Nintendo is at a crossroads; and it's even more confusing than the Forest of Illusion. Here is a company both lauded for its innovation yet criticised for its lack of ambition. The Wiimote on one hand. New Super Mario Bros on the other. Second Screen gaming on Wii U pre-empting Vita remote play and Steam streaming in the red corner. In the blue, Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, a title that actually turns the gamepad screen off. Just what is happening?
The Wii U's damning sales figures make it an easy write off, but the issue is more complicated than that. I'm still pretty sure Nintendo doesn't know what it has. Hell, I don't even know what a Wii U is any more. If Donkey Kong is anything to go by, this machine, once sold (or at least, attempted to be sold) as the next innovative step, the bridge between the Wii and the iPad, is now little more than an HD GameCube that you can play remotely. And that might be the best thing for it.
During my time with Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, I found myself asking 'who is this for?' It's a question that often pops into my head as a reviewer, simply because there is a distance between someone who is paid to play and then deconstruct games and a regular devil-may-care punter. Like everything these days, though, the lines are blurred massively thanks to limitless online discussion, blogs, Twitter and YouTube. Which is fantastic.
Back to that question though – who is this for? Well, actually, it's for me. Not the demographically-defined me (child of the 80s, nostalgic connection with the series) but the real me – the person who understands platforming gaming convention, the person who discusses the nuances and trends in the industry, and the person who has been vocal about Nintendo abandoning me during the Wii era. Me. You. Us. There's no argument – Tropical Freeze is too hard, too knowing and too well designed to be for anyone else.
Is it exactly what we want, though? A beautifully made platformer it is, no doubt, but ask most fans what they'd like to see next from the frankly miraculous Retro Studios, and most would likely lean towards something revolutionary. A franchise shake-up that redefines a genre like Metroid Prime, perhaps. Or (Iwata forbid) a new IP, something to really let this amazing team leave its imprint on the world. Yet the fans demand Zelda. They demand Metroid. No wonder Nintendo has created such a confused machine – we're confused ourselves.
On 3DS this is less of an issue because the volume of output is so much higher than it is on Wii U. Don't like Luigi? Have Fire Emblem. Don't want Mario Kart? Here's Pokémon. The last 18 months have been relentless and Nintendo has carefully and forcefully defined the market for its handheld; high quality output within established franchises. There's not enough time to yelp for new IP because the next big thing is out in a couple of weeks.
The Wii U still feels like it's being pulled in two directions; its commitment to unusual tech has hamstrung it both for consumers and developers. What we actually have is a multifaceted device; something that's capable of all manner of experiences, both new and old. Yet it feels lost; a confused child wandering about the supermarket, desperately looking for Mario or Zelda to tell them everything is going to be OK.
What significance, then, of that switched-off pad? Surely Nintendo wouldn't have allowed a Wii U launch title to simply turn off the Gamepad screen, yet here we have it. You can still play Tropical Freeze on the pad through a menu choice, but there are no shoehorned touch screen systems, no tacked-on multiplayer. This, quite simply, is a console game. An HD GameCube game. Could this be the Wii U's future? Well let's look ahead.
We have Mario Kart coming up in the hear future, wherein, it has been widely reported, that the screen offers nothing but a horn. Smash Brothers is next, and given its heritage and newly-christened life as an eSports mainstay, there is very little chance of it demanding Gamepad innovation. And, of course, both these examples are couch-multiplayer favourites, and the Wii U can only connect one Gamepad to the machine at a time.
The Wii U is a disaster of a console, truthfully. The games, when they've appeared, have ranged from excellent to genuinely special, but every time anyone comes up with a potential solution to its ills, the machine's own shortcomings get in the way. Should Nintendo repackage it and sell it cheaply without the Gamepad? What about the back catalogue and interface? Should more games turn off the pad? Then why did we pay for it in the first place? How about games that use the pad? No one wants to buy them.
I predict that the DK pad turn-off (padgate? No) is the first step in Nintendo's final push for this console. A barrage of strong, very well made first and second party games that ignore the machine's unique capabilities and force themselves into the discussion through quality and volume. As soon as Nintendo shows off Zelda, we'll know for sure.
A disaster the Wii U may be, then, but an HD GameCube for the next couple of years while Nintendo works out just what the hell it's doing? There are worse things in this world. Gamepad, off.