Goodness me, but Nintendo certainly laboured over Nintendo Land during their E3 Media Briefing. Festooning the stage with colourful tents, Reggie and pals took their sweet time in hammering home the new project's importance to the Wii U, acting as it does like an introduction to the concept of 'asymmetrical gaming.' Using the Gamepad to provide a unique or complimentary experience, and subsequently competing with fellow players armed with Wiimotes, is an interesting idea, but one that can only really be explained through gameplay.
Nintendo Land, therefore, is a copious collection of franchise-themed minigames that all hinge around using the Gamepad's major unique draw - the touchscreen - and teach players the skills they'll need to enjoy future Wii U titles. Away from the crushing mess of the E3 show floor, I was able to get hands-on with the five minigames Nintendo brought along to the party; an interesting mix of cooperative, competitive and five-player optimised experiences.
Will Nintendo Land effectively educate players in the ways of Asymmetrical Gaming? Does it do justice to its myriad franchise tie-ins? And is it, you know, fun? Read on for a five-game blowout, screenshots and an early appraisal of this work in progress.
Animal Crossing: Sweet Day
We love Animal Crossing, and Sweet Day apes the beloved series' colourful isometric style to provide a playground for some surprisingly strategic action. Four Wiimote players act as animals who scamper around the town merrily collecting sweets, while the Gamepad player uses the thumbsticks to control two separate guards tasked with capturing them. If the animals secure enough sweets, their team wins, but their Gamepad-equipped nemesis only needs to catch up with them three times to scupper their chances. It's a simple premise, but some tight teamwork and a clear head for tactics will be necessary to win out.
Using each thumbstick to control an individual guard is slightly counter-intuitive at first, but armed with an dynamically zooming birds-eye view on the Wii U Gamepad, the guarding player soon gets the hang of it. Using both guards to initiate pincer manoeuvres or spring ambushes on unsuspecting animals is easy to pull off, and intensely satisfying to boot. The animals team needs to organise decoys and supply runs (since carrying candy slows them down), making for an intruigingly nuanced setup that belies the cutesy, colourful trappings. Whether Sweet Day will be fun beyond a couple of playthroughs is anyone's guess, however.
The Legend Of Zelda: Battle Quest
It's not exactly the new Zelda game many of us were hoping for, but we'll take what we can get. Battle Quest plays out like a tribute to the classic franchise, with the Gamepad player taking centre stage and firing arrows at Moblins as the three-main team moves through some simple stages. Two Wiimote-equipped flankers swing swords to kill melee attackers, and all three can cooperate to solve some simple puzzles along the way. The cooperation between archer and swordsmen proves to be an instantly-engaging and immediately enjoyable premise, as all involved will need to work together and communicate effectively (communication is a key part of Asymmetric Gaming and teaching it through minigames will be one of the main focuses of Nintendo Land, I suspect) to stem the tide and take down foes at different ranges. Everyone shares the same life pool, so making sure at your friends are aware of incoming hostiles is essential to survival.
The Legend Of Zelda: Battle Quest will include a "surprisingly large" number of levels, many of which will offer much more complex layouts and sterner challenges. Definitely a highlight of the package - as you'd expect from anything carrying the illustrious Zelda brand.
Luigi's Ghost Mansion
Thematically tied to Luigi's Mansion, this hectic minigame actually has more in common with Pac-Man. More specifically, Pac-Man Vs, which graced the Gamecube nearly a decade ago. Participants using the Gamepad control a nefarious spirit who has to hunt down a houseful of Ghost Hunters, relying on the touchscreen map to carefully stalk and spring traps on their unwary play while keeping their position hidden from the other players. On the flip-side, hunters need to balance their useful torches, which can both weaken the ghost and revive downed teammates, with a limited power supply that can be recharged by finding batteries scattered around the levels. Having to split up to find these essential pickups makes players easy prey for their ghostly nemesis, and once again, the focus is entirely on team play, cooperation and communication.
Luigi's Ghost Mansion plays nicely, and proves to be pleasingly tense and exhilarating regardless of whether you're using the Gamepad or Wiimote. The thrill of the hunt is intoxicating, and since both sides adopt both hunting and hunted roles, the gameplay tends to evolve dynamically. That said, you'll probably need five players in order to get the most out of it (potentially a tall order).
Takamaru's Ninja Castle
By far the simplest of the Nintendo Land minigames on show, Takamaru's Ninja Castle is effectively a first-person shooting range, but with Shuriken instead of guns. One player (perhaps two if you happen to own two gamepads) holds the chunky peripheral sideways in their off-hand, short edge pointed towards the TV, and uses their main hand to fling throwing stars at the telly by flicking and dragging on the touchscreen. As you'd expect, it's possible to alter the power and spin of each shot with different strokes, though its accuracy pales in comparison to the PlayStation Move-powered system shown off by the otherwise mediocre Medieval Moves.
And that's your lot. Takamaru's Ninja Castle is undeniably good fun, but undeniably shallow and simplistic too. Hopefully the final version will pack plenty of detailed levels, an addictive scoring system and online leaderboards to keep us coming back for more.
Donkey Kong's Crash Course
Last but not least, Donkey Kong's branded minigame is perhaps the most nuanced of the bunch. It's strictly a one player affair, challenging its sole participant to tilting the gamepad to steer a kart through an enormous, unbelievably complex selection of mazes. Your route through these sprawling stages is made more interesting by a selection of pinball-style bumpers and moveable platforms that switch position with a quick jab of the shoulder buttons, providing a nifty puzzle element as well as twitchy arcade thrills. The physics engine is realistic but best described as punishing - this isn't an easy game, but besting its myriad obstacles is its own reward.
Other players just have to sit around and watch, but believe it or not, this is actually an integral part of the game. Though the active player can only see a small part of the maze on the touchscreen, onlookers can view the entire level on the television, able to shout out advice, support or good old-fashioned friendly abuse. With the reps and onlookers bellowing (usually unhelpful) directions from behind my back, I felt a little like a contestant on the Crystal Maze. In a good way.
Definitely one for a more mature crowd - and I do mean crowd. The more people watching and hollering, the more fun Donkey Kong Crash Course will be. Again, with luck, a large and distinct selection of levels should make for a refreshingly stiff challenge.
Final Thoughts/Snap Judgement
Nintendo Land is fun, and arguably that's all it needs to be. With at least seven more minigames included in the package (twelve is the magic number), this launch title could very well act as the Wii U's Wii Sports: a perfect introduction and icebreaker to the console that players will be able to dip into throughout the console's lifespan. Not only that, but casual players will learn how to communcate and cooperate effectively. Perhaps the Wii U will continue the Wii's legacy by converting Nintendo's legion of casual players into Borderlands, Army Of Two and Left For Dead fans?
And yet, none of the micro-games on offer seem to command the timeless replayability of Wii Sports' roster; in fact, a couple may only last a few brief sessions before being forgotten. More pressingly, the whole concept of Asymmetrical Gaming can actually serve to alienate the player with the gamepad, setting them apart from their four friends or family members both in terms of gameplay and even the screens they use. Better together? Did you miss the memo, Reggie?
Weirdly, it's not yet clear whether Nintendo Land will be a pack-in with new consoles (for the record, ShopTo's recent pre-order doesn't mention anything about it). Put simply, it needs to be. As an introduction to the Wii U, I have no doubt that Nintendo Land will be a huge success. But as a full retail product commanding a premium price, the future may be dicey for what is essentially a collection of brief, if enjoyable, minigames. At the very least, Nintendo Land needs to ensure that tournament support, dynamic Trials-style leaderboards and social functionality is built into the experience from day one.