Tallying over 80 mini games, Wii Party U tries desperately to present itself as the perfect fallback for bored Wii U owners, but in its quest for greatness it spreads itself far too thin. Most of the games included are enjoyable exactly once, and some of them don't even manage to hit that low watermark. It's not that the mini-games are broken – they all work fine, and if you lose you won't feel cheated – but the vast majority of them just aren't fun for more than a minute or two. The compilation can be divided into groups according to which controllers are used. There are games played on the TV, ones that are played exclusively on the GamePad, and others played using both. Almost every one of the big screen games requires each player to have a Wii Remote Plus (or a Wii Remote with the MotionPlus accessory). One Wii Remote Plus is included with Wii Party U, but this requirement could still pose a problem for some Wii U owners – not everyone has Wii Remotes lying around.
The GamePad titles are two-player only, and require you to place the controller between you and your opponent. These games include things like foosball, with each playing grabbing one of the GamePad's analog sticks to move the on-screen players back and forth and progress the ball towards your opponent's goal. Baseball on the GamePad is played in much the same way. The pitcher flicks their analog stick to throw the ball and the batter does the same to swing the bat. If these descriptions sound very basic, it's because the games themselves couldn't be simpler. There's no nuance to how you kick the ball around the foosball table and there's very little in the way of skill required to hit the ball out of the park. In short, these are bare bones, even for mini-games.
Then there's the issue of the GamePad itself; because the GamePad normally rests at an angle, a small plastic stand is included to prop it up. When playing the GamePad mini-games, the controller has a tendency to tip to one side even with the stand in place, making it necessary to hold the GamePad steady with one hand while you use your other hand to control the on-screen action. It's just as tedious as it sounds.
The TV-based games are a mix of nearly every mini-game standard ever seen: There are puzzles (first player to match three parts of the same face wins), reflex challenges (shake the Wii Remote as fast as possible and tap a button at just the right moment), action games (shoot UFOs out of the sky as quickly as you can), and physics festivities (knocking down stacked blocks, á la Boom Blox), among others. You'll either be pointing your Wii Remote at the screen in projectile-based events or holding it sideways to control an on-screen character with the D-pad. None of the games are very deep, and at most each will have two or three variations, making it easy to master them almost immediately. As you can imagine, this saps just about all of the enjoyment out of playing them more than once.
One great example of this is a game called Cliff Riders. Your Mii rides on a unicycle that moves forward along an increasingly narrow strip of rock with sheer drops on either side. The course weaves from side to side, and you have to tilt your Wii Remote to balance your rider and make it to the end. But here's the important part: There's only one track. Regardless of whether you make it to the end or not, the track never changes. The first time I played it, I tried over and over again for about ten minutes to get to the end, and it was a blast. After completion, the course remained identical, and I doubt I'll ever play Cliff Riders again. It just feels cheap.
Games that require both the GamePad and the TV are extremely slim, and there seems to be a pretty good reason for that: They barely function as intended. One game of this type that has been promoted by Nintendo involves "scooping" water from the GamePad using the Wii Remote, carefully balancing it while walking towards the TV, and then pretending to dump it into a glass vase on the big screen. In practice, most of this is entirely optional. You scoop the water by pointing your Wii Remote at the GamePad, which actually does seem responsive, but the game seems to randomly let players pour their water, rather than requiring that they actually walk all the way to the TV. This made it impossible to play with any sort of skill, as just standing still next to the GamePad seemed to be the fastest way to win.
The one bright spot of the entire package is a mode that can barely even be considered a game. It's called "Button Smashers" and requires you to place your GamePad and several Wii Remotes next to each other on a flat surface between all the players. Certain players are commanded to hold down specific buttons on one or more of the controllers. As more commands come in, it becomes a massive game of Twister, with hands stretching and bending to meet the demands. If a finger slips or a button is let go prematurely, you fail. Button Smashers is the one game that had everyone laughing and having fun simultaneously, and we plan on booting up Wii Party U again for the sole purpose of playing more.
Wii Party U isn't terrible, it's just uninspired. If you're looking for something that can be replayed for months and months, like Wii Sports, you won't find it here. The unbalanced GamePad is an annoyance in the games that use it, and you've probably played variants of all these mini-games games before. Even if you haven't, they quickly lose their luster after a handful of tries. If you can overlook that, and if you have enough Wii Remote Pluses, you'll get some smiles out of Wii Party U, but not for long.
This review is based on a retail copy of Wii Party U, provided by Nintendo.
Mike Wehner is a gaming and technology writer with a passion for anything with a power button. His work has appeared on a wide array of publications from USA Today to The Escapist, and just about everywhere in between. He currently calls TUAW.com his home and can be found on Twitter @MikeWehner.
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