Hang on to those Wiimotes, kids
Nintendo has a tradition with its new consoles. They will make a game (sometimes packed-in) that showcases what makes this new thing you just bought so new. The NES had Super Mario Bros which showed what was possible on a home console. GameBoy had Tetris, the first mobile killer gaming app. The Nintendo 64 had Super Mario 64 to showcase the abilities of the then new analog stick. Likewise, Wii Sports showed millions of Wii owners what was possible with motion control gaming.
Now here we are, a new console and a new pack-in game. So does Nintendo Land succeed in showing off Nintendo’s latest concept and, more importantly, is it fun? Keep using your eyeballs for a few minutes and you’ll find out.
If Navi and Fi had a baby ... it would be a lot like Nintendo Land's tourguide, Monita.
In some ways Nintendo Land is closer to Wii Sports than any other past launch title. It is largely a series of tech demos that have been polished into minigames in an effort to showcase the new features of the Wii U. It uses a plaza hubworld that will populate with other people’s Miis in a fashion similar to the Miiverse feature. Most importantly it has 12 attractions that each show off the benefits of that new gamepad controller.
This review will take into account that I took this game out into the wild (aka my family and in-laws) over the recent holiday weekend. So in many ways this review not only looks at how fun Nintendo Land is as a game, but how effective it is as a tool for educating people on the features of this new fangled controller.
That said, it did amazingly. Among all different levels of gaming skills and experiences, people were able to pick this up and you could just see the “oh I get it” moment within seconds. Much in the way we saw with Wii Sports, or, even simpler, what happens when you show someone a new board game. Certain people just start to have their eyes glaze over when you are explaining the rules of a game, but most well-designed board games become completely understandable after a single round of play. Such is how Nintendo Land informs the public about the Wii U and its own minigames. Unfortunately, some of these are kind of hit or miss but in my experience a large sample set of diverse people could not agree on which was the best and which was the worst. I can only speak of my own personal tastes.
Like I said there are twelve in all. Half of these are single player-only and each feature an interesting twist on what having the gamepad could now mean for the future of gaming on the console.
There is the crazy difficult Donkey Kong Crash Course that reminds you that the gamepad has motion controls. You are trying to get a fragile cart through a mechanical maze. Unfortunately, the maze isn’t the difficult thing, it is that the cart was made so very fragile that you are likely to die quickly and often. This is the most frustrating of the games to the point that only the perfectionist player will want to continue to trial and error their way to the finish.
The F-Zero inspired Captain Falcon’s Twister Race is a kind of cute diversion that simplifies the racing experience by having you complete a series of time trials while holding the gamepad sideways and tilting it to steer. The visuals on the gamepad are simplified and top down so it is not as interesting as the 3D models that are displayed on the TV. It also uses the gamepad’s camera to display the face of the person playing on the TV screen. This is one that is largely more fun for people watching than for the actual player.
The less said about the Game & Watch inspired Octopus Dance the better. It's just a rhythm game that has you playing Simon Says with the gamepad and analog sticks. To think that this was chosen over a Kirby or Star Fox themed minigame is frankly sickening.
Balloon Trip Breeze is a game that will likely appeal to people who only consider themselves iPad/iPhone gamers. Based on the NES Balloon Fight game you must create gusts of wind by flicking the gamepad screen. The screen shows a very zoomed-in view that is not useful for flying around obstacles. To properly survive you will look at the TV and soak in the delightful HD visuals and clever fabric and theater set aesthetics. Occasionally you will want to glance at the gamepad in order to pinpoint where you tap to attack the enemies and obstacles in your path. All in all this is one that feels like an actual game that balances challenge and fairness properly.
Takumaru’s Ninja Castle is another one that has you holding the gamepad sideways, having you use the touchscreen to toss throwing stars at cardboard ninjas. It uses the gyrosensors to move your cursor and it does a much better job of staying calibrated than it did when I played the E3 demo. This is another fun diversion that will make a casual gamer smile, but quickly gets old as it just doesn’t have the precision that a traditional gamer craves.
Surprisingly one of the best of the single player group is Yoshi’s Fruit Cart. You are shown a course that you must navigate by drawing a path on the gamepad. The trick is that while the TV shows all the pitfalls you should avoid and the fruit you have to collect, the gamepad does not. On the touchscreen you only see the start, finish, and the background. It becomes a game of spatial relations and timing as you have to take in the minor pattern clues from the background in order to draw the proper path. Since you have lives that you lose when a mistake is made, you are playing for a high score and this ended up being one of the more relaxing games to pass around the group as we each took turns trying to top each other’s score.
Now onto the three competitive multiplayer games. These are the ones that will probably see the most play in mixed company. Each one focuses on a different variation of tag and is something that could only be accomplished with a separate screen from the TV.
First up is Luigi’s Ghost Mansion. This one puts all of the power in the hands of the gamepad holder. They play as a ghost that is attempting to knock out the other four players. The ghost is completely invisible on the TV so they can sneak around freely and catch their prey unaware. While this is going on the four Wiimote players (the computer fills if you don't have enough players) are trying to catch the ghost in their flashlight and drain its health to zero. What at first seems to be like a great idea, quickly feels very imbalanced. The rate at which flashlights lose their power doesn’t match up with how often new batteries will appear. Even being stingy with the flashlight will find you out of power and vulnerable when the ghost attacks. Reviving a fallen member with your flashlight is a good idea, as you must balance the risk/reward of bringing someone back while using the only thing you have to protect you from an invisible threat. Simply put, one decent ghost user will almost always defeat four players. No matter how tight the teamwork, the ghost was only defeated when it was controlled by a reckless person. Just a few minor tweaks would turn this into a game that I would always pull out for parties. As it is, I just get annoyed with it. When whoever is the ghost wins 90% of the time, something is amiss.
Mario Chase is the reverse of Luigi’s Ghost Mansion where the gamepad player is the Mario and the Wiimote players are Toads that are trying to catch him. This is a simple game of hide and seek really. Mario gets a ten second headstart and the Toads then get two and a half minutes to find him. Everybody runs at exactly the same speed so teamwork is necessary in order to trap Mario. The gamepad player does get the benefit of a full map that shows the location of everybody while the Toads only get vision of what is in front of them. It is basically a version of Pacman vs. that you might actually play.
By far the most balanced and deepest of the tag games is the Animal Crossing based Sweet Day attraction. Up to four players control animals while the gamepad controls two guards at once. The animals seek to collect a set amount of candy around the map. These candies are found by standing on platforms that shake trees. Some trees can be activated alone, but many require two or three people. The more people needed, the more candy dropped. The only problem is those guards. The guards only have to successfully tackle a member of the animal group three times. Using both analog sticks the gamepad player can use the guards to divide and conquer, cutting the animals off and trapping them in a corner.
While the gamepad player can see everything between both guards, the Wiimote players again can only see what is immediately in front of them. Adding another wrinkle is that you get a little slower with each candy you pick up. If you are greedy and take most of the candy, you are less likely to be able to dodge the guards. This leads to tons of mindgames. In one match, I taunted the guards forcing the gamepad player to keep focus on me while my teammates snagged all the candy. In another we almost won except there was one player who had 30 out of the 40 necessary candies so they were too slow to escape and when tackled we lost all 30. Knowing that the director of Nintendo Land is the same man responsible for Animal Crossing means it is not surprising that this is the most polished game in the whole collection.
The Pikmin Adventure is a pleasurable little game. The gamepad player is Olimar and will attack wherever the screen is tapped. Wiimote players control Pikmin that can attack like normal. You all must work together to defeat the enemies while breaking open blocks and looking for nectar drops that will upgrade your character. It is a bit simple but traditional gamers will find it closer to their comfort level of challenge.
The Legend of Zelda Battle Quest is one of two games that requires Wii Motion Plus to function. It basically (just like the E3 demo) is Zelda on rails. All characters will automatically walk forward unless they are attacking. Wiimote players will control a Link (Skyward Sword style, with 1 to 1 sword slashing and holding your sword straight up will charge a more powerful spin attack). The gamepad player uses a bow and arrow and aims by tilting the gamepad screen. It is pretty fun, mainly because of how enjoyable it is to slash at fabric moblins and watch the stuffing fly. I also have a soft spot for shared health co-op games ... no Hyrulian left behind.
Then the big one. Metroid Blast is the gamiest game in the entire game. It requires both Motion Plus and Nunchucks for the Wiimote players and is basically Nintendo’s take on Horde Mode with a Metroid flair. The gamepad player controls Samus’ airship and you can either play together or against the ground troops. While it can be fun, the biggest challenge is finding a group of people who are willing to play it.
If you have a good group, you can sit back and enjoy the Attraction Tour. It is basically playing Nintendo Land on shuffle. You can select how many rounds and how difficult the challenges will be, and the game will randomly select from different attractions that you can challenge each other in. The person who uses the gamepad will shift every round, making it quite fair. The winner is simply whoever wins the most rounds. This is a nice addition to the whole package, and a welcome consideration by the director.
All in all Nintendo Land is a worthwhile addition to your library and a smart pack-in by Nintendo for their deluxe model. You may not gravitate towards it when you are by yourself - it is best played in small spurts in a group much like board games are - but with 12 different attractions and various gameplay modes within most of them, there is likely something for everybody. Really, for the traditional gamer it is something (exactly like Wii Sports) that will be pulled out when you have a group of people to entertain, but will attract some dust when you are alone.
This review is based on a Wii U copy of Nintendo Land.