While I certainly can’t say I’ve played every Wii U launch title I will confess to indulging in far more than my fair share, and while the system is easily geared toward all-ages gameplay I further admit that I continue to be pleasantly surprised by its more intense offerings. From picture perfect platforming to rhythm and music to straight-up shootin’ stuff, the Wii U has a lot to offer.
Yet not all games are created equal. With that in mind allow me to explore 20 disparate releases currently available for your gaming pleasure. In the name of consistency I’ve grouped them into five subcategories, but as you’ll quickly see several seemingly go out of the way to defy classification.
One of the primary knocks against Nintendo Land, the showcase title packed in with Deluxe Wii U systems, is that it’s not Wii Sports, and while that may be true it does at least manage to channel some of the same simplistic, addictive fun of its most hallowed, ancient ancestor. The problem, of course, is that it does so within the confines of the dreaded mini-game collection. Its principle conceit involves encapsulating a dozen different Nintendo franchise-themed worlds within a virtual amusement park, the central hub of which is manned by your robotic tour guide Monita. This talking touchscreen gives you ample – some would say too much – information about the Nintendo Land Plaza, its various attractions and how to navigate it.
The mini-games themselves offer an interesting mix of single- and multiplayer experiences that can find you dancing with the Game & Watch octopus, fighting with Wii-mote armed friends through the Zelda-themed Battle Quest or stealing candy from GamePad-controlled guards in Animal Crossing: Sweet Day. The title’s extensive Mii support proves a double-edged sword as the simple hide-and-seek formula of Luigi’s Ghost Mansion (wherein the GamePad player controls a ghost while everyone else is a flashlight-wielding Wii Remote warrior) feels wonderfully organic, while more core gamer-centered fare like Metroid Blast seems distinctly non-canonical despite its engaging running and gunning. Still, Nintendo Land hits more than it misses, with even the solo play of Yoshi’s Fruit Cart, which challenges players to direct their avatar around on-screen obstacles to collect fruit by drawing a path on the simplified GamePad screen, and the rudimentary swipe-controlled flight of Balloon Trip Breeze easily making up for stinkers like the glorified shuriken-slinging tech demo that is Takamaru’s Ninja Castle.
Rabbids Land, on the other hand, plays more like a lesson in how not to compile such a next generation mini-game fest. Its intentions are obviously pure, and there’s enough of that Mario Party mini-games-inside-a-board-game appeal to at least draw my family in initially; there just wasn’t enough to keep us there for more than a few cursory matches. Rabbids has everything it needs on paper – the definitive dice roll mechanic, a mad dash for points (represented by trophies), mini-game challenges that range from pointless trivia to motion control madness and theme spaces that both giveth and taketh away from your score – but uneven design often makes it all too easy to spend an entire game mired in its lackluster content. Rabbids Land looks and sounds great, and customizing your Rabbid alone (by viciously dipping him in paint) is sure to provide your kids with a few minutes of blissful fun, but overall the game simply falls short.
One of my own biggest Wii U surprises was easily Scribblenauts Unlimited. With well-received iterations of the series on DS and iOS, it’s likely that most everyone has experienced the wordy world of Maxwell in some form, but it has never felt more alive and engaging. Adding to the already inspired core gameplay of solving puzzles with only your imagination and vocabulary, Scribblenauts Unlimited injects a backstory, an actual plot and some characterization into the plight of our protagonist. Maxwell’s rooster-hatted family – apparently that’s genetic – plays a major part as you attempt to save your sister Lily from a hex that Max himself unintentionally caused. This gives the collecting of Starites, another series standard, an actual purpose, and further breathes new life into a more vibrant game environment. The GamePad interface makes typing solutions for the always bizarre problems of the citizens in this ever-widening world a breeze, and improved game mechanics makes attaching things, be they adjectives or items, to your creations easier than ever.
Much like this latest Scribblenauts title, New Super Mario Bros. U is the biggest, boldest, most refined take on the side-scroller we’ve seen to date. Like every chapter in the New Super Mario saga, it doesn’t redefine so much as it tweaks the old recipe, and it certainly does so for the better. Previous players of any 2D Mario title will have no trouble picking up the straightforward control scheme (though those already familiar with the remote-shaking of the previous Wii title will have an early advantage), but those well versed in its princess-saving lore will also likely find few surprises. Aside from the ability to supplement its manic four-man multiplayer madness with a fifth adding helpful temporary blocks to the level using the GamePad’s touch interface, NSMBU‘s two big additions come in the form of the Flying Squirrel suit and a trio of baby Yoshis that when picked up provide additional attack options or player buffs. A beautifully expansive game map, limited Mii support, Boost and Challenge modes also serve to make this debut HD entry into the Mario series a true must-have, and an overall exemplary level of polish makes it a joy to play with the kids or all alone. And, yes, its amazing, frenetic level design holds up equally well in GamePad-only play.
Recent GeekDad community favorite and the very definition of hardcore-game-for-a-casual-audience Skylanders Giants has also made its way to Nintendo’s newest console, and while the cartoon-y visuals and toy-connected gameplay arrived unaltered this version does include a unique twist. Sure, you can play the entire game on the GamePad alone, but it’s the supplementary info this second screen displays during standard play that really makes the difference. Toss a Skylander on the Portal and his stats will display on the GamePad, a small but interesting tweak that allows savvy gamers to more effectively manage their characters’ development and choice of helpful headgear. A secondary view also lists level objectives, yet another handy use of the hardware. Still, I can’t help but be a little disappointed that Activision didn’t or simply couldn’t leverage the controller’s own integrated NFC capabilities to simply do away with the need for the Portal of Power. But theoretical nitpicks aside the game plays incredibly well on the system, with only the occasional graphical hiccup (read: graininess) or pesky camera angle detracting from the experience.
Surely the black sheep of the lineup is Namco’s Tank! Tank! Tank! While most other games have at least tried to push the visual envelope of the Wii U’s new high-def graphical approach, Tank! Tank! Tank! instead seems content to keep things super simple. These minimalist visuals are paired with the very simplest of plots. A mission opens with the player or players being informed that giant monsters are attacking the city. You then proceed to shoot things with your tank. More vehicles become available as you progress through this linear shoot-’em-up, and the overarching theme of simplification continues in that these generally just exchange speed and maneuverability for sheer firepower or vice versa. Destroying the monster centipedes/cyber-gorillas/multi-headed dragons results in special weapons drops that offer supplementary attacks best reserved for the biggest of the baddies, but the unlimited ammo of your primary weapon means you’ll likely find yourself firing constantly whether there’s an enemy in your sights or not. Tank! Tank! Tank! makes a token effort to take advantage of the Wii U hardware by allowing you to snap a picture of yourself using the GamePad camera, but while a photo-realistic image sporting a crudely drawn helmet has a certain charm it, like the rest of the game, lacks real depth. Still, all these complaints aside Tank! Tank! Tank!’s no-frills single- and multiplayer manages to come off like the bad b-movie of Wii U games, and there is something to be said for enjoying the cheesiness. Part of me loves its unabashed silliness, but none of me can recommend it for anything short of a bargain price.
The Bottom Line
Scribblenauts‘ refined gameplay and robust GamePad support – yeah, you won’t even need that television – makes it perfectly suited to the hardware. Sure, NSMBU and Nintendo Land have gotten the spotlight (and deservedly so as they are stellar first-party products), but odds are Wii U owners already have one if not both of these titles. Therefore, if you’re looking to supplement the system’s family gaming angle in a meaningful way Scribblenauts Unlimited is the way to go.
Next up: “hardcore” and sports titles.