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Nintendo Land: Where the amusement sometimes ends (review)

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Remember those crazy days when four-fifths of all Wii titles were minigame compilations, and they all sucked (except for those Nintendo made)? Seriously, I just described the last six years in one sentence. Well, it’s 2012 now, and Nintendo’s new console, the Wii U, definitely won’t go down that road again. Right?

Let me introduce you to Nintendo Land (releasing Sunday for the Wii U), a minigame compilation that draws from nearly every major Nintendo franchise (no, not Kid Icarus) for a jolly round of short-order fun. And like most entries in this much-maligned genre, you’ve got to dig deep to find a few aces in a deck stacked with jokers. But if you really want to throw the whole thing into chaos, all you really need to do is ask one little question: Who, exactly, is Nintendo Land for?

What you’ll like

Nintendo Land

The variety
By the time you roll through all 12 of Nintendo Land’s games, you’ll have a well-rounded understanding of what the Wii U and its WiiPad tablet controller can do, because nearly each one uses the pad differently. Some of the applications come off as really rather clever, and the Plaza — the eponymous amusement park hub world — shows off the system’s fluid augmented-reality capabilities.

“No two are the same” would be overstatement, but I like a lot of the inventive hardware applications here. Donkey Kong’s Crash Course relies mainly on the accelerometer as you tilt a very fragile Mii cart down a very rough obstacle maze. Yoshi’s Fruit Cart has you guide the little dinosaur through a landscape to gobble up fruit and presents, and here’s the twist: You use the stylus to draw his path on the WiiPad, but the prizes only appear on the TV screen. Simple, elegant, and quite fiendish.

Taken as a whole, you get nice a sense of experimentation, imagination, and play, and that’s not a bad thing to bring to a game. Or a party, for that matter.

Nintendo Land

Metroid Blast, Mario Chase, and Balloon Trip Breeze
When Nintendo debuted the Wii U back in 2011, it used two “tech demos” that I hoped would graduate into full games. They did, and they’re the best two offerings in Nintendo Land’s collection.

Mario Chase (formerly Mii Chase) casts one player as Mario on the WiiPad, with an overview of a fairly small maze. Up to four other players play as Toads and have two minutes to tackle Mario. With a full complement of players, it’s nothing short of thrilling. Metroid Blast (née Mii Battle) also showcases that brand of asymmetrical gameplay — the Wii U’s big strength — by transforming your Miis into ground-based Samus Arans; one player on the WiiPad gets her flying gunship. Solo, co-op, and versus modes all get good attention here. Thankfully, Nintendo scaled the gunship’s health back considerably from the tech demo, making it much more of a fair fight. The controls all come with a serious learning curve, but once you master them, Metroid Blast stands out as an immensely entertaining shooter.

Both games also upscaled to multiple maps, and Metroid Blast added a 20-stage campaign to its repertoire. It starts out gently, but eventually Mecha-Ripley and Mecha-Kraid come for you. The boss battles measure up nicely against Metroid’s famously brutal fights.

I expected those two to impress, but Balloon Trip Breeze pleasantly surprised me with sturdy, blissfully cruel neo-platforming. You sweep your floating Mii courier along with stylus/finger-swiped breezes, guiding him/her through an increasingly rough gauntlet of floating pins, rival ballooners (dispatched with a tap on the head, Mario-style), and bad weather. It scales up rapidly and I loved every evil thing it did to me.

Nintendo Land

The party games

Even though half of Nintendo Land’s games fall under the “Solo Attractions” list, you can play them all with — or against — friends, and that’s really how you’re supposed to do it. The “Attraction Tour,” launched by hopping on a train in the Plaza, gives you a time limit and a decent sample platter of games to play. With a good group of friends at the ready, a fair number of those minigames will play well to the crowd whether or not they’re gamers.

In fact, I wouldn’t hesitate to pull out most of the minigames I’ve mentioned so far and show them to friends at one of my get-togethers. I’d also add Luigi’s Ghost Mansion to the list; it’s a variation on Mario Chase where the hunted gets to become the hunter. It’s all fast, light, and (with the exception of Metroid Blast) easily accessible, and that’s what party games need to be.

But a lot of Nintendo Land needs to be something more than it is.

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