Nintendo Land is the Ballsiest Game Nintendo Has Ever Made

Nintendo seems to be heavily banking on the success on the game that’s sure to be Wii U’s big flagship title: Nintendo Land. Not only did they spend a significant chunk of their E3 2012 presentation on the game, they’ve also brought elements from a number of their key franchises, past and present, and are poising this game to be the next Wii Sports.

They’re so invested in Nintendo Land‘s success, they’ve even done the unprecedented: put the company’s name on it! If one of the first high-profile games to bear the “Nintendo” name succeeds, Nintendo is sure to jump to perhaps unprecedented levels of popularity. But if it fails…

The Good

The good thing is that Nintendo Land seems to be a pretty solid experience content-wise. Many have characterized it as a “mini-game pack,” but I don’t think that’s a fair description at all. Judging by Game Informer‘s preview of the recently-unveiled Metroid Blast, the attractions are more than mere mini-games; they’re entire arcade-style games and multiplayer modes unto themselves, complete with multiple maps and game modes.

Sure, I don’t think anyone could argue that Metroid Blast is a substitute for a full-blown shooter, and I’m sure that F-Zero game won’t compare to a complete racing game either, but for a game company to include a shooter, racing game, party multiplayer, and arcade-style games in one package is an intriguing and honestly unprecedented move. Each of these genres is immensely popular, and while I’m sure the individual attractions themselves won’t have quite the same draw that full retail experiences would, I think there’s some potential there – especially if Nintendo Land is a default pack-in title.

From what I’ve played, the arcade bits seem like pretty genuine modern iterations of classic ideas. Donkey Kong’s Crash Course isn’t about running and jumping as Mario to the top, but it does use level design chock full of tricky, split-second reflex-based action challenges and obstacles that make the limited number of lives seem too small. Takamaru’s Ninja Castle similarly does a good job of emulating old rail gun shooters, but with a Wii U twist.

Offering solid arcade experiences was one of the keys to NES’s success back in the 8-bit era, and Wii Sports to some extent managed to capture the feel of the old sports arcade games in a new “motion arcade.” Nintendo Land could be poised to seize an as-of-yet-unrealized market in the world of consoles: the touch screen arcade.

Metroid Blast, which I played last year when it was known as “Battle Mii,” is very much a shooter, but it differentiates itself from the norms of the genre by “overpowering” the GamePad player – part of Nintendo’s “asymmetric gameplay” approach to multiplayer. The result sounds like it would totally unbalance the game, but it doesn’t. The other players are much more nimble and it is of course easier for them to see (and hit) the player in the ship.

Wii Sports proved back in 2006 that games don’t need to be huge or complex to be big hits. In fact, it’s the simpler forms of entertainment that resonate with the wider audiences. Nintendo Land‘s approach to its attractions – as simple but refined experiences packed together to create tremendous value – seems to follow the same tack. The question is: will it hit its intended target audience?

The Bad

Unfortunately, it’s here that I think Nintendo will run into some trouble.

A lot of it has to do with the game’s visual style. I personally don’t have any huge issues with anything I’ve seen so far – I’m not especially picky – but I know that, for a lot of gamers, the prevalence of Miis gives this game a virtual death sentence. The imposition of a strange cloth-art direction for the Zelda attraction and a paper-y look for the Balloon Trip mode could both have similarly damning effects. If Nintendo wants this to be “Wii Sports for gamers,” I’m not sure that putting Miis at the center again is the best way to achieve it.

History shows that Zelda is seen as being at its best and most authentic when it embraces a neutral art style. Games like Skyward Sword and The Wind Waker weren’t so universally well-received and didn’t enjoy the high sales that Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess did, and the excitement behind the Zelda HD Experience tech demo indicated that these preferences haven’t changed.

Balloon Fight has always been a little more cartoonish in execution – after all, that giant fish that leaps out of the water to eat you is just plain absurd – but the game’s original incarnation was still very neutral visually. It was a kind of mishmash of graphical tropes from the arcade days: stock water graphics, starry skies reminiscent of old space shooters, and so on. All of that seems to have been thrown out in Balloon Trip Breeze for something that looks a lot more like Kirby’s Epic Yarn. And while that game was adorable and as its own title was a nice little creative venture, imposing the same thing on Balloon Fight seems to kind of miss the point of an arcade throwback.

There’s also a distinct Japanese flavor to the game – particularly the “theme park” culture that drives its central visual themes – that, while it isn’t necessarily “bad” in and of itself, seems to put up barriers for many Western gamers. It goes back to that same “neutrality” point. If your game is tailored for a Japanese audience, you’re going to as a direct consequence alienate Western players who do not have any stake in Japanese culture.

Another big problem: Nintendo doesn’t seem to have addressed online multiplayer yet. As the first big multiplayer game for Wii U, Nintendo Land should have delivered a strong message to gamers that Nintendo was ready to do online right. So far, that hasn’t happened yet.

The Ballsy

Whether you think the idea of a full suite of arcade-style games and multiplayer modes based on Nintendo’s franchises is an awesome idea or you hate Miis and want to see them blown off the face of the earth, the fact that Nintendo has decided to use its company name for Nintendo Land‘s branding shows just how closely tied the game’s approach is to their conception of Wii U. I don’t think the future of Wii U is necessarily wrapped up in Nintendo Land‘s success by any means, but I do think that the strong focus on the game gives it a lot of weight in terms of determining the console’s acceptance at the start.

The success of Nintendo Land will depend on the answers to a few critical questions:

  • Will people accept the Wii U GamePad as an enhanced version of the core (and classic) game controller?
  • Will asymmetric gameplay resonate with the mass market?
  • Will the Mii-centric art style extend Nintendo Land to moms and non-traditional buyers without turning gamers away?
  • Will people accept a new multiplayer game that does not offer online components?
  • Will people accept Nintendo Land as a new home version of the arcade as Wii Sports was accepted as the motion control arcade?

If Nintendo drops the ball in terms of consumer recognition of the value of the Wii U GamePad, they’re in big trouble. The GamePad is the face of Wii U.

If Nintendo’s big asymmetric gameplay push doesn’t resonate with people, that’s a whole bunch of money and marketing down the drain. What will Wii U use as its hook for family gaming?

If Nintendo Land fails to appeal to the mass market, Nintendo’s going to be hard-pressed to find something to replace it. Wii Sports might be on the back burner for this very purpose, but will people really buy a Wii U just to get at another Wii Sports – or will they continue to choose the cheaper Wii instead?

If the lack of online multiplayer keeps people from valuing Nintendo Land, Nintendo will have missed its most critical chance to present itself as a key player in the world of online multiplayer. Will anyone ever trust Nintendo to do multiplayer right ever again?

If Nintendo Land does not appeal to the arcade sensibilities, Nintendo will have lost a valuable part of their core audience. These people already bowed out when Nintendo 64 and GameCube came out; can Nintendo really afford to miss out on their support in another generation?