, and that has presented Nintendo with an opportunity to beef up the library for its new console/handheld hybrid with excellent, ready-made games. Nintendo released “Mario Kart 8 Deluxe” on the Switch last year, and the former Wii U exclusive went on to sell 9.22 million units worldwide as of March.

“Tropical Freeze,” the fifth instalment in the main “Donkey Kong Country” series, is no doubt deserving of such a second chance. The game features the lovable cravat-sporting ape in a meticulously designed and fun 2-D side-scrolling romp, difficult to challenge even expert gamers. Perhaps it’s a touch too unforgiving for casual players, but Nintendo has found a way to address that in the Switch version.

The game begins when Donkey Kong’s birthday is rudely interrupted by a horde of Viking penguins, who sail their longships to Donkey Kong island, turn it into a wintry wasteland and exile our hero and his simian cohorts to a distant island.

Not one to take a ruined party lightly, Donkey Kong begins on a quest to defeat his new Nordic enemies and restore his island to a sun-splashed paradise. Along the way he will get help from his fellow Kongs — Diddy, Dixie and Cranky. Each one increases Donkey Kong’s health bar and has an ability to help DK navigate the levels. Diddy Kong can hover for a short while, Dixie can increase the height of DK’s jump and Cranky can use his cane as a pogo stick to traverse otherwise harmful surfaces.

DK’s companions are found in barrels scattered throughout the levels. While he can trample throughout the levels without help, the companions make life easier and are necessary to get at the well-placed collectibles necessary to unlock secret levels.

Difficulty ramps up quickly as players traverse several worlds, each with their own enemies, traps and pitfalls. After lulling players into a false sense of security with a couple of easy introductory levels, the game throws some prickly platforming sequences early on. A fast-paced ride in a mine cart, with whirling propellers from a downed plane to avoid and dangerous chasms to jump over, will have average gamers leading Donkey Kong to his demise several times before getting the timing right. And that’s before facing off against the first boss.

The game’s difficulty was praised by reviewers when released for the Wii U, but the biggest addition to the Switch version centres around an option to dial it down. A new game mode lets players enjoy the adventure as Funky Kong, whose usefulness belies his surfer slacker motif that comes complete with sunglasses and tank top.

Funky Kong’s advantages go beyond his significantly larger health bar, and he can roll and breathe underwater indefinitely, double-jump and even hover momentarily and avoid damage from spiky floors thanks to his surfboard. Essentially he diminishes some of the game’s tougher challenges and makes it easier to get all the collectibles.

Other than the Funky Kong addition, this is pretty much a direct port of the Wii U version, with enhanced graphics and a smooth frame rate thanks to the Switch’s more powerful hardware. But as many Switch owners would have missed this gem on the Wii U, Nintendo doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel here.

With Wii U games like “Mario Kart 8 Deluxe” and “Bayonetta 2” enjoying new life on the Switch, “Tropical Freeze” stands to finally get the sales to match its deserved critical praise.

“Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze” is rated E for all audiences and retails for about $80.

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