How Long Can Nintendo Survive On Nostalgia?

Donkey Kong Country was my favorite game as a kid. I played the new DK game to see if the great ape’s newest swing could reach the heights I remember.

 

I used to be terrible at video games.

As an only child, I had to figure out a lot on my own, and games were no exception. Though they fascinated me, I approached them with apprehension and quiet curiosity. With no older siblings to show me the ropes, I stumbled through games on my Super Nintendo, frustrated and confused, filled with a kind of fearful wonder.

In the days before the internet I had no real way of figuring out what I was doing wrong—why that boss in Mega Man X kept killing me, or where to go next in Final Fantasy VI—but I kept at it. I didn’t know some pretty basic stuff about games; for a long time I didn’t even know a person could buy video games at all, since the local video rental store was my only outlet. Every weekend my mom would take me down to Video Library and I’d rent A Link To The Past for a twelfth time, situate myself in front of the TV in my living room, and play someone else’s saved game.

When I was nine, a classmate let me borrow his copy of Donkey Kong Country. It felt almost dangerous to have a non-rented video game in my possession, like I’d been handed something illegal. I slipped the cartridge into the front pocket of my red JanSport backpack, and the rest of the school day was a heady blur—I couldn’t think about anything but playing the game after school.

That afternoon I crammed the cartridge into my Super Nintendo, and it was better than I ever could’ve hoped for: the graphics were futuristic and the music was mind- bogglingly funky. Most importantly, though, I got it. Something clicked with Donkey Kong Country. It wasn’t such a struggle for me, and though I still died roughly a thousand times, I was able to progress. It was exhilarating.

When a sequel to the game came out a year later, I still hadn’t managed to beat the original. I couldn’t bring myself to play the new game without having beaten the first, so I enlisted the aid of my friend Alec. As I watched him handily defeat King K. Rool, my feelings of mild guilt about renting a sibling were overcome by my excitement to get my grubby hands on the sequel.

Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest (a title I’ve shamefully only recently realized is a pun) was more of the same: lovely graphics, charming music, trial-by-error gameplay, and achingly slow progression through enchanting levels. It was also the first game I beat on my own, since Alec had bit me in karate class and my mom wouldn’t let him hang out with me anymore. I had no choice but to buckle down and do it myself.

The novelty of Donkey Kong was beginning to wear off by the time the third game in the series came out, which introduced the regrettable character Kiddy Kong. I played the game, but by 1996 my sights had shifted to newer consoles and flashier games. That Christmas I unwrapped a shiny new PlayStation, and just like that the friendly gorilla became a fond memory.

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, the latest in Nintendo’s “we’re rebooting everything you love” campaign, feels a lot like seeing an old friend again. Just enough has changed to pique your interest, but it’s familiar enough to feel like you’re picking up right where you left off. Eighteen years after last controlling Donkey, my hands haven’t lost an ounce of their muscle memory. Level designs are inventive and frustrating, and the long-overdue leap into high definition is a good look for ol’ Donkey. And yet I can’t help but think the magic of the originals got lost somewhere along the way.

Tropical Freeze gets things mostly right. Nintendo and Retro Games have thankfully avoided the desire to drastically revamp character designs (lookin’ at you, Sega) and the levels offer a frantic pace that probably wasn’t possible on the Super Nintendo. The series’ trademark “die ten times before you succeed” motif is in full effect, for better or worse, and the boss battles are visually memorable and brilliantly executed. Most importantly, the pitch-perfect “Aquatic Ambience” is featured prominently in the game’s underwater levels.

In other words, folks who owned DK Jamz in the nineties will be pleased.

Unfortunately, Tropical Freeze suffers a bit from diminishing returns, and it’s inevitably (and perhaps unfairly) colored a bit by nostalgia. The worlds are beautiful but lack the wild variety of the original games. The original brought a giddy sense of wonder each time a boss was defeated and a drastically new set of levels opened up. The new worlds meet expectations rather than exceed them (which seems to be Nintendo’s modus operandi as of late). Besides that, there’s little to complain about—aside from Cranky Kong’s inclusion as a sidekick. Maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t imagine anyone was asking for more Cranky.

Truth be told, I’m not sure who Tropical Freeze is intended for. There are too many nostalgic throwbacks for an audience of youngsters who weren’t alive when the series began, yet it’s impossible for the game to satisfy the cynical nostalgia of older gamers. Tropical Freeze appears to try to cater to everyone, and while it mostly succeeds, it hints at larger frustrations regarding Nintendo’s titles these days.

Nintendo games are never bad, but they’re also decreasingly great. It feels like the company rarely takes chances, seeming content instead to fall back on trusted mechanics with just enough gimmicks peppered throughout to keep your attention. Retro Studios did wonders for the Metroid series, completely reinventing the title with Metroid Prime but it feels like Nintendo hasn’t let them go wild with the Donkey Kong franchise.

And that’s the thing— For me, Tropical Freeze feels constrained, lacking the sense of wonderment I’ve experienced with Nintendo games in the past. Maybe my tastes have changed too much. Maybe I’m just getting older and things that used to excite me feel dated. Maybe I’m turning into Cranky Kong. I’ve certainly played games as an adult that instilled a sense of childlike awe—it happened with Fallout 3, The Last of Us, and it’s currently happening as I grind through Bravely Default, so I know it’s possible. But I haven’t totally given up on Donkey Kong. You don’t give up on old friends, even if they bite you every now and then.

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