Launching on 30 November, Wii U does more than drag Nintendo’s motion-controlled console into the HD age. With a new triple-core CPU, an AMD 7 series GPU and 1GB RAM it has the potential to bridge the gap between the current console generation and next year’s next-generation systems, while the tablet-styled Wii U Pad, with its built-in 6.2in screen, gives Nintendo a real chance to deliver new experiences. Most of all, this is a console that takes multiplayer gaming to the heart of the home, with games that focus on having fun with friends and family, and a new concept of ‘asynchronous multiplayer’ where players with different controllers can assume different roles. We’re excited, and so should you be, because at a recent Frankfurt event we’ve had a chance to sample some of the finest titles that should be accompanying Wii U at launch.
If you’d asked us about NintendoLand after E3, we’d have put it down as yet another Nintendo novelty mini-games collection, and we certainly wouldn’t have described it as a system seller for Wii U. However, that’s exactly what we’re calling it now. NintendoLand exhibits all that’s best about Wii U – accessible, addictive games that get groups of people having fun together.
NintendoLand contains 12 different mini-games based on classic Nintendo properties, with three aimed at team play, three aimed at competitive play, and the remaining six designed for solo players. In Frankfurt we had the chance to sample five - The Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest, Metroid Blast, Pikmin Adventure, Mario Chase and Balloon Trip Breeze.
Of these, Balloon Trip Breeze is a pretty simple single-player affair, reminiscent of the sort of thing you might find on the iPad. You control a little Mii dangling from a cluster of balloons, and it’s your job to get him or her drifting from one island to the next, using breezes summoned by an elegant swipe of a stylus or finger. It’s fun in a gentle sort of way, but the most interesting thing is the way the Wii U Pad display works with the main screen, showing a zoomed-in view of the scrolling image running on your HDTV.
The Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest is a team-based challenge. Up to three players wielding swords and shields (through the nunchuks and remotes) work with a fourth player acting as an archer. While the swordsmen run forwards, hacking and slashing at classic Zelda enemies and blocking incoming blows and arrows with their shields, the archer provides support, taking out enemy snipers from their guard towers, or detonating piles of bombs to wipe out massed enemy forces. It’s all done on the Wii U Pad, and while the view can be shifted using the analogue pads, actual aiming is done by staring at the built-in screen and physically moving the pad – you’ll even see players twisting right around to see behind them.
It might be played out on rails, but with a range of multi-stage scenarios this is a surprisingly meaty adventure, and with health shared between the group, there’s a real desire not to let the gang down.
Metroid Blast is more your streamlined FPS, played either cooperatively with four other players, or competitively with four against one. In the first case it’s up to the team to tackle waves of monsters, with four Miis in Samus armour fighting on foot while a fifth provides air support from a miniature version of Samus’ spacecraft. In the second case, the four players on foot tackle their airborne rival. On foot, the controls work much like the Metroid Prime Trilogy on Wii, with the nunchuk controlling movement and the Wii remote aiming and shooting. In the air, you have to master moving with one analogue stick, moving up and down with another while changing view and aiming by moving the Wii U Pad; this takes a bit of practice. Metroid Blast is no Team Fortress 2 or Unreal Tournament, but it’s right on target for the family audience. It looks good to dish out some good short bursts of blasting.
The real hits for us, however, are Chase Mario and Pikmin Adventure. In the first, the player on the Wii U Pad plays a Mii in a Mario suit, who has to escape four other players armed with Wii remotes. It’s effectively hide-and-seek; the Mario player can see where the other players are on the Wii U Pad screen, but the other players only have a gauge to say how far away Mario is and a tackle move to use if they can get close enough. Early stages are simple mazes with colour-coded regions, so that players can shout “I’ve seen him – he’s just coming out of blue.” However, we’ve seen later stages with mud patches and other obstacles to add some spice to the proceedings. In the end, Chase Mario’s simplicity is its strength. Anyone can pick it up and play it, and the action is fast, furious and not just a little hilarious. Of all the NintendoLand games, this was the one that kept people coming back for more, more and more.
Pikmin Adventure was a very close second. Here up to four players play as burly versions of Nintendo’s weird seed creatures while one – armed with the Wii U Pad – plays as their leader, Captain Olimar. In each level you make your way through a garden-themed maze, tackling monstrous bugs and gathering nectar before dealing with a bigger boss bug. The more you play it, the more you realise that Pikmin Adventure is really a kiddie-friendly spin on Diablo. Nectar levels the Pikmin up with super-strength and might hammers, while Olimar is rewarded with more tiny Pikmin, which he can throw at enemies by tapping on the screen. There’s also a neat move where Olimar can whistle to summon the players’ Pikmin to assemble on his head, allowing them to leap over fences or activate weight-sensitive launch pads. It’s entertaining and bigger than you might think, and another good reason why NintendoLand should be a day one purchase with the Wii U.
The other must-have – though for older gamers – should be Ubisoft’s zombie FPS. Having seen it as E3 we were already impressed with the way it uses the Wii U Pad as a motion-sensitive scanner, sniper-scope and inventory control, and with the way that’s been integrated into the gameplay. Staring at the Wii U Pad screen means that you might not notice danger coming towards you on the TV, and there’s also a heightened feeling of suspense while using the Wii U Pad to check your backpack or reveal a secret code. You can see the zombies crowding in on the big screen.
Now, however, we’ve had a chance to experience the single-player game in more depth, and we can safely say that this is a proper, fully-realised blockbuster with an interesting plot, a brooding atmosphere, some great London locations and some really interesting mechanics. One of Zombi U’s tricks is that you don’t play as one character with checkpoints to revive you when you die, but as a series of protagonists, each with their own name, face and identity. When you die, your character is actually dead and the backpack – with everything you’ve collected – is left with him or her. You then switch to your next character, and your first job is to get back to where you died, kill your former self and retrieve your possessions.
It gives the game the feeling of Dark Souls, with you working to get a little further next time and not make any silly mistakes, though it’s a little more forgiving. Sewer entrances work as shortcuts, and zombies don’t respawn for your new protagonist. The combat is brutal, with a need to conserve ammo and play tactically, and we also saw some excellent puzzles making full use of the Wii U Pad scanner. Zombi U might end up disappointing, but at the moment it looks like just the hardcore hit the Wii U needs at launch.
It seems odd to put a Mario game third in the list of Wii U launch titles, but maybe that’s because we’re getting a little New Super Mario Bros. fatigue. Luckily, this looks like a big improvement on the underwhelming New Super Mario Bros. 2 on 3DS, and the use of the Wii U Pad in the game’s multiplayer mode, where tapping on the screen pops a platform into place, is pure genius. We can see mums and dads being playing a support role to the kids, using their platform popping skills to bring about last minute saves and star-grabbing opportunities. Things also seem to have been tuned since New Super Mario Bros. Wii so that players aren’t continually rebounding off each other into the ether.
Even as a single player game there’s potential. New Super Mario Bros. U supports the Wii U’s screen switching feature, so you can carry on playing with the Wii U Pad if someone wants to watch something else on TV, and the HD graphics still look very crisp on the Wii U Pad’s SD resolution screen. The levels we saw showcased a new gliding squirrel suit and some inventive monsters and mechanisms, and we’re feeling quietly hopeful of a return to form.
Our final highlight threatens to outdo Nintendo when it comes to innovative 2D platforming on Wii U. Rayman Legends follows on from last year’s superb Rayman Origins with another generous helping of running and jumping thrills. But where Origins allowed up to four players to join in the fun, Legends adds a fifth, playing on the Wii U Pad. While the four regular players handle all the usual platform-game stuff, the one on the Wii U Pad takes the role of a small frog-like creature, controlled by tapping and dragging on the screen.
Cleverly, our froggy chum can interact with objects on the screen. Tap plants that normally give off score-raising blossoms and they turn purple, giving off double the usual amount. Specific traps or platforms can be physically dragged across the screen. Ropes can be slashed, and enemies tickled to render them defenceless to your friends’ attacks. Most impressively, huge chunks of scenery can be rotated by grabbing them with a tap then rotating the Wii U Pad to the left and right. As in Mario, you’re playing a supporting role, but here it feels more like you’re playing a more valuable part.
And as with Rayman Origins we’re impressed with the game’s verve and humour. The second sequence we played through was a classic danger dash level, with Rayman and friends speeding left to right as battlements collapse all around them. The action is furiously paced, but – better still – it’s all scored to a bizarre rendition of the hoary old rock classic, Black Betty, showing that Rayman Origins’s superb integration of music and gameplay wasn’t a flash in the pan. We’d put this down as one of the essential Wii U launch games.
We had a chance to play with Wii U ports of Assassin’s Creed 3, Darksiders II, Mass Effect 3, Ninja Gaiden 3 and Trine II, all looking good and making some use of the Wii U Pad for menu and inventory controls or, in Mass Effect 3’s case, tactical positioning of your squad. Mass Effect 3 and Darksiderss II also supported the Wii U’s screen switching feature. None of the ports were exciting enough to make you buy them if you’ve played existing versions, or necessarily buy a Wii U version instead, but the visuals held up and the new controls worked well. Trine II had an advantage here, in that the mouse-based targeting and object manipulation controls of the original PC version could be mapped pretty easily to the Wii U Pad, and the result is a game that undeniably plays better than existing console versions. If you haven’t already played it, the Wii U version is your perfect chance to rectify that mistake.
Other games on show included an impressive port of Tekken Tag Tournament 2 and a very limited demo of the upcoming Sonic All Stars Racing: Transformed which we’ll charitably assume had yet to be optimised for Wii U.
Nintendo’s challenge with the launch line-up has always been to deliver games that showcase the capabilities of the console and its tablet-style controller, and make you feel excited about getting your hands on them. Perhaps this isn’t the strongest launch line-up imaginable, leaving some of Nintendo’s biggest fans crying out for a Zelda or a proper 3D Mario, but between Zombi U, NintendoLand, Rayman Legends and New Super Mario Bros U, not to mention some excellent ports and upcoming cross-platform hits, there’s enough quality and variety to give the console a more than fighting chance. We came cynical, and went away feeling buzzed. What more could you want from a sneak preview?