It's not quite Disney World.
With the tripartite success of Wii Sports fresh in mind—commercially, critically, and functionally—Nintendo has recognized the power of a launch title meant to introduce and acquaint with new and as-yet unfamiliar gameplay concepts. That was the functional aspect of Wii Sports’ success; it effectively acquainted gamers of all ages and levels of experience with a technology entirely new to the industry. It was infectious in its communication of these concepts, spreading effortlessly throughout families and groups of friends, across demographic lines. And it was this success which perhaps enabled these same gamers—however skeptical beforehand—to venture further into the world of the Wii with newfound confidence.
The "Balloon Trip" mini-game, like most of them, is excruciatingly difficult in the later stages.
Nintendo Land, for all its unquestionable similarities, is a little bit different. For starters, the foreign gameplay it introduces is nowhere nearly as revolutionary or bizarre as Wii’s motion gameplay. Secondly, it leverages not familiar sports in its process, but rather unique—often deeper and more challenging—mini-games. And thirdly, it doubles down as a perfectly shameless promotion of Nintendo’s exclusive franchises, hopefully teasing newcomers into further exploration of their beloved IP.
It’s for these reasons that you should not expect the same experience you had with Wii Sports. For better or for worse, Nintendo Land is a much different game with less compensatory technological voodoo to make up for its shortcomings. As a result, by necessity, it must be more of a game and less of a tech demo than Wii Sports. It isn’t by any means a must-own or must-play to become accustomed with the system’s capabilities—but that doesn’t make it any less appealing for new Wii U owners.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A game is released for a Nintendo system that is actually a bunch of mini-games on a single disc. None of these games is, by itself, worth anywhere close to retail price. But as a grab bag of options, there’s arguably enough here to warrant consideration.
Drop the fruit or risk being caught.
Okay, regain your composure and then take this to heart: Nintendo Land is different.
By the simplest definition, yes, it is a mini-game collection. That is, it is a bunch of smaller games consolidated onto a single disc. But all of the stigma that generally follows with such classification is sharply challenged by the approach Nintendo Land takes.
For starters, the presentation is uncommonly good. Though the visuals are still technically tame and highly stylized, the sparkling high-definition capabilities are better showcased here than just about anywhere in Mario U, and the soundtrack features plenty of standout pieces which are fully orchestrated (beginning with the main Nintendo Land theme, which is presented in three variations that coordinate with the time of day in the plaza). Nintendo fans will find it difficult to resist smiling at the orchestral renditions of Metroid’s classic themes and the Balloon Fight interpretations—along with plenty of completely original compositions to go hand-in-hand.
There is some valuable fan service at work here that almost conjures memories of the first introduction of the Super Smash Bros. series. Most of the included mini-games (affectionately termed “attractions” by Nintendo) are littered with lore from their respective franchises, including characters, power-ups, environments, and music… and plenty of additional rewards and collectibles apply to.
To back up a little: I mentioned a “plaza” above, and I was referring to Nintendo Land’s central plaza, which is a circular area whose perimeter is lined with the entrances of each of the park’s “attractions.” When you first boot the game, you’re launched directly into this place, guided by a creepy floating robot that wants to follow you around everywhere.
It’s all quite empty in the beginning, but soon enough, Miis from around the world will make an appearance and begin loitering about your previously peaceful Nintendo Land park. This is made possible by the Miiverse functionality built into the Wii U’s system software, but we weren’t able to test it for long, as it quickly resulted in constant hard lockups of our Wii U console until it was disabled (this will likely be fixed by a patch in a few days—more on this in a bit).
This game is, in a word, divisive. And not for the right reasons.
The plaza also finds itself progressively more decorated as you earn coins in the various mini-games. These coins can be taken to a tower in the center of the plaza and spent in a pachinko-style game in pursuit of gifts, which take the form of everything from interactive Nintendo-themed decorations to a few dozen songs which can be selected from a jukebox. It isn’t long before the collection of such items becomes pretty enjoyable and somewhat addictive.
Even the basic gameplay for the plaza area is strangely unique. Holding the Wii U GamePad, you move with the analog sticks and can look around using either the right stick or the gyro sensor. Meaning, it’s possible to actually hold the GamePad up in a certain direction, stare into its screen, and see what’s located in that particular direction in the plaza—sort of like a window into the world. This is a cool, if not somewhat inconvenient, mechanic which we’re sure to see exploited further in later games for the Wii U.
The real meat
How about the mini-games—er, attractions—themselves? In short, they’re mostly very good. Diverging once more from the dreaded mini-game collection status quo, Nintendo Land actually features a good selection of games no matter how many players are present. Arguably the best few are enjoyed most effectively in groups, but it’s a matter of opinion; there’s even quite a lot to digest for single players. This isn’t so much in terms of quantity—after all, there are only 12 attractions to choose from, and a few of them are pretty simplistic—but the depth of some of them is quite deceptive. In fact, most of them don’t even expose their full range of content until you receive a “Star Performer” rank on that particular game, which indicates that you’ve done so well that you’re ready for more.
The attractions are divided by type and the number of players they support. There are three main types of attractions:
Team – Including Pikmin Adventure, Metroid Blast, and The Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest
Battle/Chase – Including Mario Chase, Luigi’s Ghost Mansion, and Animal Crossing: Sweet Day
Solo – Including Yoshi’s Fruit Cart, Octopus Dance, Donkey Kong’s Crash Course, Captain Falcoln’s Twister Race, Balloon Trip Breeze, and Takamaru’s Ninja Castle
Luigi's Ghost Mansion is a riot.
Of the above divisions, some additional distinctions between game types can be noted. The Team games are by far the deepest, offering dozens of levels each (many unlockable), while the Battle games are the shortest and simplest (generally only offering a handful of options and just a few courses/arenas each). The Solo games are all pretty good, and they’re much heavier on arcade scoring emphasis, something which can make for a great single-player challenge.
There is some crossover as well. For instance, all but the Battle/Chase games the games can be played single-player. The only multiplayer game that doesn’t support five players (only four) is Zelda, but it still requires use of the Wii U GamePad for one player.
Interesting also is how the games scale depending on the number of players available. For instance, although the Battle/Chase games are obviously designed with groups in mind, even with two players, the rules morph slightly to better accommodate the number of participants. For instance, more or less candy pieces must be collected to win depending on the number of players in Animal Crossing, and in Mario Chase, the player is granted ravenous Yoshi robots to assist if too few players join. It’s handled pretty well.
THE BATTLE/CHASE GAMES
The Battle/Chase games are described as such because, well, they’re all based on a game of chase. Rather than pitting all players against each other, these games instead square a team of Wii-mote wielders against the sole Wii U GamePad player. This provides for a sort of “asymmetric gameplay” experience that Nintendo has been pushing pretty heavily as a primary benefit of its new technology.
Mario Chase, where you... chase Mario
In Mario Chase, the Wii U GamePad player plays Mario, who runs away from the other players and tries not to be caught for a full 2 minutes and 30 seconds. The catch is that, as with most of the games here, he sees a totally different view of the game than the Wii remote players (who instead share the television screen in split-screen view). The GamePad displays a dual view of both Mario in third-person and an overhead map depicting the current location of all players, while the Wii remote players are granted no such luxury, and are instead required to communicate verbally about Mario’s location.
Luigi’s Ghost Mansion
Luigi’s Ghost Mansion shares the same basic concept but with heavy modification. Here, the GamePad player controls a single ghost who is invisible in the dark. The other players roam the mansion, in overhead view, in an attempt to catch the ghost and kill him. This is done by shining their flashlights directly on him, at which point his life begins quickly depleting. However, each player has limited battery power available to him, so the lights must be used sparingly (until a battery is picked up to recharge them)—and if the ghost manages to touch a player without being detected, he knocks that player out, at which point the others must revive him (if they so desire) by exposing him to their flashlight beams for a period of time. This is all complicated further by the fact that players can feel the ghost approaching thanks to vibrations of their Wii remotes, and the occasional lightning strike temporarily reveals the ghost if he’s in line with a window. There are also multiple levels available for play, and some of the later ones change up the rules a bit.
Animal Crossing: Sweet Day
Finally, the Animal Crossing mini-game is also pretty fun. Here, the GamePad player does the chasing, this time controlling not one but two guards simultaneously (one with each analog stick). This is challenging enough for the player, but it’s a lot of fun once you get the hang of it, as you can ambush people by your own judgment. The other players, meanwhile, rush to collect a particular number of candy pieces. These pieces are scattered throughout the arena, and some of them hang from trees which must be freed using multiple players standing on nearby switches. The other catch is that the more candy a player is carrying, the slower he moves—so in many situations, to escape the guards, players must drop pieces they’re carrying and regress a bit in the name of safety. If players are ambushed three times or they manage to collect the specified number of candy pieces, the game ends and the respective party wins.
THE TEAM GAMES
By far the deepest of all of the offerings, the team games each feature lots of levels (20+) and often multiple modes (including versus). They are truly hit-and-miss, however, depending on who you’re playing with.
Everything's all robotic and weird--but it's still fun.
The best of the bunch is probably actually Pikmin Adventure, as it’s fairly straightforward in its approach and is manageable for most anyone to pick up and play. Here, the player with the GamePad plays Captain Olimar (who has his usual squad of tiny Pikmin), while the Wii-mote players assume the roles of larger Pikmin. The human-controlled Pikmin are both stronger and faster than the tiny CPU Pikmin, and they also can disobey Olimar’s corralling command by shaking the Wii remote. Not much if any puzzle-solving applies; the gameplay is primarily action/dungeon crawler style. Both Olimar (well, his horde of Pikmin) and the human-controlled Pikmin can also level up, receiving buds and flowers to indicate their current level of attack power. Finally, a smattering of items litters the environments (such as Whip Seeds and Hammers for attack enhancements), and there are plenty of boss battles, too. It’s a challenging and deep team-based experience, and most of the time, it’s a lot of fun, too.
The other two team games will find their share of supporters and haters. Metroid Blast is very likely the most challenging of all the team-based offerings, and the primary argument against it seems to be that the controls are primarily what make it so difficult. That may be partially true, as the airborne ship gameplay revolves around not only using both analog sticks to maneuver (the left one moves your ship forward/backward and turns and the right one controls altitude), but also the gyrometer to aim. Meaning, you pan around with the controller—which is tough to get used to when paired with all of the other stuff you’re managing. Attacking is easier, with just a simple laser and charged shot available. A small number of power-ups provide other goodies such as rapid fire, a temporary shield, and ice beam. There are thirty levels in all, including a couple of boss battles—and the music is, as mentioned earlier, excellent. Not only can one player tackle the main Assault Mode, but up to five can join and assist—and two other versus modes exist as well just for fun.
The Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest
This game is going to divide. It isn’t that it’s bad, it’s just that it’s chocked full of missed opportunities and frustrating mechanics. Some people will learn to overlook these problems, and they’ll find dozens of unique levels (and boss battles) in store for them. But others simply won’t be able to stand it. For example, I’ll be damned if we’re ever able to get Digital Chumps editor Chris Stone to play another round. I’m pretty sure this game ruined his entire night.
The problem is that the game is on rails. Players (of which there can be four total) have little or no control over how their Link progresses through the environments. The only real jurisdiction you have as a swordsman (wielding a Wii remote and swiping in coordinated directions at enemies, Skyward Sword-style), for instance, is when to stop moving—which you can do by raising your shield and blocking. Meanwhile, the GamePad wielder is an archer whose primary goal is to take out distant threats (like enemy archers) and other oncoming hazards before they become an issue for the foot soldiers. You can probably imagine the sort of communication that takes place to accommodate this relationship, generally saturated with warnings from foot soldiers about projectiles, orders being shouted about piles of treacherous bombs in the road that the archer managed to miss, and superfluous amounts of profanity.
I wanted to like this game, but it’s hard to enjoy when everyone else is so down on it. It really could have been much better if you were granted freedom of motion, but I suppose as it stands it’s just going to pose a question of patience—who can deal?
This game is positively unforgiving.
THE SOLO GAMES
These games don’t require nearly as much explanation, as they’re generally much simpler and more arcade-like than their multiplayer peers. That doesn’t make them any less appealing, however; in fact, some will argue that the single-player components of Nintendo Land are actually superior to most of its multiplayer.
Yoshi’s Fruit Cart
This game tests your ability to compare the locations of items on the TV with their respective locations on the controller screen (where they are invisible). It starts off simple, but it quickly becomes very challenging. At first, you’re simply drawing a single, continuous path from the start to the goal, collecting a few pieces of fruit along the way. If you miss a piece, you start over, and if your path is too long, you’ll run out of fuel—so you have to be careful and very precise. Later levels add such complications as holes, walls, moving fruit and landmarks, and even warp exits (that send you to a later level). It’s a lot of fun and one of the best games here.
Donkey Kong’s Crash Course
This could very likely be described as the community favorite. DK’s Crash Course is an infuriatingly difficult game that sees you piloting a buggy of ridiculous fragility through an obstacle course filled with moving lifts and mechanical contraptions that the player must command with the use of the L/R buttons, analog stick, and even by blowing into the mic. Meanwhile, movement is provided by tilting the board using the controller’s gyroscope, a maneuver which is often very challenging in that just the right speed is required to make it through many of the areas. Too fast and you’ll slam into a wall and explode. Too slow and you’ll drop or flip while trying to make the jump to the next lift.
What’s even more mind-boggling is that, while we played plenty of this at E3 and could hardly ever imagine completing the first board, there are actually multiple boards. I won’t go into too many specifics about what to expect, but let’s just say that you will likely never complete this game.
Captain Falcon’s Twister Race
In yet another arcade-like throwback to yesteryear, Twister Race is pretty damn tough itself. From an overhead viewpoint, you pilot your car (by turning the GamePad and staring at its screen) at high-speed through a winding track filled with obstacles such as walls, mines, missiles, and plenty of other stuff. Littering the track are also boosts that are required to win, as you’re also facing a very strict time limit. Each time you clear an area, more time is added to the clock. One screw-up, and the game ends—there are no lives or second chances here.
In this strange twist on Simon Says, players use the analog sticks and gyro sensor to mimic moves made by a dancer on-screen. It’s already challenging enough trying to do all of this accurately to the beat of the music, but it’s made even tougher when you add in the occasional obstructive octopus ink blast, plus the fact that he occasionally flips you around at random (thus requiring you to switch which screen you’re looking at). Although it’s a fun game, most gamers will probably rank it amongst the weakest of the solo games.
Balloon Trip Breeze
This game sees you swiping the stylus on the GamePad touch screen to create wind gusts of varying strengths, sizes, and directions, which in turn move the balloon-suspended character in a given direction. As with most of the solo games, it’s deeper than it seems. There are over a dozen levels (moving from, for instance, Day 1 Morning, Day 1 Afternoon, Day 1 Evening, etc…) featuring different obstacles, enemies, and modifiers, such as windy conditions, thunderstorms, and even breakable bricks. Some of the later levels almost turn into bullet hell shooter-style gameplay, and it’s a lot of fun—but a real challenge. This is one of the best games included in the package.
Nailing some ninjas in Takamaru's Ninja Castle.
Takamaru’s Ninja Castle
Some people will love this one and some will hate it. It’s an action game where the player swipes to throw ninja stars at oncoming ninja attackers of various types, including those that throw projectiles (such as bombs and ninja stars) back your direction. After each stage, you’re ranked based on your performance, accuracy, and takedown rate—and over time, you’ll earn the use of additional abilities, too, such as a short period where you can toss your own bombs at attackers instead of ninja stars. There are also (very difficult) boss battles to attempt, but beware—it’s very unforgiving.
The biggest difference between Nintendo Land and the usual mini-game collection is the depth and polish poured into each game here. This is, in every sense of the word, a mini-game collection done right, and for that reason you shouldn’t discriminate against it on account of its classification. Ranging from somewhat mediocre and short-lived to surprisingly deep and addictive, many of the mini-games are quite challenging to complete, and the best few will likely take at least a few hours each to exhaust.
In this regard, Nintendo Land looks like a good deal: in terms of total content, it definitely beats Wii Sports. But the critical difference is that these aren’t the kinds of games which are likely to spur a phone call to friends to arrange a Wii U party—more likely, they’re the sort that might be enjoyed by an already-assembled crowd looking for something to pass the time. That’s mostly because, again, the technology isn’t all that bizarre and revolutionary like that of the Wii. And consequently, the multiplayer offerings (while certainly fun) lack the same sort of basic replayability which was so powerful in Wii Sports’ Tennis and Bowling games. This isn’t a game most players will likely find themselves coming back to in a few months’ time.
Other limitations and missed opportunities include the complete (and downright puzzling) lack of a leaderboard feature, which—especially if paired with downloadable replays for each score—would have taken this game to the next level. As far as they’ve come, Nintendo still continues to take two steps forward, one step back with each new foray into internet-enabled gaming. Here’s hoping that we’ll see some major improvement in this area in later Wii U first-party titles. Some players will also lament the omission of control customization on some of the more complex games (such as Metroid, where inverted controls are likely to come up in some conversations), but this is less of a problem and more of an annoyance.
Overall, though, while this is a wholly different experience from the Wii and Wii Sports, it’s also better in some ways, and is certainly a move in the direction of the “core” gaming crowd. While the presentation and concepts still exude a casual shell, the real meat of the experience is deceptively deep and unmistakably challenging. It’s no “killer app” launch title, but it’s no slouch, either.