Nintendo

Super Smash Bros for Wii U

In 2015, I’m trying to get into the habit of writing shorter, more frequent blogs, and save the ponderous word-monsters for the stuff that really needs it. Normally I’d give the whole thing a clever name and format, but instead I’m just going to write the damn things. Call it a New Year’s Resolution if you like.  Super Smash Bros for Wii U To this day, the original Super Smash Bros on the N64 is the perfect example of what I want a fighting game to be. Super Smash Bros drew me in with the prospect of a punch-up between Mario, Link and Pikachu – the kind of thing that had my ten-year old salivating like Homer Simpson over sixty-four slices of American cheese – but the thing that stuck with me was its streamlined combat. The game eschewed the hard-to-memorise combos that will inevitably fill the arthritis clinics of ten years’ time with old Tekken and Street Fighter players. In their place was a neat two-button system which put all of its weight on timing, anticipating your opponents’ moves and and understanding the differences between characters. These are the same things a devotee of the genre will tell you about competitive Street Fighter 2 but to a novice like me, the barrier to entry is just too high. In Smash Bros, each character essentially has four unique moves to learn. Add a pile of items, each introducing a pinch of chaos to the match when it drops from the sky, some creative levels, and you have the complete Smash Bros formula. Unfortunately, each subsequent installment seems to have lost confidence in the simplicity of the game’s core loop, and leant instead on the latter half of the formula: the big pile of stuff. More characters, replacing distinction with duplication; more game modes; more items, cameos, trophies, unlockable macguffins… By the release of Super Smash Bros Brawl in 2008, it was less the lean fighting game I’d fallen in love with, more a virtual museum exhibit of videogames’ roaring nineties.   This is the bit where, if you haven’t yet played the catchily-titled Super Smash Bros for Wii U (or SSBWU for short), you may be expecting me to say ‘…and it takes the series back to those gorgeous basics’. Nope.   SSBWU stacks yet more on top of this swaying Jenga tower of features. For the first time, eight players can get their smash on simultaneously, crowding the screen with colourful fighters. You can customise each character to your exact specifications, making them faster but more vulnerable, or punchier but slower. The series’ ever-growing roster has, from an initial dozen on the N64, now broken the half-century mark. This is further bolstered with the ability to use personalised Mii characters, meaning you can punch your best friend in the face, without having to get dragged round his house by your mom to apologise. The game is bloated like Kirby after inhaling an opponent with his B attack, but somehow SSBWU adds such an insane amount of stuff that it manages to come out the other side of these problems and, like a zen master, find peace among the chaos. The finer points of combat can still get lost in a mess of particle effects, especially when there are eight players on screen at once, and the wider range of characters means less distinction between the silhouette. (Seriously, compare Marth, Ike and Robin – I think that’s who they are, but frankly who knows – in the screenshot above.) But I can still pick up a controller blind and immediately know how Fox McCloud’s down-B attack works, from the time I learned it 15 years ago, or appreciate the subtle changes in how SSBWU‘s iteration of Samus Aran handles. I can even try out a new character and get to grips with the weird new mechanics they add in the space of one three-minute game. Partly, I admit, that’s a case of personal bias – Smash Bros happens to be the game I invested hundreds of hours into when I was a kid – but it’s also the simplicity of that two-button, four-directional combat system. Underneath the clutter of SSBWU is the same wonderfully elegant game, refined and expanded and shining through more than it has in years. (Oh, and the other thing I love as much today as I did in 1999 is the freezeframe mode, which which now allows you to snap photos, save them to an SD card, transfer them to your PC and then upload them to a blogpost until you have far, far too many to actually justify as illustrations. I’ve dropped another dozen of my favourite shots below.)

2014: What I’ve Been Playing – Wii U

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. Me & The Wii U   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. Looked at one way, MK8 is just the latest in a long line of chunky, accessible racers. But looked at another… Who the hell doesn’t want that? MK8 is broader than any other Mario Kart game before it, and polished so much it practically glares. It still feels exactly right to tug the controller left and right to steer your kart around corners, the way most of us did anyway in the days before motion controls, tongues sticking out in concentration – and even the parts which sounded gimmicky in the […]