Time Ex­tend

How the game de­signed to sell Wii U out­lined its trou­bled fu­ture


How Nin­tendo Land show­cased Wii U’s po­ten­tial while out­lin­ing the theth plat­form’s trou­bled fu­ture

Lately, Nin­tendo has spent a lot of time look­ing back. This isn’t un­com­mon for a com­pany that has a unique re­la­tion­ship with its past: at once re­liant upon, teth­ered to, and per­haps even re­stricted by it. In its ex­pand­ing line of Ami­ibo fig­ures it has ac­cented its toy-maker her­itage, but we’re talk­ing about the way it’s re­turned to its ar­cade her­itage: wit­ness the stern test of the chal­lenge stages in the two most re­cent New Su­per Mario Bros games, the snappy tim­ing-based tests of Rusty’s Real Deal Base­ball, or even Nin­tendo Badge Ar­cade’s UFO catch­ers. But it’s per­haps most clearly seen in Nin­tendo Land, which pre­sented a ro­bust chal­lenge in keep­ing with the era while point­ing to­ward the com­pany’s im­me­di­ate fu­ture with its idio­syn­cratic new con­sole.

Nin­tendo’s aim, as out­lined by the late Sa­toru Iwata, was to bridge the gap be­tween the ex­panded mar­ket and its vet­eran fans – and what bet­ter way to do that than re­turn to a time where games could be both straight­for­ward and ac­ces­si­ble enough to ap­peal to a broader au­di­ence, yet dif­fi­cult enough to keep sea­soned play­ers en­ter­tained? A fine idea in the­ory, but there’s some­thing naïve about the so­lu­tion, which ap­pears to be founded upon the mis­guided no­tion that if grandma had mas­tered ten-pin bowl­ing she might now be in the mood to learn how to strafe. Be­sides, that ship had sailed: Iwata’s Blue Ocean strat­egy was only tem­po­rar­ily suc­cess­ful, with much of the Wii au­di­ence hav­ing long since moved on to cheap or free mo­bile and browser-based games.

Even set­ting aside that mar­ket shift, it was clear Nin­tendo Land wasn’t ever go­ing to be the new Wii Sports as early as its ini­tial un­veil­ing dur­ing the laboured E3 2012 pre­sen­ta­tion. Pro­ducer Kat­suya Eguchi seemed to tie him­self in knots try­ing to ex­plain how to play Luigi’s Ghost Man­sion, a sim­ple asym­met­ric stealth game. If there’s one mo­ment that sums up the dis­par­ity, it’s when ro­botic host Monita in­tones over the load­ing screens, “Here’s an over­view of the con­trols” – a far cry from the im­me­di­acy of swing­ing a Re­mote to hit a ten­nis ball.

This was not what long-time Nin­tendo fans were look­ing for, ei­ther. A fun­fair with at­trac­tions themed around clas­sic se­ries like

Mario and Zelda? Sure. Miis and minigames? Not so much. Nin­tendo’s dilemma is tac­itly ac­knowl­edged by the game’s look, which is as ob­vi­ous an ex­am­ple of bet-hedg­ing as you’ll see: wel­com­ing enough for new­com­ers, while let­ting loy­al­ists know this wasn’t the ‘real’ Zelda or Mario – that they’d be along later. Well, some of them would – and doesn’t Cap­tain Fal­con’s Twis­ter Race seem ever more like a slap in the face? In­deed, with the ex­cep­tion of the Prime tril­ogy on Vir­tual Con­sole, Metroid Bat­tle was the last we’d see of Sa­mus Aran’s Varia Suit on Wii U.

At first glance, that aes­thetic sug­gests a lack of strong di­rec­tion. This is, af­ter all, a theme park that opens with spot­lights trained upon a the­atre’s drapes. Walk around the hub and you’ll note that ev­ery­thing is hand-crafted, but there are strange lit­tle in­con­sis­ten­cies. Its floor is a patch­work of hand-stitched seg­ments, con­nected by metal plates and screws. Its at­trac­tions are made of wood, plas­tic and, oddly, pixel art. The hub it­self grows clut­tered with ob­jects that bounce, un­pack, fold up and take off as you touch them; even­tu­ally, there are too many to hold on­screen at once and they’ll pop into ex­is­tence as you get closer. It’s a bit of a mud­dle, then, but as a re­sult it has much more char­ac­ter than the blandly ap­proach­able Wuhu Is­land. Bal­loon Trip Breeze’s day-night cy­cle is sig­nalled by a shower cur­tain be­ing pulled across the screen, while Bokoblin at­tacks tear holes in Link’s tu­nic, re­veal­ing ripped stitches and a wisp of soft stuff­ing. The pla­s­ticky can­dies in An­i­mal Cross­ing: Sweet Day re­sem­ble minia­ture gashapon cap­sules, while Don­key Kong’s Crash Course is en­livened by chalk­board doo­dles and con­trap­tions made from yarn and but­tons. It still leans on past de­signs, but art di­rec­tor Tsub­asa Sak­aguchi’s bold ap­proach would later find a more suit­able out­let in the ef­fer­ves­cent pop stylings of Spla­toon.

If the vi­su­als sug­gest a pub­lisher un­sure of its au­di­ence, then the at­trac­tions them­selves be­tray Nin­tendo’s un­cer­tain­ties about the strengths of its Game Pad. The six sin­gle­player games are largely cen­tred on the idea of pre­sent­ing dif­fer­ent

in­for­ma­tion on both screens and ask­ing the player to con­nect the two for a more com­plete pic­ture. Yoshi’s Fruit Cart seems to make the best use of that con­cept, though in rais­ing the chal­lenge by hav­ing the fruit move around one screen, it in­creas­ingly de­val­ues the other. Oc­to­pus Dance, a re­minder that mo­tion con­trols and rhyth­mac­tion don’t mix, flips the player’s avatar and inks over one dis­play to force your gaze to alternate be­tween the two as you at­tempt to in­ter­pret and then mimic ba­sic dance moves – a clever con­cept, but one with lim­ited ap­peal. Cap­tain Fal­con’s Twis­ter Race at­tempts to con­vince us of the value of two dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives, but this slow, tilt-based racer is a pale shadow of its in­spi­ra­tion. Taka­maru’s Ninja Cas­tle, mean­while, is not only the most ten­u­ous link to Nin­tendo’s past, based on a long-- for­got­ten Fam­i­com Disk Sys­tem game, but would ben­e­fit from be­ing played with a Wi­imote in­stead of a Game Pad.

Even one of the bet­ter games, the oth­er­wise en­joy­able Bal­loon Trip Breeze, strug­gles with its re­mit: it’s eas­ier to re­tain finer con­trol of your float­ing char­ac­ter by keep­ing your eyes fixed on the TV, glanc­ing down only briefly to tap away the oc­ca­sional blocky ob­struc­tion. The lone un­qual­i­fied suc­cess is the su­perb Don­key Kong’s Crash Course. This uses the big screen for an over­view of the en­tire level while the player, with fur­rowed brow, grips the Game Pad, us­ing both ana­logue sticks, its trig­gers, its gy­ro­scope and even the mi­cro­phone to guide a flimsy cart through a lengthy and chal­leng­ing ob­sta­cle course.

The mul­ti­player ac­tiv­i­ties, mean­while, were built around an idea that Nin­tendo had ex­plored be­fore, most no­tably with the asym­met­ric ex­per­i­ment of Miyamoto pet project Pac-Man Vs. Sim­i­larly, the three games here are all vari­ants on hide and seek.

Luigi’s Ghost Man­sion tasks a Game Pad ghost with sneak­ing up and scar­ing play­ers with flash­lights whose beams burn the spirit into flee­ing. It’s en­joy­able, even as it ex­ac­er­bates a prob­lem many fore­saw when Wii U was un­veiled: it’s much more fun if you’re the one hold­ing the Game Pad. Sweet Day ar­guably has the op­po­site prob­lem, set­ting one player the oner­ous chal­lenge of si­mul­ta­ne­ously guid­ing two ca­nine pur­suers, work­ing both sticks to trap and catch candy-steal­ing ele­phants. Mario Chase, on the other hand, is a game of win­ning sim­plic­ity, and an in­stant Nin­tendo clas­sic: Toads must work to­gether with rel­a­tively lim­ited fields of view to cor­ner a fugi­tive Mario within two min­utes. Still, as bright, in­stantly un­der­stand­able and re­playable as it is, it nev­er­the­less suf­fers from the lack of modes and op­tions. Just three are­nas are avail­able – one more than in Sweet Day.

The three co-op­er­a­tive mul­ti­player games are ar­guably the only at­trac­tions that don’t feel un­der­de­vel­oped. Pik­min Ad­ven­ture, a rudi­men­tary dun­geon-crawler,




is sig­nif­i­cantly more en­ter­tain­ing when you’re mar­shalling your diminu­tive troops from a Game Pad, how­ever, with the lone large Pik­min left to but­ton-mash their way through me­chan­i­cal ver­sions of the se­ries’ fa­mil­iar fauna, while be­ing help­less to re­sist the call of Oli­mar’s whis­tle. Zel­daand Metroid- themed bat­tlers work bet­ter by giv­ing play­ers with Re­motes equal billing, and en­cour­ag­ing care­ful team­work. Though Wii U’s es­o­teric con­troller makes for a sim­i­larly un­ortho­dox bow and ar­row, it at least frees up space on the big screen for sword-wield­ing Links. Metroid goes one step fur­ther in com­plex­ity, with Sa­mus’s gun­ship con­trolled via an os­ten­si­bly cum­ber­some setup in­volv­ing both sticks, shoul­der but­tons and gy­ro­scopic aim­ing. A com­pet­i­tive al­ter­na­tive makes for a rather un­fair fight – a half-de­cent hunter will run rings around the com­par­a­tively un­wieldy craft – though the abil­ity to set a hand­i­cap ad­dresses that some­what. Con­sid­ered on its own terms, Nin­tendo Land is a fine and some­times in­spired game, stuffed with cre­ative ideas, even if none of them are quite re­alised fully enough. But it’s im­pos­si­ble to fully di­vorce the re­sult from the in­tent. Wii Sports was a straight­for­ward idea ex­e­cuted to near-per­fec­tion, at least in terms of what Nin­tendo was hop­ing to achieve with it. Re­sort, too, was a con­vinc­ing demonstration of the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the Mo­tion Plus – and dou­bled as a se­ries of proofs of con­cept for me­chan­ics that would re­cur in Sky­ward Sword. By con­trast, it’s hard to imag­ine Nin­tendo Land’s ideas be­ing re­pur­posed for EAD’s next Zelda game or, for that mat­ter, for two-screen or asym­met­ric play to be a cor­ner­stone of NX. For bet­ter and worse, then, Nin­tendo Land is the quin­tes­sen­tial Wii U game. Like its host hard­ware, it’s a mud­dle of in­ter­est­ing ideas, awk­wardly com­bined into a pack­age that tries to de­liver some­thing for ev­ery­one, but ul­ti­mately only really ap­peals to a com­par­a­tively niche player base. That wouldn’t be par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant for any other game, but for some­thing made as Wii U’s flag­ship launch ti­tle, de­signed both to sell us on the value of the Game Pad and in­spire new de­vel­op­ers with its ideas, Nin­tendo Land is a fail­ure, al­beit a no­ble one. It will be re­mem­bered fondly by many for its flashes of bril­liance, while stand­ing as the best pos­si­ble ex­em­plar of why Wii U failed to take off.

The lay­out of all three Mar­i­oChase stages changes dra­mat­i­cally with four or five Toads in­volved. If there’s only one pur­suer, they’ll be as­sisted by AI-con­trolled Yoshi carts, whose ex­tend­able tongues will tem­po­rar­ily stun Mario

ABOVE In games where the player’s at­ten­tion is drawn to the GamePad, the TV of­ten presents the ac­tion as a live broad­cast, oc­ca­sion­ally shift­ing the cam­era for a dif­fer­ent view

Twis­ter Race’s tun­nels ob­scure boost pads, invit­ing you to look at the TV to find them and shave sec­onds off your time. Tellingly, the race comes to a halt ev­ery four stages so you can re­cal­i­brate the tilt con­trols

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