The tennis game in Nintendo's Wii Sports was perhaps a perfect showcase for what Nintendo was trying to accomplish with the original Wii. It defined the system -- and its intended audience -- by offering a control scheme that addressed the button anxiety that non-game players suffered by nearly eliminating them entirely.
Players being handed a Wii remote for the first time intuitively knew how to hit a tennis ball. It might have taken a second to acknowledge that actually swinging a video game controller would do something on screen, but it immediately clicked.
So when Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime said on Tuesday that the company's launch-bound virtual theme park Nintendo Land "does for Wii U what Wii Sports did for Wii," we decided to put his claim to the test.
Neither of us were convinced at last year's debut showing that Nintendo's GamePad represented much in the way of an effective use of the tablet screen, as far as game design is concerned. Much of what we saw seemed superfluous, with experiences that could easily be translated to more traditional input schemes.
At a private showing immediately following this morning's presentation, we spent some quality time with a handful of Nintendo Land minigames, to see if we might be convinced otherwise, as Fils-Aime seems to think the general public will be when they get their hands on the games this holiday.
Unfortunately, even Nintendo's best first-party efforts -- assuming as we are that Nintendo Land is meant to be the console-defining showcase piece at launch -- can not recreate that magic moment of immediate intuition that Wii Sports provided six years ago.
The bulk of the games we played could easily have been done on other systems. For example, Takamaru's Ninja Castle was a simple target-shooting affair that offered nothing that the original Wii Remote doesn't. Players tilt the GamePad, much like a Wii Remote, to manipulate a reticule on screen as they throw ninja stars at on-screen characters. The only use of the touch screen was to swipe forward to throw a star, an action that could have easily been accomplished with a button press.
The Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest was a showcase for cooperative gameplay with the GamePad-wielding player having the advantage of a different point of view. While two players using Wii Remotes march forward automatically and slash at enemies, a third player using the GamePad is able to quickly look around the environment and see things that the others cannot, such as upcoming hazards.
We suppose this was meant to communicate that the GamePad offers a new way of playing together, but in reality this was nothing more than a typical spit-screen cooperative game with two players having their viewpoints artificially limited. It was as if three of the four players in Left 4 Dead could not look up or down, and had to rely on communication from the fourth to see what was ahead.
Donkey Kong's Crash Course showed off the GamePad's gyroscopic tilt function, as players manipulated a wheeled kart across an obstacle course by tilting the world and occasionally manipulating switches with button presses. It plays out much like Sony's LocoRoco.
In fact, we're left wondering why this game bothers with a television, when it easily could be a 3DS game. While the player sees a zoomed-in view of where their avatar is on the map, the television displays the entire course statically. We suppose that in theory onlookers could either be entertained by a different view on the television or perhaps offer help in the way of verbally communicating upcoming hazards, but it felt more novel than innovative.
The most practical new use of the GamePad, and one that we expect to be a game design trend early in the system's life, is in offering the player holding the tablet a strategic advantage in competitive living room games. Two games offered a take on this: in Luigi's Ghost Mansion, the tablet wielder played as a ghost that was invisible to four other players who worked together to narrow down the ghost's location down. Similarly, Animal Crossing: Sweet Day played out like a game of tag with one player having a better vantage point than the others.
The highlights of last year's demos had a similar gimmick and, like then, these were the most fun to play. This is the only function we've seen that would be difficult to reproduce without the GamePad, and the only that could be more than a novelty.
At the very least, the example games from Nintendo Land that we played did a more than adequate job of highlighting the various Swiss army knife functions of the GamePad, and should be able to introduce players to all of the different things it can do. However, it's missing the magic of Wii Sports, that "aha" moment that makes the system click for just about anyone playing it, that caused lapsed or even non-gamers to actually purchase a new video game system in droves.
Nintendo Land explains what the Wii U is capable of, but unlike Wii Sports, it doesn't explain why it does what it does. And if Nintendo is hoping to expand its audience even further or, at the very least, recapture those that it convinced with the original Wii, this probably isn't the game to do it.