Nintendo Land is no Wii Sports and it is no Super Mario 64. That's the bad news for people who hope Nintendo has once again made a day-one masterpiece for its newest console.
The good news is that Nintendo Land is a fun collection of surprisingly well-made smaller games. It's a museum of beloved Nintendo franchises and an interactive preview of things to come.
It is the Wii U's must-play and it is a far better introduction to Nintendo's strange new world of two-screen gaming than the launch games for other, recent ballyhooed paradigm shifters like Sony's Move and Microsoft's Kinect. It's got that Nintendo polish.
Nintendo Land is presented as a theme park for Miis, the player avatars Nintendo introduced with the Wii. In this theme park there are 12 attractions, each tied to a classic or non-classic Nintendo franchise such as Mario, Zelda or Balloon Fight. Luigi gets a game. Yoshi gets a game. Pikmin and Donkey Kong, too. The Miis dress up as characters from these series and are yours to control through a variety of levels and challenges. Each level is set on what look like stage play versions of these series. Zelda's world appears to be made of fabric. The enemies in Pikmin are boxy and metal, essentially toy versions of their normal selves. A ninja game appears to be constructed of folded paper. This alone argues that Nintendo's first high-definition console will be a boon for gamers hoping to see Nintendo's confident, colorful art styles in richer detail.
Nintendo may want you to think of Nintendo Land as a theme park, but you just might see it as a mini-game collection. The game presents a menu of things to play, all meant to be experienced in relatively short bursts. A match of Mario Chase for example, will last as long as a match of Wii Sports Tennis. The game's version of F-Zero won't take more than a couple of minutes—and that's only if you're good enough to stay on track that long. The brevity of some of these attractions invites a Wii Sports comparison, but Nintendo Land has more heft than that Wii launch title. There are more than a dozen levels of Nintendo Land's Pikmin and Metroid adventures and a curiously tough sequence of linear Zelda levels that are designed to be played co-operatively. So "mini-game collection" doesn't quite cut it. What would fit?
It's best to think of Nintendo Land as a virtual instruction manual for the Wii U and a hint of all that can come of the unusual hardware it debuts on. In this regard, it's a success.
The Wii U hardware benefits from a game that explains it, because the hardware is so odd. We've got a fairly powerful game console that runs games with high-def graphics on a TV but also streams the same or different visuals to a sharp 6.2-inch screen that is backed into a twin-stick controller. The controller also contains face buttons, four triggers, a front-facing camera and a gyro sensor. It also rumbles and emits its own sounds. Oh, and its screen is touch-sensitive. The Wii U can also be controlled by regular, old-school Wii remotes. It's easy to wonder what kind of game(s) would work with even half of these things. Thank goodness Nintendo Land has a dozen answers.
Some of the attractions show how single-player gaming can be transformed when the player has a TV and a screen in their hands at which to look. Others show how local multiplayer dynamics can be transformed if one person has a private view of the action on a controller screen while another player or three has a TV to look at.
It helps a lot if you can see this stuff, so here are five brief looks:
Mario Chase is the quick crowd-pleaser, the one that will be best for parties. One player plays as Mario on the GamePad and can see the entire arena and all of his or her pursuers. The other players use Wii Remotes, held sideways, and each have a limited split-screened view of the action on the TV. They should tell each other if they spot Mario and team up to tackle him. Mario just needs to stay away for as long as possible. The GamePad streams a feed of the Mario player's face to the TV while this is happening.
The Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest can be solo'd, but it's best played in co-op. The GamePad player is an archer and should play standing up, panning their GamePad around the room they are in in order to see all sides of the Zelda level. Wii Remote players wield swords and look at the TV. The players' characters walk forward automatically (though you can make them stop) as you fight through dungeons, look for secrets and battle against theme park versions of familiar Zelda enemies. This is the hardest attraction in Nintendo Land and, as with the Pikmin and Metroid ones, is clearly angled toward gamers who crave longer Nintendo adventures. Even after completing its nine-level campaign there are harder bonus stages to clear and special goals to accomplish to "master" each level.
Metroid Blast is made for co-op or competitive arena shooting. As with Zelda it splits players' roles across different controller types. The GamePad player used their controller to pilot a spaceship, again tilting and turning the device in real life as if it was a viewfinder to a virtual world around the player. The other players are the ground troops and play Metroid Blast with a Wii Remote and Nunchuk, as a third-person shooter. This mode has Nintendo Land's best boss battles. (Yes, Nintendo Land has boss battles… a whole lot of them.)
Captain Falcon's Twister Race is one of the six Nintendo Land attractions that is only made for solo play. This one has you holding the GamePad vertically and turning it to steer through a race, but also requires you to sometimes look up at the TV when you go into tunnels.
Yoshi's Fruit Cart is another solo game and shows off the GamePad's use as a drawing tablet. It demonstrates the kind of tricks Nintendo can pull from its Nintendo DS playbook when expanding the two-screen gaming concept to the Wii U.
All of Nintendo Land's games do something interesting with the system. Some merit no further experimentation than what Nintendo has done here. Some will excite players as much as they might frustrate them that there's no full-sized game yet that uses the same mechanic or lore. All of them, however, are more complex than Wii Sports tennis or bowling. All of them require Nintendo Land mascot Monita to yammer on about how to hold this controller or that, who needs to look at this screen, who needs to use that part of the controller. Try a Wii U game out on a friend and you'll find yourself explaining things way more than you ever had to explain the best of Wii Sports. Once you get going, though? These games work really well.
This is the conundrum of Nintendo Land: it is at once convoluted and confidently made. It feels way too complex for the old folks' home and, aside from Mario Chase, doesn't seem destined to be a family affair at the average Thanksgiving dinner. It suffers to exist in Wii Sports's shadow. On the other hand, it is undeniably a product of people who know what they are doing and it is blissfully refreshing how well its games control. It's easy to get caught up on the Wii U finally giving Nintendo's designers access to more processing power and HD graphics, but it's also finally letting them design console games for two analog sticks again. As amusing as shaking and swinging the Wii Remote was—and as much retro-cool there was in turning the Wii Remote sideways and using it as a Nintendo Entertainment System-style two-button controller—Nintendo Land gives us the chance to see Nintendo's designers utilizing a more diverse and appropriate set of tools. We get stylus controls for light real-time-strategy in Nintendo Land's Pikmin. We get gyro camera controls in Zelda archery. We get tilt controls in a Donkey Kong maze game. We get sensible analog stick controls to pilot a ship in Metroid. This complexity of control options may make the Wii U and a game like Nintendo Land off-putting to people who craved the simplicity of the Wii, but to those of us who are sick of the imprecise controls of so much of modern gaming—Kinect games that don't register your gestures; iOS games that are confused by your thumbs; Wii games that asked you to shake when a button-press would have sufficed—this new game is a blessed course correction. Crazy, experimental games are fine. Crazy, experimental games that control well are better.
The level of polish in Nintendo Land will be appreciated by serious gamers and Nintendo fans. As classic Nintendo song after classic Nintendo song plays, gamers will find a lot of elements in the attractions to make them smile. Some are callbacks to older games. That's Samus' suit from Metroid Fustion in Metroid Blast. That's a Stalfos in Zelda. The best references, though, are just the references to that little something extra that Nintendo's best games always seemed to have. Take one mission in the lengthy Zelda: Battle Quest game, for example, when wind starts blowing and the archer suddenly has to aim differently to compensate as he or she shoots enemies through the gusts. Take Luigi's Ghost Mansion a competitive hide and seek game that uses small amounts of rumble to signal to TV players that the GamePad player's invisible ghost is getting near them. Take the careful doling out of special power moves in Takamaru Ninja's Castle that turn what initially feels like a simple target-shooting game into a complicated juggle of throwing stars, bombs and the option to switch things to super slow-mo.
All of Nintendo Land is connected by a theme park plaza. Here, a player's Mii will mingle with computer-generated Miis and, eventually, the Miis of other Wii U users. Coins earned by playing the Nintendo Land attractions can be passed through an execrable Pachinko mini-game (please do join me in deriding this thing). If they drop correctly, they will unlock all sorts of statues of characters and things from the Nintendo Land games. That's why my Nintendo Land plaza has a Zelda Deku tree, a little Yoshi statue and a jukebox that plays Nintendo songs.
It's hard to assess how good or flawed Nintendo Land is. It's mostly a well-made if complicated game. If it's supposed to hook people on a convoluted console, it may falter. If it's supposed to delight Nintendo fans, it probably will without satiating them. But cutting through every other possible metric, the best thing to say about Nintendo Land is that it's fun. And it's fun in ways you've probably not experienced. It does things you could only do on a Wii U. It does things that justify Nintendo's latest strange idea. Find a way to play Nintendo Land. It merits your attention.