In just a few short weeks, every game I bought a Nintendo WiiU for will have been made available for the Nintendo Switch, and in each and every case the experience has proven to be a dramatic improvement. This occasion has given me a lot to reflect on and think about and there’s a lot I could say about it, but there’s a particular set of emotions I want to focus on today. I’ve always believed that different sensations can remind us of memories and feelings connected to where and when we were when we first experienced them, and that this can be just as true for our media as it is for anything else. This is why we have to be cautious listening to a certain song when we are feeling a particular way (especially if we’re feeling sad) lest the two end up associated together in our minds forever. On the other hand, it’s also been my experience that, with care, those feelings can grow and evolve with us as we revisit them over the course of our lives.
I got my WiiU at the end of 2014, two years after it had launched. Even though it was usually not my style to buy a video game console as soon as it came out (the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo GameCube were my big exceptions), my delay this time was notable because I wasn’t even originally planning to get it in the first place. When it was first revealed in 2011 I initially thought the WiiU would make a good first step towards a future where mobile devices interacted with home video games, except within months Microsoft and smartphone manufacturers unveiled ways to literally do just that. This left the WiiU feeling a bit conceptually aimless and uncertain: The console’s concept was effectively that of a Nintendo DS tethered to a TV screen, which in hindsight seems inherently self-defeating (and this was far from the only thing wrong with the way that console was handled, but this is all water under the bridge), but more damningly for me there wasn’t a single game on the platform that seemed inspired, and this went on for *years*.
Meanwhile, I’d been alienated by the XBOX One (in a console launch that was arguably even more bungled than the WiiU) and my longstanding enmity with the PlayStation brand and its fans continued to drive me away from the PlayStation 4. I’d been into Steam gaming for a couple of years already and was perfectly happy throughout 2012 and 2013 with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim as my only video game (although I decently enjoyed my time with Pokémon X at the end of 2013 too). In fact, I was starting to wonder if I ever needed another video game again, and got to thinking that maybe it was time for me to retire and leave this medium behind. I even deliberately skipped E3 in 2014, the first year I’d ever done that, because I was so dispirited I didn’t think any of the news would be worth the trouble of sitting through the press conferences.
As it turned out, while 2014 was a pretty terrible year for everyone everywhere, especially if you happened to be involved with video games, it ended up being a something of a banner year for Nintendo: While the omnipresent and inescapable Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS and WiiU was inevitably the major event of that year (followed closely behind, naturally, by the reveal of what would become The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild), through secondhand information I was pleasantly surprised by a series of off-kilter and unexpected releases for the WiiU. Platinum Games made a Bayonetta 2, it was exclusive to the WiiU and it came packaged with a for-real-free copy of the original Bayonetta specially ported over for the occasion. Earlier in the year Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze had been released, a game I’d had my eye on since it had been announced in 2013, but needed another excuse to get a WiiU before I could experience. And even more wonderfully weird, Koei-Tecmo’s Omega Force, the team behind the Dynasty Warriors series, was making a brand-new exclusive game in that style based on The Legend of Zelda series wherein, for the first time ever (officially) you could play as Princess Zelda.
With a handful of system sellers finally lined up (plus Super Smash Bros.) I finally picked up Nintendo’s current home console, and for the first time in a long time, I started to get excited about video games again. In fact Nintendo weren’t even done, soon deciding in a few months to completely and brillaintly rebrand the Nintendo 3DS line with the launch of the New Nintendo 3DS and tossing out a series of masterpiece handheld games along with it, including Pokémon OmegaRuby and AlphaSapphire and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D. But that’s another story.
2014 was, as I said, a pretty awful year for everyone. The details of the way in which it was specifically bad for me are too personal and painful to go into on a public forum like this, but in the interest of providing a modicum of context I’ll say it was a year of trauma, chaos, grief and a great deal of personal upheaval. 2014 marked the beginning of a very painful, though necessary, period of change and transformation that has taken years and years to fully materialize. 2015 and 2016 were almost as bad (if not moreso in their own ways), things didn’t really look like they would ever improve much until last year and it’s only this year that my life has regained some simulacrum of stability. The reason I bring all of this up now is to show that, if there was ever a time I needed my old friends at Nintendo, 2014 was it. But also that equally, I am in an entirely different place and mindset as I sit writing this here almost a full four years later. Which makes revisiting Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, Bayonetta 2 and Hyrule Warriors on the Switch at the other end of the tunnel I pulled myself through kind of a strange and uncanny experience.
I almost quit video games again in January of last year, of course, frustrated with the Switch’s price tag, online service and initial lineup of games. And then by December I wound up with one of my own. And now, not only do I have newer, better versions of Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, Bayonetta 2 and Hyrule Warriors to enjoy, I *also* have The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Special Edition (almost as good as the PC version!), Dynasty Warriors 8: Empires (somehow *better* than the PC version!) and Sonic Mania (quite possibly better than every other Sonic the Hedgehog game, Genesis games included). There’s even a version of Super Mario Bros. It’s like every video game that’s ever been important to me is all on this same machine, a machine that is basically everything I ever wanted out of a video game console, and all free to take with me wherever I go. And the releases just keep coming: I can’t even keep track of everything cool coming out on the Switch anymore.
Back to the topic du jour though. Having already spoken a bit on Bayonetta I wanted to focus on Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, which is, at the time of this publication, out this Friday. Because this is honest to goodness one of my absolute favourite games of all time, I want to do what I can to express how much it means to me and my sincere hope that everyone who has a Nintendo Switch give it a chance.
I’m not going to start with the Donkey Kong series. I’ll get there, but that’s the starting point for every other discussion about this game you can find on the Internet, and while I do have an important history there it’s actually not the most important thing for me where this particular entry is concerned. What immediately stands out to me about Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is its remarkable sense of imagery. More than anything else, and like any great video game, Tropical Freeze not only works on the level of atmosphere and aesthetics, it is fundamentally about this. Right from the start the game sets a mood with peerless skill, and while the world it creates can’t really be said to have too much bearing in “reality”, it does indeed have a visible and consistent aesthetic that works by a particular logic. Visually, the blend of aesthetics on display is striking and memorable: The contrast between the lush greens and earth tones of Donkey Kong Island’s tropical rainforest environment and the bright ice blues of the invading Snowmads is palpable, yet these also go remarkably well with the game’s summery yellows and cyans. Combine this with exquisite level design and art direction and the eclectic world fusion stylings of legendary composer David Wise in one of his greatest turns, and you already have the makings of a masterpiece.
Again though this is all stuff video games ought to have nailed down from the start, and despite Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze‘s remarkable skill at it, the fact remains not every game, and indeed not every great game, is going to be for everyone. What Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze does, and why I’ve dedicated such a lead-in to talking about it, is nail an atmosphere that resonates incredibly powerfully with me personally.
For some reason I have always really, really liked the contrasting blend of tropical and northlands imagery. Probably because they’re the two kinds of climates I find myself compelled by and drawn to above all others, though the reason for that is something I can’t say because I’m not sure I’ve figured it out myself yet. It also, somehow, evokes a summer mood for me far, far more than straightforward summer imagery does. When I see something like this I don’t think of late-season freak winter storms or other bizarre and impossible weather patterns. I instead think of things like frozen lemonade, the colour of swimming pools on clear sunny days, Blizzard Beach at Walt Disney World, popsicles and ice cream bars and summer advertisements using a lot of ice imagery as they try and sell you the idea of “cool” and promises to “beat the heat”.
The Switch version of Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is also launching on May 4, a day that has very potent summery connotations. It’s in the middle of the ancient Northern European pagan festival season to commemorate the start of summer, such as the Gaelic Beltane (the “Mountain” world in Tropical Freeze is even explicitly Germanic-styled) and that very date is Alice’s birthday and the day when Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is said to take place. Beltane is also known for being extremely liminal, a time between two halves of the year that is neither one nor the other, but somehow also a bit of both. As the exact opposite of Samhain/Halloween (at six months apart, they cannot be further removed), Beltane is is every bit as powerful and spiritual as its wintry counterpart. It’s the perfect time of year to experience and enjoy imagery like this.
It’s the smell of the wood on my windowpane as the first sun of the season rises and warms it. That’s the kind of thing that makes me Remember.
The return of Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze and Hyrule Warriors in the liminal season of May got me thinking about other May video game releases and how I’ve experienced this time of year on a material level in both the recent and not-so-recent past. I remember how, nineteen years ago, Super Mario Bros. Deluxe came out on the Game Boy Color on May Day itself: A lovingly crafted remake of my favourite video game, the game that permanently changed how I understood video games, media and my own worldview, on the latest version of my favourite game console. If there was ever or would ever be a must-buy game for me, this was it. I remember that early summer being as bright and warm as any, the sun shining in the clear blue skies, the grass lush with growth and the trees in bloom. It felt like June (and perhaps it was), and the beautiful daydreamy tone and wistful, earnest nostalgia Super Mario Bros. Deluxe adorned itself with reminds me of this every time I play it. It is very close to my favourite way to experience my favourite game, and its imagery has become as fundamentally entwined with Super Mario Bros. for me as anything on the Famicom or NES.
Although not a May release, Pokémon Snap came out that June (and the preceding March in Japan), prompting me to finally check out the series that had taken the world by storm the year before. I fell in love with the world’s favourite game in my own way, and I associate my early explorations with Pokémon with those same summery feelings. It’s a series I have since parted ways with, following a heartbreaking philosophical disagreement I had with the tropical-themed Pokémon Sun and Moon in 2016 (and a probably long overdue ensuing aging out). But I still remember and treasure the happy memories I have of it. And today, we don’t have those warm early summers in May anymore. Living where I do we always get our warm weather later than everyone else and it was always a toss-up whether or not we would see summer arrive in May, but thanks to climate change that’s finally become close to an outright impossibility. This year we’ve gotten horrific winter storms in mid-April, and it remains cold and wet with visible snow cover as I write this. We’re expected to get more in the next few days.
Liminality is a deeply important concept to me for a variety of reasons, the liminality of this season in many ways especially so. And yet I must remember that the Snowmads, Northerner analogs if ever there was one, are the antagonists of this game. The liminality and contrast of Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is thus also that of uncomfortable globalization: Imperialists from the north clashing with displaced indigenes from the south, and a ’round-the-world journey through the lands of the colonized to find a way back home. This is nothing new for a series whose first entry can be plausibly read as a loose retelling and critique of the destructive effect the Banana Wars and NAFTA had on Central and South America and whose second looks for all the World like a journey to the heart of a cartoon Western modernity in the entropic death throws of its empire of artifice. But even above and beyond whatever political readings one could graft onto it, the conflict in Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze can also be seen as a more primal and eternal thing: Winter is a colonizing power that must be repelled to bring light, life, flowers and summer back. And because it is a video game, like all natural cycles, it must forever be replayed. Perhaps this is the necessary Beltane to the Samhain of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
Just like cheekily subtle symbolism, aesthetic contrast between light and dark has been a staple of the Donkey Kong Country series since the beginning. There are snow-covered mountains and boreal forests in the first game right alongside lush jungles and coral reefs. Donkey Kong Country 3, coincidentally the last game in the series David Wise worked on before this one, is similarly built around a contrast between northern and tropical (in fact, it can be seen as an inverse of Tropical Freeze, with Dixie Kong going North to seek out a Lost World). But Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze commits to this with such nuance and sophistication that, paired with the mastery to be found everywhere else in the game, it feels like developer Retro Studios were making a concerted attempt to put out something definitive here…And succeeded.
Although the sixth Donkey Kong Country game, this is only the second to be developed by Retro Studios, the series being most associated with British development house Rareware. Fans being fans, Retro’s attempt to revive the series in their own style has been met with mixed reactions at *best* over the years, though Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze and its predecessor Donkey Kong Country Returns have been far more warmly received by critics. I won’t get into a dry and/or ranty comparison of the old games and the new ones but I *will* say it’s my opinion history, reputation and retrofetishism have somewhat inflated and skewed people’s views of Rare’s games and Retro’s obvious skill and craft have been criminally ignored, especially in this entry, which in its first incarnation sold about as well as snow to the Snowmads. I could point to the basically flawless design that challenges platforming skills without seeming sadistically unfair and inspires exploration in clever ways. but this isn’t a review so I’d rather mount my defense by way of another association. Retro Studios is the house of Metroid Prime, which is the other game to have profoundly changed my life after Super Mario Bros. and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
There are many parallels between Metroid Prime and Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze. Both are boldly auteur franchise reinventions. Both have an unmatched grasp of atmosphere, game design and ability to make a combination of hardware and software positively sing. And both games are about preserving and restoring life. But for me, the biggest is that both games are deeply connected to my explorations into figuring out my personal journey. This is not Samus’ story and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to retell that in full, but for now I can say that Metroid Prime‘s power for me lies in the way its atmosphere, design, story and themes are woven together. It’s the perfect video game because it cannot be truly understood unless it is played and experienced. Because of who I am and the circumstances in my life that have led me to be this way, I was especially susceptible to how Metroid Prime works and what it does. I am eternally grateful for how Metroid Prime helped me and will always be deeply moved by its subtext and implications because of the unprecedented degree to which I related to, identified with and projected onto it. And I’m reminded of this every time I see it.
Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze makes me feel something similar. Or at least, it has the capability to. Not enough time has passed since its initial release for me to properly historicize and examine my relationship with it like I’m able to do with Metroid Prime, but I know this is a special game, and a special game for me personally. I know it helped me through a difficult time four years ago on the WiiU, but now on the Switch it will have to be something else for me. I may not know completely what that is yet, but I have faith that it will be revealed to me in good time. I’ve already learned some things writing this essay. One of them is that this, like my other favourite games, is meaningful to me because of intensely personal and intimate reasons, I have to treasure, cherish and respect those and not let other people who don’t understand who I am and where I’ve come from ruin that or take it away from me.
Like the last time an unloved Donkey Kong game was released on a handheld. It saddens me that the Donkey Kong Land games on the Game Boy have become a begrudged footnote in the Master Narrative of the Donkey Kong Country series, because for me it was those that captured my imagination and attention, not the “parent” series. The first game (a June release in 1995) was the very first video game I ever owned. I’d played video games before, certainly, but I never got the chance to have a console of my own until I got a Game Boy and Donkey Kong Land in yet another attempt to emulate my cousin (who had a Game Boy before me, and whom I had often watched playing Donkey Kong Land and other games for it with rapt attention). I don’t quite know what it is about small screens and handheld consoles that really appeals to me (I mean apart from the obvious portability, which fits my restless, active nature), but something about them does and I was fascinated by the miniature world Donkey Kong Land let me explore and also hold in my hands.
My sentiments do not seem to be shared by most, however. Most accounts and histories write Donkey Kong Land and its two sequels off as pointless ports of the beloved Donkey Kong Country games on an “inferior” system, but that displays a truly hurtful level of willful ignorance because that’s actually, literally wrong. They are absolutely not ports: They are their own games with their own identities and their own experiences worth playing. It is true they use the same engine and assets as the Donkey Kong Country games and they tend to follow a similar set of themes and motifs, but the actual levels and stories are completely different. Donkey Kong Land 2 is the most similar to its counterpart, being a retelling of Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest and reusing the same names for its levels in a similar order, but the actual in-game layout is entirely different. Meanwhile, the original Donkey Kong Land has entire worlds built around assets and design concepts that are nowhere to be found in Donkey Kong Country, plus a bunch of unique music tracks and remixes. Most notably there’s a big city world called, fittingly, Big Ape City that is implied to be the setting for the original Donkey Kong arcade game. And inevitably, this was retconned out of existence by Super Mario Odyssey and its (in my opinion) far more prosaic “New Donk City”. Just another example of how handheld video game history and the things I tend to care about tend to not be respected.
(Ironically enough, despite Donkey Kong Country fans’ rabid insistence that there’s more to their games than impressive graphical trickery, it would seem their justification for dismissing the Donkey Kong Land games outright is…Because of the graphics. Much to my chagrin, this is actually the plot of the first Donkey Kong Land: Cranky Kong, representative of the “old school” gamer who grew up on retro games, is convinced Donkey Kong Country was only a success because of its graphics and that modern gamers would never buy a game like that if it came out on a less powerful system like the Game Boy, so he calls up the first game’s villain to steal Donkey Kong’s bananas and hide them in places DK hasn’t been to yet.)
But in the end, does any of that count for anything? I have my story and my memories and nobody can take that away from me. Isn’t that all that matters? People may try, but nobody can tell me I didn’t experience the things I experienced. That’s an abusive tactic, and I’m not going to allow myself to be demeaned and depersonalized like that anymore. I write about my experiences partly as a way of validating myself that they were real and they really happened, but I’m also compelled to share my enthusiasm in the process of doing so. I suppose that’s the thing that has led us all to a forum like this. I hope in doing so I can inspire other people to look within themselves and think about their own relationship with the stories and events that shaped them. I’m sure we all must have some. Maybe you don’t relate to my story, but maybe you have one of your own that meant as much and changed your life in the same sort of way.
Perhaps the reason I do this, and perhaps the reason games like this are my favourite, is because I’m made to remember who I am.