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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.

What you won’t like

Nintendo Land

The other six games
Here’s a word I don’t normally associate with Pikmin or Zelda: shallow. Yet here we are.

The Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest takes a franchise born from a love of exploration and turns it into a rail shooter. That’s forgivable, but a dull rail shooter isn’t. You can play as a Wiimote-waggling Master Swordsman or an archer, but I progressed well into the game before I took any damage, and much, much further before I felt any hint of challenge. Boredom beat me before anything in the game did. Firing a bow makes things marginally more challenging, but only because accelerometer aiming on the WiiPad screen (as opposed to, say, using the right stick) lacks precision.

By comparison, Pikmin Adventure merely strips down the Pikmin gameplay to its barest bones. I buy it as an advertisement for the much meatier Pikmin 3 (due this spring), but I wouldn’t exactly call it good publicity.

Still, it ranks far above rhythm game Octopus Dance, which features elementary school gameplay at its most vapid and lacks octopi. Captain Falcon’s Twister Race likes to obscure the TV screen with a message telling me to look at the top-down view on the GamePad because it didn’t trust me enough to drive a hovercraft from the third-person view. With or without that intrusion, it’s a snoozer. Animal Crossing: Sweet Day is neither sweet nor has much of anything to do with Animal Crossing. It’s another catch-and-release game, and it’s the weakest of the three thanks to some unreliable physics when throwing gumballs into scoring buckets. Takamaru’s Ninja Castle is mildly amusing, but it makes you aim the WiiPad in “portrait” position while you finger-swipe throwing stars at cartoony assassins, and that feels awkward and imprecise at best. At least it’s trying something different.

You could argue these travesties exist mainly as entry points for nongamers and that they only need to be accessible and light. I’ll concede that point. But several are thinner than air, and none will satisfy the person who actually paid money for Nintendo Land.

Nintendo Land

The Plaza
The hub world itself feels more cute than necessary. The team at Nintendo may have realized this as well, since you can bypass it and go straight to a simple game menu at the touch of a button. It’s a party game — who’s going to waste time at a party running around a Day-Glo amusement park in order to launch the party games?

The Plaza itself presents a visual feast, but every cool feature just reminds me what Nintendo Land should do but doesn’t. The augmented reality, while a neat trick, is mandatory, and it’s not long before it starts to feel onerous; you must wave your WiiPad around in order to do anything. The grounds can hold an impressive number of Miis, and if you’re online, these represent real players from around the world. You can even tap them to interact in fairly static ways. Can you chat? Not really. Can you invite them into a game, or go on an Attraction Tour with them? Absolutely not. So what’s the point?

Even the customization aspect feels both labored and lackluster at the same time. Coins earned through the minigames translate to special objects placed throughout the Plaza. Things like life-heart statues, the Great Deku Tree from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, a Metroid energy tank, or instantly recognizable music tracks played from a massive jukebox. You can’t actually choose which items you get, and you can’t place them yourself. You win these items through a strangely annoying 8-bit Pachinko game, at which point your preordained prizes launch out into the plaza as mystery boxes, and you have to run all over to open them. As rewards systems go, I put it right up there with doing my taxes early.

I do enjoy Monita, the floating LCD screen who serves as your guide. She’s like a less malevolent HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but she’s not a good enough reason to bother with the Plaza. Nothing is.

Nintendo Land

Who’s it for?

Nintendo Land generally doesn’t function well without several people participating, and without any true online capabilities, it’s a narrow category of human who actually needs it.

You can’t live alone. You must either have roommates or family willing to indulge your obsessive minigame needs. Or else you have friends over on a weekly, if not nightly, basis. You either own one or more Wii Motion Controllers with WiiMotion Plus dongles (or you’re willing to buy them); several Nintendo Land games require Plus-equipped Wiimotes even though they don’t come with the basic Wii U package or the Deluxe Set (which does includes a copy of Nintendo Land). Above all, you must not want a very deep experience. Metroid Blast comes very close, but nothing else does.

If you play and enjoy board games on a regular basis, and you’re fine with only ever playing half the board games you spent money on, you’re good. Otherwise, maybe you only need to rent Nintendo Land when you’re out stocking up on chips and beer for your big Arbor Day bash.

Conclusion

Nintendo Land

I wish I could split out and score Metroid Blast and Mario Chase on their own terms. As downloadable games with online multiplayer, both would be solid winners, and I’d play them relentlessly. As is, half of Nintendo Land offers brief, creative fun in bite-sized chunks without ever constituting a full meal. The other half features dismal time-wasters and watery versions of great franchises that won’t appeal much to casual or core gamers. Put another way, Nintendo Land epitomizes the minigame-compilation genre — occasional flashes of brilliance surrounded by things you just don’t want to exist.

Score: 70/100


Nintendo Land releases Nov. 18 for the Wii U. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a copy of the game for the purpose of this review.

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