“The people ahead of us are way too friendly. Look at them help each other!”
“They’re still helping each other. I don’t think they’re that close of friends.”
Over the weekend I got to play Nintendo’s Wii U console for the first time. I was incredibly excited that they brought it to PAX, and I would have been really surprised had it not been shown. I played through a handful of the demos they were showing, and among them I would say that Project P-100 was the real standout. I feel that Nintendo did a good job showcasing the console as a whole, along with what it could be capable of. I might have a bit of a bias, as I was planning on buying one anyway, but after playing it, I really had a lot of fun, and I see a lot of unique and intriguing gameplay possibilities with the tablet controller. With that in mind, I think the demo that I had the most fun with was New Super Mario Bros U, or as certain facets of the internet have been calling it, New Super Mario World.
New Super Mario Bros U is similar to the other games in the New Super Mario Bros series in that it is a 2D sidescroller, designed primarily around elements of the early Mario games, while offering new nuggets to help keep it from feeling completely stale. While I feel like the DS installment in the series suffered from incredibly lazy level design, the Wii and 3DS entries have been much better. The big difference with this game is that a fifth player can join in a limited way, using the tablet controller to add platforms onto the screen to help the other four players progress through the levels. This is exactly what the group ahead of my group did. They played by the rules and used this system properly. My friends and I took the opposite path, using this new tablet controller as a means to be a total asshole to the other players. New Super Mario Bros Wii was an excellent exercise in being a dick to your friends, and this game is setting out to raise that bar to dangerous levels.
My friends and I played through the three demo levels, switching off turns for the tablet controller as we learned about what we could do with it. Instead of setting up platforms as stepping stools, my friends and I naturally gravitate towards putting them in awful places that impede the progress of the other players, often right in front of or above them. This always leads to someone falling in holes or running into an enemy. Four player co-op games are dangerous business, and giving another player a tiny opportunity to play god is only going to make it worse. For this, I absolutely love it.
I generally loathe online multiplayer. I’ve always preferred to play games in the same room as my opponent, usually one of my friends. There’s something satisfying with being able to just yell and hit your friends in person, something I feel the current generation has sufficiently lacked. Nintendo has always excelled at this, and while I see people complaining about the reported lack of online multiplayer for some of these Wii U games, I don’t blame them for not including it. I’ve never wanted to play a Mario game with online multiplayer. I’ve always felt that a series like that is much better suited to being in the same room as the other players. There just seems to be a dynamic that goes missing when you remove that physical presence. Some games are better suited to playing online, 2D side scrolling platformers are not. Nintendo still believes in the spirit of couch co-op, and for that, so do I.
The big push for the Wii U at Penny Arcade Expo seemed to be about local multiplayer. This is how the Wii originally caught traction with Wii Sports in 2006, and I know Nintendo would love nothing more than to repeat that level of success. Unfortunately by introducing this vastly more complicated control system, it’s an uphill battle the whole way. The reason the Wii caught hold was because of how easy it was the grasp the concept. The Wii U, featuring the full array of console controller buttons, along with a touch screen tablet interface, is substantially more difficult to grasp. The Nintendoland title seeks to remedy this and help ease people into the idea, essentially making it the Wii U’s answer to Wii Sports. I played a couple of the minigames with my group of friends, and if this is how they intend to demonstrate the capabilities of the tablet, I don’t see them having a whole lot of problems. I’d actually be very surprised if this didn’t turn out to be a pack-in title with the console. I didn’t enjoy the Zelda style minigame, as I found it to be nothing more than a boring, proof of concept for something that I’m not very interested in to begin with. It was the equivalent of a traditional on rails lightgun shooter, but I did find the Luigi’s Mansion themed title to be a lot of fun.
The Luigi’s Mansion themed minigame was basically just a new version of Pac Man Vs. Four players assume the role of the ghost hunters, while a fifth player, using the tablet controller, roams around to avoid getting caught by the hunters while simultaneously picking them off one by one. As I said, it’s very similar to Pac Man Vs, but yelling back and forth at my friends while trying to figure out where the ghost is is still just as fun as it was on the Gamecube. I get off on this kind of couch co-op gaming, and I’m thankful that I have a group of friends that understand how it works. I don’t expect (or want) this style to become the norm for every single game, but as a means to help introduce people to the idea of this tablet controller, it works as intended.
One of the big problems I see with the tablet lies with third parties. Outside of this initial push, I really don’t expect any third party developers or publishers to make a lot of Wii U versions of multiplatform software. Third parties are usually content these days to just develop the same games for the HD twins, along with a PC version. Rapidly inflating development budgets aren’t exactly good for creativity in the business, and the age of lots of third party exclusives is now long over. I just don’t see many publishers taking the chances or time to add features to create Wii U enhanced versions of some of these games. Of course, Nintendo at least considered this option, having created a “pro controller” that looks and feels like an Xb0x 360 controller. This controller doesn’t include the tablet interface, but has the same buttons as the Wii U tablet. I don’t know if this is going to make a lot of difference for a lot of developers, especially those in the west, but it feels like a nice compromise to try and meet them halfway. Nintendo consoles live and die by their first party support. It’s been that way for years, and I don’t see it changing. This next generation I’m already planning on going primarily PC and Nintendo, as I feel like that will fill in most of the essential niches that I subscribe to. Microsoft doesn’t really make games for people like me, and with development budgets being the way they are, I can see a lot of Japanese developers pushing content onto the Wii U before moving onto the Playstation 4 in a couple more years.
Ubisoft’s Zombi U was an excellent example in using the tablet for gameplay functions. I wasn’t that interested in the game itself, but that’s not to say that it didn’t work as intended. That game has a very tense and creepy atmosphere, and accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do. It stands as a great jumping off point for the ancillary features that the tablet can be used for, and I hope that other third parties will take some real chances with it to do some truly interesting things. Using the tablet as a backpack is a great example, along with using it as a means to switch weapons. I think that the zombie concept has gone stale, but I think that Zombi U at least does something interesting with the idea. By placing a huge emphasis on real time survival and a permanent element of dread, they’ve really established a nice foundation for a unique gaming experience. For the majority of third party games, I’m expecting the tablet to act as a map screen and not much else. I really see a lot of potential here that I’m worried will go untapped. I’m not a huge Ubisoft fan, but they believe in the Wii U, and for that I hope that others will start believing as well. I really want this console to succeed, not just because of my Nintendo bias, but because I don’t want to see the industry resort to yet another dick waving power struggle.
Penny Arcade Expo was Nintendo’s last big chance to sell people on the Wii U before launch. It got the console into the hands of a lot of people, and I hope it helped clarify a lot of the confusion over it being a brand new console instead of just a new peripheral for the Wii. Nintendo hasn’t been doing a great job of differentiating the two, mostly focusing on the tablet controller itself instead of the actual console. As I said before, I was going to buy one anyway, but after putting a little time into it, I still believe in Nintendo. I just really hope that others will do the same.