Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 51, Donkey Country Country: Tropical Freeze and No. 50, Donkey Kong Country Returns

The return of a beloved franchise — and its sequel — are both better than anything from the original series that inspired them in the first place.

I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

Donkey Kong Country Returns was a revelation. It had a nigh impossible task in front of it from the start: the Donkey Kong Country series, originally developed by Rareware, is highly beloved, both for accurate reasons and because of a sometimes impermeable cloud of nostalgia hanging in front of people of a certain age. And yet, Returns smashed not just the high expectations of those awaiting the franchise’s return, but also right through whatever defenses cynics put up to protect their old gods. The best Donkey Kong Country game is Returns, which, even 11 years later, even after I already ranked Donkey Kong Country 2 awhile back on this list, feels wild to consider.

And right behind it is its own sequel, Tropical Freeze, which showed that Retro Studios — developer for Returns, as well — was loaded with ideas for how to continue a series that had suffered and been shelved, in part, due to an obvious lack of them. Both Returns and Tropical Freeze are wonderful titles in their own right, and while they receive no credit on this list for making me excited about an as-of-yet-unannounced third entry of Retro’s in the DKC franchise, they’re that good that they have me wanting more — and in making me think that, unlike the first time around, the third entry won’t be a disappointment.

Returns is everything you remember loving about the original Donkey Kong Country trilogy, as well as the things you think you remember loving from it. It’s also a whole bunch of new, Retro-specific things to love, and the mix of building upon the actual foundation of the franchise with the kinds of improvements and adds that ensured that the series would play well for both modern audiences and those who played the originals back in the 90s is what makes it all just so good.

There is so much more game here than there used to be, both within the individual levels themselves and in total. The mechanics have changed a bit: you are no longer playing one Kong with a second Kong trailing, able to switch between the two, but instead your two Kongs act as one, with Donkey Kong able to travel further while jumping while Diddy is on his back, thanks to Diddy’s jetpack. (At least that’s how it works in single player — yes, these are couch co-op titles, too, and you have to work together to cross gaps like that when playing with a friend.) You have hearts for health, barrels that refill them and give you your partner are less frequent. It still feels like DKC, though, unlike, say, Jungle Beat, or Jungle Climber, or whatever DK series existed in between DKC entries while Nintendo took a turn at the development wheel once again that all felt like their very own thing.

The levels still have difficulty to them that doesn’t always exist in other Nintendo platformers, but the challenges feel more fair, and less random, than they sometimes did in the original DKC trilogy. In the same way Diddy’s Kong Quest learned from the original Donkey Kong Country about balance and fairness, Retro took a cue from Rare’s experiences and further tweaked the formula, and the result is very satisfying. Donkey Kong can take more damage than he used to be able to, but that doesn’t make the game easier: it made it more fair. You won’t be killed by some unfair surprise like you could be in the originals, but it also means you’re in store for a whole lot more fair surprises and challenges that are meant to test you and your health allotment.

Maybe the most succinct way to describe how Returns manages to balance old and new, respectfully bringing the past back from where it slept to the present but with the utmost care, is in its entire world that is an homage to the original Donkey Kong Country’s Mine Cart Carnage. The only Donkey Kong Country levels out there more exhilarating than Mine Cart Carnage are here, in Returns, as an ode to how that level originally made you feel, but with their own wrinkles and challenges that turn it all up to 11. Really, this world is why I have Returns ahead of Tropical Freeze: it’s just that exceptional a series of stages, based on a beloved stage and feeling that even Rareware was never able to capture again despite being the ones who brought it to us in the first place. I was really enjoying Returns, but getting to this point in the game ensured it would be one I’d gladly go back to again and again in the future.

(Tropical Freeze has its own mine cart levels, too, don’t you worry. Retro went back to that well and found success once again.)

You can check out stage 4-3 from Returns, Bombs Away, in this video below. Not only do you have the platform-jumping mayhem of Mine Cart Carnage involved, but there is also a mole throwing explosives at you that you need to dodge or that alter the tracks in front of you, requiring you to react in a hurry. And there are spots with low-hanging ceilings to duck under, enemies to avoid or dispatch, bananas and collectibles… it’s a lot, and it feels so incredible to get through it all.

Collecting, too, has seen improvements, as hidden items are once again wonderfully integrated into the levels, and exploring and experimenting encouraged. I mentioned above that Diddy’s jetpack is key for jumping further: without Diddy around, some areas become inaccessible, an those areas often hold secrets. So it’s vital that you do your best to keep Diddy from losing his health, leaving you with just Donkey to control.

The K-O-N-G tiles return, and this time, you not only receive an extra life for spelling out KONG, but collecting the word in each level of the game unlocks a hidden Golden Temple, where the most difficult platforming challenges of the entire game await. It’s not required that you unlock the Golden Temple to have a good time with Returns, so don’t stress if you’re having trouble finding all of the tiles. But if you want a challenge, start with finding all of those letters, and end it with completing the hidden Golden Temple.

Sometimes, a sequel being so similar to its predecessor can be a detriment to the enjoyment of the sequel. And I’ll admit, the first time I played Tropical Freeze, I wasn’t as into it in part because of how much I had played Returns. That feeling would fade, however, as “more of Retro’s style of Donkey Kong Country” was itself a wondrous thing, and something to be appreciated. The changes to the gameplay were enough to differentiate the two, as well: the addition of Dixie Kong and Cranky Kong as companions, with their own unique abilities — Dixie, of course, brings back the propeller ponytail, while Cranky uses his cane to bounce on dangerous areas that would harm the Kongs otherwise, and even to defeat some enemies the other Kongs cannot. That, plus bringing water levels back to the franchise — and on the Switch version of the game, adding in Funky Kong as an easy mode for players in need of such a thing — kept this from being too much of the same, and instead, made Tropical Freeze its own success for its own reasons.

Like with Returns adding hearts for health to keep the unfair deaths from piling up, Tropical Freeze added an additional heart, too — but again, not to make things easier. Just to balance them further and make them more fair. The challenge has ramped up, and was actually a point of contention for some critics, who felt the game was too difficult. The idea — and one I support — was to avoid just doing more of the same, though. Retro made Tropical Freeze with the expectation that people were familiar with Donkey Kong Country games, and Returns, specifically. Given Returns saw a release on the Wii and on the 3DS, two high-selling platforms, and Tropical Freeze released on the Wii U, a system that seemingly no one without either a Wii or a 3DS at some point in their life purchased (and that was backwards compatible for Wii games, and sold them on its eShop), that all makes sense as a strategy.

Adding Funky Kong on the Switch as a concession to Tropical Freeze’s difficulty, though, also makes sense as a strategy! Games shouldn’t be impossible just for the sake of it, and Tropical Freeze certainly doesn’t fall into that category. It is a real challenge, though, especially if your goal is to try to collect and unlock all of it, so creating an option for those who still want to do all of that, but want to be able to do so with fewer deaths and less frustration and more leeway in their playthrough, is a positive. Hell, maybe the Funky Kong play is just their first one, then they move onto a Donkey run brimming with confidence from their initial run, just like any other game where you go from Easy to Normal to Hard modes.

Tropical Freeze, initially, brought the series into HD on the Wii U, and serves as yet another example of Nintendo (and its subsidiaries) coming out with what should have been hit after hit, if only they weren’t on a console that no one owned. Luckily, Tropical Freeze was ported to the Switch, and more than doubled its lifetime sales despite being the second release of the title. The sales mean nothing for ranking purposes, but toss them in with the quality of the title, and I’ve got hope for an eventual third entry. But hey, if this is all we get from Retro on the Donkey Kong front, then what we got was two platformers loaded with depth, both as replayable as anything from the original trilogy they are [don’t say aping, don’t you dare say aping] uh… succeeding.

I wouldn’t worry too much about which of Donkey Kong Country Returns or Tropical Freeze is number 50 and which one is number 51. They are, in essence, equal in quality, but both deserving of their own spot on the list, as that quality is exceptionally high. There is one specific thing I prefer about Returns to Tropical Freeze, so that broke the tie for me. Maybe you really love underwater levels, or bouncing around with Cranky Kong! I do especially love the latter of those two, but… well, watch Bombs Away again. An entire world of that edge-of-your-seat nonsense sold me now and forever, but I’m sold on both, and will go back to each for more for reasons other than list making.

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