NintendoLand review: A mixed bag but a clever showcase for GamePad
15th Nov 2012 | 23:58
Both games are teachers you see, but they're teaching a different class. Think of it if you will as being similar to introducing a sport to a young child for the first time.
Wii Sports was the moment (both figuratively and literally) when you first slipped a bat into their hands and invited them to swing it for themselves. Well, NintendoLand assumes everyone now knows how to swing a controller. Now it wants to teach you what you can really do with it.
In that sense, it's more like their first trip to the ball game. But Nintendo aren't taking you to any old ropey bush league game. Nope, they're taking you to Game Seven of the World Series. This is NintendoLand, a virtual theme park built as a permanent shrine to 30 years of glorious Ninty history.
The beauty of NintendoLand's nerdy-but-inviting facade is that it makes it an enticing place for grizzled 8-bit veterans to explore, too. This is important, as the main purpose of Wii U's asymmetrical (or as we like to call it, 'lop-sided') multiplayer is to bring together gamers of differing experience and controller-fluency levels, and get them playing on an equal footing.
But while NintendoLand's sparkly hub - awash with sights, sounds and secrets as it is - succeeds in grabbing the attention, it is the quality of the mini-games themselves that will determine whether NintendoLand manages to hold onto it. With that in mind and without further ado, let's quickly run through each of the twelve games on show, and work out if they're any cop or not.
NintendoLand boasts three very different riffs on Pac-Man Vs, a Miyamoto-designed maze-chase game which saw four Gameboy Advance-controlled ghosts working together to capture a fifth player controlling Pac-Man on the TV screen.
Of the three, Mario Chase is the purest interpretation of the formula. The GamePad player assumes the role of Mario, the chasee, and is given a ten second headstart before up to four grab-happy Toads club together in an attempt to hunt him down.
While the chasee can see the maze (and the location of the Toads) in its entirety, the chasers are forced to share screen space on the TV, the zoomed-in camera meaning they can never get an overall picture of what's happening on the map.
Maps are split into four distinct coloured zones, which makes it easier for the chasers to communicate Mario's location to the others when they spot him on their screen. "He's running into the blue zone! No wait, he's going back into yellow" is a common battle cry as the clock begins to tick down and nerves begin to fray.
Within this simple template there's a surprising amount of opportunity for strategising on both sides - which is why it's so much fun to watch the replay together on the big screen when the round ends, to see how the events unfurled.
This is exactly the sort of thing Wii U was built for - funny and light, but with a devious streak a mile wide. It's just a shame that Nintendo didn't build more than three maps for it. The second map in particular - featuring mud-moats and bridges that vanish after Mario runs over them, leaving would-be persuers wallowing in the brown stuff - hints at the mode's unfulfilled potential. That said, sometimes there's something to be said for keeping things simple.
Captain Falcon's Twister Race
It's F-Zero - on the Wii U! Except, not so much. It's more of an OutRun-esque obstacle course, with manholes, debris and dawdling space-traffic conspiring to make you miss your appointment with the next time-replenishing checkpoint.
Your craft is controlled by tilting the GamePad's accelerometers - your first clue that this isn't going to be an F-Zero GX beater. The action is displayed on both screens, but due to the high walls surrounding the track you're best off concentrating exclusively on the top-down viewpoint as shown on the GamePad screen - although you're forced to switch back to the TV screen when you drive into a tunnel.
The main TV screen also shows a live feed of your face (via the GamePad's front-facing camera), making this a must-play game if you've ever wondered what you look like when you're not really having a great time.
Balloon Race Breeze
Ah, now this is a lot better. It's a faithful reinvention of the classic NES avoid-'em-up of (nearly) the same name - except with a few changes to bring it in line with modern-day expectations. Chief amongst these is that you now use the touchscreen to steer your balloon-powered kid around - each brush of the stylus causing a breeze that carries him flying off in that direction.
At its heart it's a high-score game, and there are several neat risk versus reward mechanics that you can exploit to boost your score. Dipping into the water for a few microseconds encourages a kid-eating fish to bubble to the surface, for example - give him the dodge and he'll burp out a handy power-up. You can also choose to ferry a surprise gift to the next checkpoint, but it weighs you down, and can easily get snagged on one of the many spikes that clog the airwaves.
It's really not much more advanced than your standard iOS offering, but as part of a wider minigame package it's a very welcome inclusion.
You'll want to get the nunchuks (remember them?) out for this one. Up to four players can strap on their Samus gear for some classic third-person shooting action, while the GamePad user gets to play overwatch from a Gunship up above.
The co-operative campaign is surprisingly hefty, consisting of numerous missions and even the odd boss battle. Inevitably the troops on the ground have a tougher time of it, but the Gunship can bring defeated players back from Zero-Suit purgatory by waiting until enemies are in their general location and shooting them down to generate a revival icon.
Intra-squad bickering can be sorted out in one of the two competitive modes. Land v Air pits the Samuses (or whatever the plural for Samus is) against the Gunship, and is surprisingly well balanced considering. The ground battle on the other hand is a straight-up Deathmatch between the Samuses/Samusi/Samu.
It's rather vanilla by modern-day standards of course, but if you're looking to get your grandma hooked on Halo 4, we can't think of a better gateway drug.
Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest
Of course, sometimes 'asymmetrical gameplay' means 'one player is having a lot more fun than the others'. Battle Quest is a classic example of this.
If you've got the GamePad in your hands when Battle Quest starts, then feel free to hold it aloft and shout 'Der-der-der-duuuuuh!' - because you're going to enjoy what's going to follow much more than everyone else in the room.
The GamePad player is equipped with a bow and arrow, which he or she aims by holding the screen aloft in the air and pointing to where they want to aim. Reloading it is achieved by quickly tilting the Pad into a horizontal position. After a few teething problems it becomes second-nature. If this doesn't become the aiming mechanism of choice in the next fully-fledged Zelda game, we'll eat a Goron's jockstrap.
Oh, all those other Links left holding the Motionplus controllers? They get to wave them around unconvincingly like swords. It's perfectly all right, like. But just can't hold a candle to wielding that bow and arrow.
Yoshi's Fruit Cart
If we're honest, this one reminded us of the shallow offerings that used to pass muster when the DS was in its infancy. The idea is to steer Yoshi's Fruit Cart to the goal, collecting all the onscreen fruit in the process.
You do this by tracing a path on the touchscreen, but - oh no! - the fruit, hazards and other such clutter aren't represented on the touchscreen, meaning you have to study both screens and make approximations based on the backdrop imagery (which begins to move dynamically once you get past the opening few screens).
As puzzle games go, it's perfectly enjoyable, but why do we have to go back to the beginning each time? This is a problem in several of the single-player games, actually, but it's never more frustrating than it is here. It's just not worth the time investment it asks from you.
Animal Crossing: Sweet Day
Anyone who has trouble walking and chewing gum at the same time is going to have a torrid time here. It's another maze chase game, this time with the GamePad user playing the role of pursuer.
The extra twist is that the chaser has to navigate two guards around a maze simultaneously, one with each analogue stick. With these two cumbersome tools at your disposal, your task is to lay the smack down on the other players, who work together to gather as many sweets as possible in a single location before the timer hits zero.
It's a big ask, not least because the guards' only form of attack is a clumsy forward dive. Fortunately, as the other players scoop up candy from the floor their heads grow exponentially fatter, weighing them down and making it easier for the guards to corner a struggling lardbucket.
Frequent trips to the sweet deposit box are the way forward then - but this makes the animals' moves predictable, and canny GamePad players will lie in wait and ambush unsuspecting players as they stop off to deliver their sweets. Of the three maze-chase games it's the one which takes the longest to get into - but it's also the one with the greater tactical depth, too.
Takamuru's Ninja Castle
Here, you hold the GamePad sideways and flick the touchscreen towards your television to hurl shurikens at a horde of impossibly cute (but still deadly) chibi-ninjas. It's basically a glorified Operation Wolf clone, but the unusual input mechanism adds a lot to the game, even if it is slightly hard on the wrist.
It's wrapped up in a hilariously po-faced storyline which sees NintendoLand's hostess Monita get kidnapped by the ninja army while she's having a Zen moment. Extra brownie points for that, because that...thing has a voice a serial killer would be proud of.
Well, it's about time the cast from 1981 Game & Watch title Octopus got a little love. Your objective here is to mirror the diver's dance moves by shaking and tilting the GamePad on cue. Periodically the diver will spin around to face you, at which point it's best to turn your attention to the other screen (which will now be showing him from behind), since it's easier to copy his moves when his left is also your left.
If you mess things up, the Octopus from the original game will swoop into the picture and gobble you up. If that's not worth a solid 7.0, then we don't know what is.
Luigi's Ghost Mansion
The final of the three maze games is arguably the most tense and exciting of the lot. This time everyone gets a clear view of the playing field - up to four Luigis on the TV screen, the ghost on the GamePad. The only difference: the ghost can see the Luigis, but the Luigis have absolutely no idea where the ghost is. Eek!
With four-fifths of the playing field left in the dark, rounds are cagey affairs, with the Luigis tending to cluster together and attempt to cover each other's blindspots with their tiny torches - their only line of defence against the overpowered ghost. Sporadic flashes of lightning reveal the ghost's location, but that aside the only hope Team Luigi has of pinpointing its whereabouts is a slight rumbling of the remote when the ghost draws near.
It's weighted quite heavily in the ghost's favour, but not to the detriment of the game itself - it's a horrible cliché, but the taking part is more important than the winning. If this is typical of the kind of innovative multiplayer experiences we can expect from Wii U, then it's going to prove £300 well spent.
This one's a bit rubbish, to be honest. It's a straight forward top-down button-masher, with a profoundly irritating gimmick. The player with the GamePad (Olimar) has the power to call over all the other players (Pikmin) with a single blow of his whistle. The idea is supposed to be that GamePad user assumes the role of battle general, looking after the other players' welfare and sucking them up so he can launch them at weak points that the Pikmin on the ground just aren't able to reach by themselves. In practice however, it's primarily used for straight up trolling.
In the context of this compilation the scrapping makes for a refreshing (if slightly random) change of pace, but there's nothing here that we'd like to see fleshed out into a full game.
Donkey Kong Crash Course
A fun little reaction game that reminds us a little of those Tomy Handheld assault course games you used to get in the 1970s and 80s, before some bright spark invented electricity.
You have to steer this little cart-shaped thing from one end of the course to the other by guiding it gently down the rails, activating levers and operating blow-powered lifts as you go. It's not a race to the finish line, but the game goes to great lengths to encourage you to speed up all the same, with a ticking timer and a ghostly apparition of your best time working in tandem to goad you into making hasty mistakes. Great stuff.
So, here we arrive at the conclude-y bit at the end. Well, looking through the scores, one thing that immediately jumps out at us is that the three best games in the package - Animal Crossing: Sweet Day, Luigi's Ghost Mansion and Mario Chase - just happen to be the three variations on Pac-Man Vs.
That's a slightly worrying sign. While there's no doubt that the Wii U can do hide and seek games well - the console probably owes its very existence to the search for the ideal Pac-Man Vs machine, actually - none of the other multiplayer games really grabbed us as being games that we'd want to keep playing years or even months down the line.
But then, Wii Sports was also a total one-trick pony, and that didn't stop developers coming up with a wide range of clever uses for the remote, so perhaps we shouldn't worry about the wider implications for the Wii U GamePad, and instead appreciate it for what it is - three excellent and very different versions of the best multiplayer game ever conceived, with a whole boatload of extras included on the disc to boot. If you've got a friend in this world, you've got room on your shelf for NintendoLand.