'Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze' Represents the Good and the Bad of 21st-Century Nintendo

Nintendo’s in trouble. The company’s latest console, the Wii U, is a bomb so far, selling far fewer units since its November 2012 launch than the company forecasted. Sony’s Playstation 4 came out almost exactly a year later and is significantly more expensive, but it’s already outsold the Wii U. Nintendo’s latest handheld, the 3DS, is a solid success, but it, too, has fallen short of the company’s sales expectations. The company predicted almost a billion dollars in profit for the fiscal year that ends this month but now expects to post a $335.2 million dollar operating loss. A few years ago the games press joked that Nintendo printed money with the massively successful Wii and DS; now they joke about the imminent demise of Nintendo’s hardware.

It seems like everybody who writes about games has hard ideas about what Nintendo needs to do to stay afloat. That almost always involves calls for the company to release games for mobile devices or for the video-game systems made by Sony and Microsoft. Nintendo might be dipping its toes into the mobile market—the company announced in January that it’s looking into making mobile software that would effectively serve as demos of certain Wii U and 3DS games. But, despite Nintendo’s struggles, ditching hardware entirely to become a third-party publisher for Sony or Microsoft would be almost unthinkable. It happened with Sega, but Sega was basically a one-hit wonder in a console market that Nintendo almost single-handedly revived in the 1980s. A Nintendo without hardware would hardly be a Nintendo at all.

In late February, Nintendo released Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze for the Wii U. This one game encapsulates everything good and bad about modern-day Nintendo. It hints at the company’s possible salvation while reminding us how Nintendo found itself in this position to begin with. It might be the best game of the year so far, but only a fraction of the people who would enjoy it most will ever even play it.

Tropical Freeze reinforces the most important truth about Nintendo—that the company’s games are usually great. Tropical Freeze drops us in an adorable, richly realized world and then antagonizes us with some of the most brutally difficult platforming since the original NES era. It’s a gorgeous game, with lush tropical locales in resplendent high-definition and character animation as fluid and full of personality as any animated film. The music, which has long been a highlight of the Donkey Kong Country series, remains superb—the island-themed symphonic pop snugly fits each unique environment, reacting to our actions and furthering our emotional connection to the game world. At its peak, when the level design, play mechanics, art design, and music are all at their best, Tropical Freeze is one of the most beautiful games—magical, even—that you might ever play.

You probably won’t play it, though. It’s on the Wii U, first off, and who owns one of those? Plus, it’s just another Donkey Kong Country game, after all—you’ve been playing these off and on since the early ’90s. It’s another piece of nostalgia, like most Nintendo games. And shouldn’t Retro Studios, the Texas-based designers of the epochal Metroid Prime series, be working on something a little more complex and grown-up than Donkey Kong Country? C’mon—Titanfall just came out.

This is the attitude every Nintendo game faces in today’s climate. Even when critics agree that a Nintendo game is one of the best of the year, as happened with last year’s Super Mario 3D World, the gaming audience remains skeptical. This extreme skepticism is the greatest challenge Nintendo faces today, and no amount of heavily praised games will likely overcome it.

There are many legitimate reasons to be wary of the Wii U. Nintendo’s marketing has been abysmal, the Wii U’s technical capabilities are meager compared to the brand new Playstation 4 and Xbox One, and Nintendo has been incapable of ensuring prolonged third-party support for its hardware since the 1990s. But that skepticism overshadows what Nintendo does right, which is regularly make games as great as Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. If the company’s failures continue to stack up to the point that it abandons hardware altogether, there’s no reason to think Nintendo could maintain that high level of quality on other systems. Look at Sega—how many classic games has it released since the death of the Dreamcast?

Everybody thinks they know what will save Nintendo, but the truth is that nobody really knows how to fix the company’s problems, including Nintendo. The best the company can do for now is make its games as good as they can be, and with Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze they’ve done that again.

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