At Nintendo’s post-E3 event in Toronto, I got my hands on the Wii U GamePad for the first time, and couldn’t help but think back to late 2006. Not only was I getting my hands on a genuinely different videogame controller from Nintendo, but I was playing with a group of people I was meeting for the first time. The original Wii’s launch coincided with me starting a relationship, and when it came time to get with my lover’s friends, the Wii turned out to be an incredible ice-breaker.
When the Wii first hit the market, videogame nerds turned from awkward social misfits into some kind of Willy Wonka characters, introducing lay people to the delights of interactive entertainment. It was perfect in its simplicity; hand someone a hand-held device, then tell them to swing it like a baseball bat, and they instantly had a basic proficiency.
Wii Sports deftly communicated what the Wii was about. The Wii Remote was an intuitive control device that made videogames more immersive and fun than ever before. It spoke to enough people who played it that I could see the viral-marketing happening around me. I’d show some friend of my girlfriend Wii Sports on our first awkward encounter, then hear that they bought a Wii, and played with other people who were compelled to purchase their own. And so on, until it became the bestselling console of the current generation.
Nintendo is hyping Nintendo Land up as the Wii U equivalent: this is the game that will convey why the Wii U GamePad is a revolution in videogames, and demonstrate why it deserves a place in your living room.
Much hay has been made about the “asymmetrical” multiplayer features, in which one player gets a different play experience on the tablet, while everyone else does or sees something else on the TV. Ignoring the fact that “asymmetrical” doesn’t require the specialized hardware Wii U hangs its hat on, it complicates the logistics of everything. Part of the elegance of Wii Sports is that it featured games that everybody already knows. The five second primer that each game in Wii Sports required has been supplanted with a five minute pep talk. Not only are newcomers learning a new set of rules and strategies, they’re also dealing with a new interface device that presents a very abstracted form of control.
I enjoyed the time I spent with the various games in Nintendo Land, but I dominated the group of casual players I was paired up with. Animal Crossing: Sweet Day has the GamePad equipped player controlling two guards (one with each analog stick) chasing down four interlopers attempting to steal fruit from an orchard. Players slow down as they collect fruit, but they can also jettison what they’ve collected if they need to make a hasty retreat. I availed of this strategy to distract the guards while my teammates went about the business of collecting fruit, ensuring victory. When it was my turn as the GamePadded player, I was able to capture everyone in a matter of seconds by deftly availing of pincer movements – the previous enforcer eyed me up suspiciously and asked how I was able to control them both so well. The honest answer was that I was accustomed to dual analog controls – a nightmare control-scheme for the uninitiated.
That’s going to be a problem when I’m trying to entertain my casual friends – now that the core mechanics don’t involve waggling, there’s going to be a major skill-gulf. It’s great that there’s some depth and strategy that can be employed in many of the mini-games (for instance, the Ghost in Luigi’s Ghost Mansion can move faster if he reveals his position – which I used to misdirect players with remarkable efficacy), but this will only serve to frustrate newcomers when they square off against seasoned players. I heard a lot of anguished “I didn’t know you could do that!” during the brief time I played.
During my time with Luigi’s Ghost Mansion I played against a six-year old (Canada’s lax child labour laws mean we can start our videogame journalists early) – there were plenty of indignant bellows from this little lady who insisted on looking at the “big screen”, despite the station attendant’s guidance — I’ve played Wii Sports with toddlers who haven’t felt the need to invoke temper tantrums.
Nintendo have revealed all twelve of the minigames in included in Nintendo Land, and from the multiplayer demos, it’s clear that none of them have that instant appeal that prompted millions to buy consoles for occasional ‘Wii Parties’. It’s clear that Nintendo are trying to have it both ways with the Wii U – it has the controls and processing power to deliver the kind of experiences that the hardcore are used to, as well as legacy support for the devices that facilitate the more visceral control experiences that will delight the casual crowd.
I would imagine that the hardcore will approach the Wii U with much reticence – last time Nintendo convinced them to buy hardware that’s a generation behind, it didn’t hold their interest for long. The fervour for Wii Sports and its casual ilk kept the Wii afloat while the faithful turned to Sony and Microsoft for a more contemporary experience, but it’s doubtful that the Wii U will manage that if the big N is pinning its hopes on Nintendo Land as a trojan horse to living rooms around the world.