For Wii Sports, that meant simple games, based on familiar real-world sports and built around real-world movements, all designed to be comprehensible and fun to people who had never played a video game before, and, it would turn out, would probably never play another.
But the Wii was a console designed to be less complicated than any previous, whereas the Wii U is in fact more complicated. Nintendo Land, accordingly, expects a deeper video game background and a more complex skillset from its players. Wii Sports wouldn't be caught dead with dual-analog shooter controls, for example. Nintendo Land demands a more literate audience.
That's not a condemnation. It may not be for every single person on the face of the Earth like Wii Sports was, but if you can find four other people who know what Pikmin are or will recognize the two cops from Animal Crossing, you will have ridiculous fun.
Nintendo Land is a collection of twelve minigames, all inspired by past Nintendo properties. The conceit is that it's a theme park full of Nintendo-themed rides and attractions; as a result, all the games involve your Miis dressing up in costumes and exploring ersatz environments: cardboard and fabric recreations of games, with mock enemies, like Metroids with power-button weak spots for eyes. Like everything Nintendo does with Miis, there's an antiseptic, inoffensive element to it, an extra layer of abstraction that never lets you forget you're not really playing a game, you're playing a simulated version of a game. Consider it a half step between Wii Sports and Super Smash Bros. Brawl in style.
Takamaru's Ninja Castle
Loosely based on the Famicom Disk System game The Mystery of Murasame Castle, this single-player event is all about flinging shuriken at the most adorable little origami ninjas imaginable. It's a simple game designed to show off one of many potential uses of the Wii U GamePad, specifically the combination of motion-controlled aiming and touchscreen shooting that allows you to simulate flinging shuriken by swiping the screen.
Takamaru's Ninja Castle is one of the shortest "attractions" in Nintendo Land, but it's challenging and beautiful.
The Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest
Put Skyward Sword on rails, and, uh, make the entire game out of fabric and yarn, and you've got Battle Quest. You can run through a series of missions either as a MotionPlus swordsman or a GamePad archer, aiming with tilt and shooting arrows with the right analog stick. While it's fun to have five Links wrecking shop on a crowd of Moblins, the levels in this adventure pretty much consist of fighting Moblins over and over again. Sometimes they have shields. Sometimes they shoot flaming arrows at you from behind other ones with shields.
In multiplayer, your screen will be crowded with other Mii Links [Liinks? - Ed.]; in single-player as the archer, you'll end up with a bunch of enemies right up in your face, which is not really the ideal situation for an archer.
Essentially a simplified, toy version of Pikmin, players can choose to control Olimar on the GamePad, tapping the screen to send tiny Pikmin at enemies, or a larger, individual (Mii dressed as a) Pikmin on a Wiimote, melee attacking robo-Bulborbs and other Pikmin mainstays. As players gather nectar, they level up and gain additional attack combos.
Groups can choose either to take on missions together, in which they fight through groups of enemies to get to Olimar's rocket – or to compete in arenas to gather the most nectar. It's less a "party game" and more a mini-Pikmin adventure, but I can actually see it acting as a primer for the real series, allowing players to get a basic idea of how Pikmin works, without having to worry about different Pikmin types or killing their little creatures.
The game itself warns new players that Metroid Blast is the minigame most suited to expert players. On the GamePad, it involves controlling a spaceship with both analog sticks, tilt, and shoulder buttons to zoom and fire, which I found pretty complicated (and I'm an expert). Wii Remote players aim with MotionPlus, move (and Morph Ball) with the Nunchuk, and shoot.
The missions usually involve shooting a bunch of Geemers or simulated Space Pirates, with occasional switchups into medal collection or a thrilling boss battle with a robotic Kraid or Ridley. For the single player in the Gunship or on foot, these can get a bit repetitive, as they involve going through the same three arenas again, shooting down the same enemies again.
But what you really want to do is use those arenas as the backdrop for insane battles between four players and a Gunship, or coordinated campaigns during which one bounty hunter Grapple Beams to the bottom of the Gunship to obtain a strategic position to shoot at a boss. Despite the toy-like graphics, in these moments, Metroid Blast feels less like a minigame and more like an exciting multiplayer shooter.
You know that sequence in every Mario game in which three Toads play hide-and-seek with Mario? All right, Mario Chase isn't really tied into the Mario series in any meaningful way, but this game needed to be in Nintendo Land, and Mario needed to be represented. It's one of the simpler games in the collection: Mario runs around one of three arenas, and up to four Toads chase him down.
Mario, using the GamePad, can see an overhead map of the whole arena, complete with icons representing all the other players. The toads can only see what's in front of them, along with a gauge of Mario's distance. Thus, a Mario sighting by any player quickly results in all the Toads scouring a general area, while Mario runs away laughing.
I said this needed to be in Nintendo Land, but that's mostly because it's a basic game that shows the "asymmetric" possibilities of the GamePad, thanks to the GamePad player's holistic view. But there are other chasing games in the collection that are more fun, and more involved for players on both sides of the chase.
Luigi's Ghost Mansion
The game most resembling the before-its-time Pac-Man Vs. finally proves the concept of that Game Boy/GameCube game. Using the GamePad, one player acts as a ghost, able to see everyone else's movements through a spooky maze. Four players on the TV, in split screen, try to shine their flashlights on the invisible ghost before they're all caught. The ghost is only visible when attacking a player, dashing (a move nobody ever used in my experience) or in brief flashes of lightning – but players can feel when it comes near through their Wii Remote's rumble.
It's almost a variation on the theme of Mario Chase, but the dynamic is different because it's not a one-sided chase. And the singled-out GamePad user is invisible. These two tweaks make a big difference.
The game recommends that players coordinate by calling out their Mii's hat color when they feel the ghost nearby, a system that my group had already adopted. Sometimes, however, we were too "in the moment" to remember to do so, and ended up with a dead flashlight battery, stuck in a corner, with an invisible ghost taunting us nearby.
Despite being cute, Luigi's Ghost Mansion puts the GamePad player in charge of really effective jump scares. He or she can see the radius at which other players' Wiimote rumbles are activated, and can use that to taunt them until the exact right moment to strike – usually resulting in a genuine scream of shock. However, players working well together can track the rumbles successfully enough to get the ghost's HP down to nothing. Every match was almost even until one side got the upper hand, screaming the whole time.
Animal Crossing: Sweet Day
The low-stress "slow life" game Animal Crossing serves as a backdrop for one of Nintendo Land's most screamingly hectic events. Up to four players using Wii Remotes (NES-style) run through the town, picking up as many candies as they can, both from the ground and from trees that drop their candies after a set number of players stand on switches. Meanwhile, one player using the GamePad controls two guards – each controlled with a separate analog stick and shoulder button to make each move and tackle. Wii Remote players have to gather a set amount of candy as a team, within a time limit, before they're tackled three times by guards.
This already complex scenario is made even crazier by a bit of strategic consideration: as you carry more candy around, your Animal Crossing character helmet gets bigger and heavier, making you slower and more noticable to the cops. And as the cops, the camera zooms out as you put more distance between your two avatars, allowing you to see more of the map, but making it harder for you to corner an opponent.
With so many of the minigames in Nintendo Land about chasing each other, I appreciate Nintendo's ability to vary the experience so much. Controlling two characters simultaneously with the GamePad is somewhat mind-bending, but it's so satisfying to coordinate with yourself to flank an unsuspecting animal, all while the other players yell at each other to warn of your presence.
Balloon Trip Breeze
Speaking of mind-bending, Balloon Trip Breeze requires you to swipe the touchscreen to create breezes which, in turn, guide a balloonist on the TV through a gauntlet of balloons and spikes, inspired by the "Balloon Trip" mode in Balloon Fight. While paying attention to the bigger view on the TV, you have to periodically glance downward at the GamePad to tap on enemies and obstacles, in order to clear them from your path.
In my experience, that means you ignore what's in front of you just long enough to get killed. The fact that it's so difficult for me to achieve any level of success in this game is proof that the Wii U's variety of dual-screened gaming requires training, even for someone who has been glued to a DS for eight solid years.
Donkey Kong Crash Course
A trip through a giant obstacle course that resembles the scaffolding from Donkey Kong, the trick in this game is to carefully tilt the GamePad to roll your delicate little wheeled vehicle, without dropping it too forcefully and breaking it. Gimmicks throughout the level threaten to make you accidentally destroy yourself, including ramps, moving platforms you crank with the analog sticks, and elevators controlled by blowing into the GamePad's microphone.
While you're doing this, a zoomed-out view of the entire maze is displayed on the TV, allowing spectators to watch you fail your way through a quarter of the gauntlet. The tilt controls work great, but the player-controlled vehicle is incredibly fragile, and frequently catches on the end of a moving platform, pulling itself apart. And once you've exhausted your supply of lives, you have to start all the way over at the top.
I respect this game more than I actually enjoy playing it.
Yoshi's Fruit Cart
Yoshi's Fruit Cart is a game of estimation, as you draw a line on the touchscreen to guide a Yoshi Cart through obstacles in order to pick up a bunch of fruit on the way to an exit. The dual-screened twist? You can only see your line on the GamePad, and you can only see the fruit on the TV.
I thought this would be a breeze until I screwed up my path on the third level. Yoshi's Fruit Cart isn't exactly an addictive minigame, but it is an interesting one to check in with between others. It feels much more like Brain Age than the other more physical activities.
The analog sticks on the GamePad each control one of your Mii's arms, which you position to match an instructor to the time of the music. Also ... the Octopus Game & Watch graphics are in the background for some reason. As the game progresses, it gets trickier by flipping the displays, so either your TV or your GamePad shows your character facing you, making it more difficult to translate movements. Then tilt moves are added to the mix; then an octopus comes out and spits ink all over one of the screens.
I love rhythm games, but I don't think I'll ever need to load up Octopus Dance again. The challenge of matching movements is more frustrating than interesting, thanks to the slippery inaccuracy of using two analog sticks in tandem to point in a specific direction. And the payoff of keeping a single song going longer isn't exactly worth it.
Captain Falcon's Twister Race
This F-Zero inspired racer shows a typical racing game behind-the-car view on the TV and an overhead view on the GamePad, which you watch primarily as you tilt the pad to steer your vehicle through a timed course. When you approach a tunnel, you have to look at the TV – because the overhead view is obscured by the roof of the tunnel.
While the tilt controls work great, this is one game in which the Wii U's GamePad focus backfires, as looking at the simplistic top-down view – which you must do to steer – is much less exciting than watching the action on screen.
The level of experience required to enjoy the games varies as widely as the quality of said games. Octopus Dance is essentially a one-player rhythm game with one song, and doesn't make much of an impression, while Metroid Blast is an exciting, involved game that boils down two different fantastic shooter experiences. Luigi's Ghost Mansion should be pre-loaded on every Wii U and shown at every demo station, because it's a simple idea that instantly explains the appeal of the second screen for multiplayer games, with the nice side effect of being hilarious fun.
All twelve games can be accessed from a Mii-filled "park," as can "attraction tour" playlists. You can outfit this park with statues won by feeding coins (earned in gameplay) through a sort of Plinko game. Nintendo realized that walking through the world's most garish amusement park to get to a particular game is inconvenient and annoying, so you can just pop up a menu instead. For making the between-game nonsense optional, Nintendo Land is automatically better than any Mario Party game; however, I don't really understand why that hub world is there at all. It's much too busy to look at, and thanks to a camera view controlled by the GamePad's tilt, it's kind of nauseating to look at no matter how steadily you're holding the GamePad.
Nintendo Land's twelve games represent every possible Wii U control scheme Nintendo could come up with (to date). While playing Nintendo Land, you'll hold the GamePad horizontally and vertically; you'll play games on the GamePad against players using the Wii Remote; you'll use the stylus, the accelerometer, the analog sticks, and the buttons; you'll look at the GamePad screen, the TV screen, both at once, and both alternately. It's an excellent primer for how the GamePad lets you interact with games in different ways.
It's no accident that this "primer" game relies on classic Nintendo characters. The complexity of the GamePad makes it best suited for people who know their way around a video game, at least at first. Tying some of the fun to recognition of familiar Nintendo series helps the right initial audience self-select. I have no doubt that once we've all gotten the hang of it, we'll be able to successfully explain it. Nintendo Land's complexity pervades the experience in other ways too, namely an expected understanding of Nintendo's other peripherals. Wii Sports introduced the Wii Remote, and Wii Sports Resort introduced the MotionPlus; Nintendo Land, busy introducing the GamePad, just assumes you know the difference between the two, and already have enough MotionPlus-capable devices for the few attractions that use them.
Nintendo Land, then, is inherently targeted at a much narrower audience than its pack-in predecessor, Wii Sports. Whether you think that's a problem in the long term depends on how loudly you've decried Nintendo over the last six years for "abandoning" its core. In the short term, it's a great party game for people in that audience – like the ones reading this website.
This review is based on a Wii U disc of Nintendo Land, provided by Nintendo. Nintendo Land is included with the Wii U Deluxe Set, and will be sold separately at retail and in the Wii U eShop on November 18.
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