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,
IT EXACERBATES A PROBLEM MANY
FORESAW: IT’S MUCH MORE FUN IF
YOU’RE THE ONE HOLDING THE GAMEPAD
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