Another installment from my attempt to document everything I’ve played this year. On Friday I wrote about the multiplayer PC games I’ve most enjoyed as an accompaniment to alcohol, today I’d like to focus on the small black box which started occupying a space beneath our TV this summer – and in my heart not long after.
The most common reaction from people when I told them I’d just bought a Wii U was: Why?.
The implication being, I think: Why didn’t you buy a PS4 or an Xbox One? Or, depending on the person, and given that I was in the middle of buying my first home at the time: Why didn’t you just stick with the frankly ridiculous number of consoles you already have?
The former is easy to answer. A larger quantity of pixels isn’t something I desperately crave, and the unique experiences on offer is only now starting to exceed what I could count on one hand. The latter… not so much.
I’ll concede that the Wii U’s key selling point – that tablet-style controller – is slightly silly. Very few games have actually made good on its potential and, as even my 50-something parents (who have now inherited my original Wii, as hush money) pointed out, the chunky plastic controller looks rather ungainly and old fashioned in an era of iPad Airs.
And yet, I can’t remember building such an emotional relationship with a piece of technology, not for a long, long time. Why is that?
Well, it’s certainly not the selection of third-party games.
I own two, ZombiU and Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, both relics of Ubisoft’s early dalliances with the console. Black Flag is a wonderful opportunity for period tourism across a string of 18th Century Caribbean islands, hamstrung by the tedious day-to-day of Assassin’s Creed games.
ZombiU actually uses the controller better than most Nintendo-crafted games, pulling your attention away from the main screen and towards the smaller one you’re holding in your hands to create tension, while you rummage through a bag as the undead shamble ever closer to your delicious, delicious brain. Combined with the wonderful specificity of its East London setting and the RTS-vs-FPS multiplayer, it’s a nice addition to the roster for the sub-fiver prices you’ll find it for, but far from the reason to recommend picking up a Wii U.
Maybe my love for the Wii U is driven by nostalgia, then?
Nintendo Land provides probably the best evidence for this argument. At launch, the game filled the same role for the Wii U as Wii Sports did for its predecessor – a bundled-in package of mini-games built to show off the unique capabilities of the new controller.
This means squeezing in features like the controller’s built-in camera, used to display the player’s hilarious facial contortions on the big screen, or touchscreen, to draw a line between obstacles that you can only see on the TV, or its microphone, to …activate a fan by blowing.
Some of these inclusions are more successful than others, but the best games take full advantage of the second screen to keep the player using that controller more clued in than their opponents on the Wiimotes. Luigi’s Ghost Mansion (or ‘Cheeky Ghost’, as it’s known round our gaff) uses this to make one player the ghost, sneaking up unseen on four ghost hunters, armed only with a torch, and provoking some of the best jump scares I’ve ever seen in a multiplayer game.
As in Wii Sports, each mini game in Nintendo Land – there are a dozen of variable quality, but with three stone-cold classics – is simple but surprisingly deep and satisfying, with the caveat that you need to be playing them with friends crowded round the TV. But, tellingly, where Wii Sports created a new setting – admittedly, a rather blank one – for its games, Nintendo Land dresses up each in the patchwork clothes of a familiar Nintendo franchise. There’s a Zelda-themed archery game, an F Zero X racer, a Metroid arena shooter, all of them using a sort of cargo-cult version of the series’ own aesthetic to fit the charmingly wonky house style, where everything is apparently handmade out of recycled cloth and clockwork and crayons.
The effect is to make Nintendo Land a virtual museum of the company’s history. This is literalised by its setting, which frames each mini-game as an attraction in a theme park. You can explore this Nintendo Land on foot, littered with statues and familiar iconography and jukeboxes that bit of menu music you played as a kid, which are awarded to you for playing an old-school pachinko machine.
It helps that (some of) the attractions contained within are so enjoyable, but somehow this isn’t anywhere near as awful as it sounds like it should be. I wouldn’t identify myself as a nostalgic Nintendo fan, despite the Gameboy and N64 being my first consoles as a kid, but it would be impossible to deny that the characters have built up a reserve of goodwill with me over the years, which Nintendo Land taps for everything it’s worth.
Overall, though, the most honest answer to that Why? is simply this: Mario Kart 8.
The Mario Kartgames have always been an indispensable part of life in the Spencer-Dale household, so buying the latest a new installment… well, there wasn’t really much question of us not buying it.
The anti-gravity sections fit snugly, even when they’re shoehorned into the remake tracks. Taking the pivotal corner of GBA Mario Circuit, for example, and tilting it 90° into the sky adds a much-needed pinch of spice to a rather vanilla track.
The replay mode, meanwhile, isn’t perfect when it comes to picking which highlights to show – it always seems to miss out that one moment you really wanted to rub a friend’s nose in – but it’s a great showcase for the game’s startling good looks.
In the heat of a race, the majesty of the twisty Moebius strips levels tend to get lost on you. But the replay’s camera, which stubbornly refuses to follow the loop-the-loops, brings back the feeling of impossibility as a track bends back on itself, racers hanging from the ceiling so you almost worry they’ll bang heads with the stragglers below.
It’s a chance to appreciate the detail that each track is dripping with. The crowds of familiar faces, cheering you on in the background. The piano-shaped bend that actually plays the notes as you drift over its keys. The way racers rubberneck at a green shell pile-up or eye up rivals as they overtake them.
More than Mario’s moustachioed face, or accessible family-friendly games, or their unusually wide palette of colours, these tiny moments of invention are Nintendo’s legacy. They’re what elevates Mario Kart 8above being just another competent installment in the franchise, into something that’s worth treasuring for the next however-many years until the next one – and I reckon they’re also key to my surprise romance with the Wii U.