Nick D. takes a look at Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze and the resurgence of difficulty in gaming.
Nintendo Hard is a term that you don’t see thrown around very often nowadays. I would go so far as to say that it’s mostly locked away in the memories of retro gamers. It used to be that every game you came across would provide a level of challenge that would make many modern gamers flinch, and that was simply the way things were. With widespread social recognition came a gradual scaling back of difficulty, and, nowadays, it is rare to see a game that is legitimately difficult, one that shirks off the plethora of modern conventions that would traditionally rob a game of its difficulty. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is one such game.
Back on the Nintendo Entertainment System the games were pull your hair out tough. Games like Ninja Gaiden and Mega Man brought tears to many a gamer’s eyes, and these weren’t aberrations. In fact, it was more challenging to find an easy game back then than it was to find a difficult one. This is where the term Nintendo Hard came from – a time where the mere mention of a Nintendo game was enough to send signals to a gamer’s pain sensors.
This seems like the part of the post where I says something corny such as ‘and that’s the way we liked it’. And it’s true that many gamers lament the move from hardcore to simply core. However, modern game design has been a wonder for all levels of gaming. Games are easier on the whole and finding one that presents a challenge to experienced hands can be daunting, but the tradeoff is a more accessible industry and broader development goals over simply make the gamer die so that they get their money’s worth.
In recent years we’ve seen a resurgence of more difficult games. I’m not talking about the basic fact that hard games exist – they always have. What I’m referring to are games that are praised for their difficulty, games which, stripped of their unforgiving challenge, would lose their audience. I’m talking about Dark Souls and the rabid fans that come with that game. Dark Souls is a game that straight out tells you on the back of the case that you will die, and gamers flocked to it to the extent that I haven’t seen in a very long time. In many ways, Dark Souls re-sparked the challenge-seeking component of the gaming fanbase.
It was in this new, more open-minded environment that Retro Studios revived the Donkey Kong Country series with Donkey Kong Country Returns and its sequel Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. While the original Donkey Kong Country games couldn’t measure up to the difficulty of games such as Contra, they were challenging for their time. Growing up, I learned pretty much everything I know about timing, not from Super Mario Bros. or other NES games, but from Donkey Kong Country. These were games where a single missed jump could cost you the level, and you either adapted or died.
Nevertheless, none of the original Donkey Kong Country games reached the level of difficulty present in Donkey Kong Country Returns. It was as if Retro Studios was tapping into the long dormant idea of Nintendo Hard just as much as they were trying to revive the series. Jumps were even less forgiving and controller-hurling rocket levels brought a level of difficulty that few platformers dare. More importantly, it was a massive departure from modern Nintendo games such as the New Super Mario Bros. series that prioritized younger gamers over the hardcore.
This brings us to the recently released Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. It’s a difficult game. Not to the extent of Donkey Kong Country Returns, but much harder than other recently released platformers such as Rayman Legends. What strikes me is how divisive this difficulty is. Some gamers decry the challenge. I was particularly taken back by the Kotaku review, which seemed to treat the difficulty level as an archaic vestige. I would understand that sentiment if it were made five or six years ago, but the recent, growing trend of harder games makes this seem odd. Despite the naysayers, there is a strong component among the fanbase that are glad Retro didn’t tune down the challenge, and who enjoy seeing Donkey Kong leap to his death over and over again.
Tropical Freeze is hard, but nowhere the level of unforgiving you’d see in games once branded Nintendo Hard. What it does represent is a shift towards Nintendo Hard. We’ve become accustomed to the largest releases of known mascots being the easiest games available. This seems due to the fact that mascots such as Donkey Kong or Mario were the introduction of gaming to many. Because of this, we expect games with these characters to be more introductory-level. Retro Studio’s Donkey Kong Country reboot challenges that idea, and the games are better for it. A softball Donkey Kong Country game in the vein of Kirby’s Epic Yarn or the New Super Mario Bros., would fail to excite many gamers, and it would completely miss the new, energized Dark Souls fanbase, clamouring for a game to beat them down.
There might not be such a thing as Nintendo Hard anymore, but there will always be games that provide challenge above ease of use. We’re living in an exciting period of growth and expansion of the gaming industry. Retro-themed games are becoming more prominent, and it’s hard to make a backwards-looking game without challenge. More interesting, games such as Dark Souls have shown the commercial viability of hard-as-nails games. With that proven, I would expect to see more games like Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze in the future.