There are very few game developers who have single-handedly revitalized the gaming industry with their games. Nintendo SPD1 did it, for example, with Super Metroid.
But for the next game in the Metroid franchise, it was an up-and-coming promising developer who wowed the gaming world, and left a mark that is still in our hearts: with Metroid Prime, Retro Studios proved without a single doubt that they could hang with the best of the best in the industry, even within Nintendo. More importantly, they created a game that is still considered among the best that the gaming world has ever seen, and which continues to be a source of inspiration for developers all over the world.
Still after Metroid Prime 3, there was yet no doubt about Retro Studios’ ability to deliver timeless games, a feeling that was only made clearer with the release of Metroid Prime Trilogy, possibly the best value in gaming history.
However, it was at this time that Retro Studios started suffering their first real losses. Key members of the studio left to form their own company, while others went on to join 343 Industries, and later helped make Halo 4.
Meanwhile, Retro Studios released their first new game in more than 3 years since Metroid Prime 3: Corruption – Donkey Kong Country: Returns. Even back then, many fans of Retro Studios were surprised to hear that their favorite studio, the creators of a genre-bending, generation-defining game, could now be working on a 2D platforming revival of the Donkey Kong Country franchise. And though the game released to critical acclaim, there was already much speculation about the reasons for Retro Studios to be working on such game. Some speculated that they were hit too hard by the loss of several key members of the studio after the development of Prime 3 and Prime Trilogy, so that they needed to take on a less ambitious project in order to build themselves back up to the behemoth they were before; others speculated that Nintendo was forcing Retro to make Donkey Kong Country: Returns after they themselves saw great success with New Super Mario Bros (success that was repeated by New Super Mario Bros Wii). Either way, Retro Studios later revealed that making Donkey Kong Country: Returns was entirely their choice – but the fact is that fans were already doubtful of Retro’s abilities.
Donkey Kong Country: Returns was a chapter in Retro Studios’ life that, though they enjoyed it greatly, gamers were perhaps ready to forget, especially as the release of the Wii U came and went and the anticipation for Retro’s next masterpiece grew ever more fervent. Though there had been great speculation surrounding the reveal and release of Donkey Kong Country: Returns, it had no comparison to the kind of pipe dreams the fans cooked up around the release of the Wii U, and before Nintendo’s Direct event for E3 2013. Nintendo fans had attributed all sorts of potential to Retro Studios: they could make the next Zelda, a new Metroid, and even a [link]cross-over between Star Fox and Metroid. There were so many possibilities that the most obvious one was dismissed – that Retro could be working on another Donkey Kong Country game – for being too safe and easy.
But in typical Nintendo fashion, Retro surprised the fans yet again – Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze was revealed as a direct sequel to Donkey Kong Country: Returns, made in the same style and using ideas that had not been used for the first game.
Though the great scores and critical acclaim the game is receiving now may cause some people to forget it, the backlash against this announcement was more than considerable. Many Retro Studios fans were left scratching their heads as to what could propel Retro to make yet another Donkey Kong Country, and in a time of peril for the Wii U, no less. The many who had bet their horses, houses, and wives on Retro Studios bringing about the definitive “AAA HD” Nintendo title, felt as if hung out to dry; even this site’s founder, Menashe, expressed his discontent at length.
But despite all the negativity surrounding the game, or perhaps to spite those of us with negative opinions about it, the game has released to critical acclaim and praise from players. There certainly are mixed opinions: a quick look at our forums shows a few negative opinions which are nonetheless stamped out by the positivity, and the game’s metacritic entry also shows a range of scores from 60/100 to a perfect 100/100. But in the end, there are many more positive opinions of the game than there dare to be negative ones (curiously, the Negative World forums have nothing but unanimous praise for the game).
I would bore you with my opinion of the game if I had not already bored many in our forums with it, so I’ll spare you.
But the case that I am here to make is this: in spite of what anyone thinks of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze as yet another 2D platformer, no one can deny the incredible creativity and talent that Retro Studios still possesses within their ranks, both in regards to artists and designers. Charm comes across the game’s characters and levels as much as it does out of any Super Mario game, and there is much in the way of pleasant surprises embellishing the action uniformly throughout the whole experience (our own reviewer even called the game, “platforming perfection”); Yet I believe this boundless creativity can and should be used for more than embellishing tried-and-true gaming forms.
Such creativity is what allowed Retro Studios to accomplish what they did with Metroid Prime eleven-and-a-half years ago. This is a feat that not many game studios out there can even hope to achieve. In the near future, I believe the best cases for games that can be remotely as timeless as Metroid Prime, are Dark Souls 2, and possibly (but unlikely) later this year, MonolithSoft’s “X”. And while Retro’s current game, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, may be forgotten in 5 years as just another one of many great Wii U platformers, it has already made a convincing case for Retro’s abilities: that they are still perfectly able to produce completely new forms of gaming that can continue to blow our minds for decades.
Retro Studios is filled with master crafstmen, but what’s the point of such massive talent if it is to be contained within rigid traditional game structures? Should Retro Studios continue pouring their heart and soul into making incremental iterations of classical game forms such as the platformer, not only will their work be lost in time among the numerous other yearly “platforming masterpieces”, but they will also be refusing the calling that so few in the gaming industry can answer: to “upend the tea table” with mind-bending new game design, and make the games industry more creative, more exciting, and ultimately, healthier.