Wii U: Don’t Underestimate Nintendo Land

Countdown to Wii U:
– 23 Days Remaining -

I think it’s fair to say that Wii Sports was the game that defined Wii last generation. It was not only one of the first games to be shown for the new system at its E3 reveal, it was the game that came bundled with the system during its initial run – and the game that brought in so-called “casual” gamers in droves. Wii U is a little different in that it doesn’t really have a single standout game. Attention seems to be split between two of Nintendo’s primary first-party selections: New Super Mario Bros. U and Nintendo Land.

It’s clear, however, which of the two Nintendo is hoping will be the next “Wii Sports”: it’s Nintendo Land. They’ve said it themselves – and I think that, while many of the “hardcore” persuasion have mocked it as some kind of “casual” tech demo or a waste of time, they ought to take it a bit more seriously.

The thing is, people levied the same “casual tech demo” complaints against Wii Sports. While I’d agree that the role of Wii Sports was to introduce people to Wii and as such it is technically a tech demo, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It meant that the game, rather than expanding to incorporate more features and game modes than the competition, minimized its focus, dedicating itself to the raw mechanics of motion-controlled sports.

You don’t have to worry about managing a player roster. You don’t have to worry about setting up plays. You don’t have to constantly switch control between different characters to coordinate your game. It’s all about executing the iconic actions associated with the game – the swing of the bat, the punches and jabs, the slap of the tennis racket, the roll of the bowling ball. These are things that everyone understands; you don’t have to know all the ins and outs of the games to get through Wii Baseball or Wii Bowling like you do for the more established licensed sports franchises.

For many “hardcore” gamers, this might sound like a compromise. There is an attitude that goes around these days that says that games need to pack in a certain number of hours of gameplay, unlockables to obtain and achievements to earn, gameplay features to master, and multiplayer maps in which to blow each other up. The fewer of these a game has, the less “deep” and therefore the less “worthy” it is.

But I think what people have to understand is that the vast majority of people who play video games do not fall on this side of the spectrum. They are the kinds of gamers who prefer their gaming in “lite” sessions, maybe a half hour a day instead of the three to four to twelve hours that it takes to burn through the latest “AAA” game by the end of the week. These are the gamers that gravitate towards “play every day” games like Wii Sports.

I’ll be honest, except for when I’m seriously hooked on something – like the newest Zelda or Metroid, this is usually how I game, too. Most recently, I’ve been trying to get through one or two levels in 3D Classics: Kid Icarus in small sessions each day.

You know what’s interesting, though? I often feel as though I get more out of these “short burst” games than I do out of the big blockbusters. I feel as though because they have to pack “fun” into a smaller space, both in terms of levels and in terms of time, they are able to do more with less.

I think this was Nintendo’s philosophy for Wii Sports… and I also think it is a good way to explain Nintendo Land. Just as Wii Sports stuck to the lowest common denominator in terms of sports, Nintendo Land aims to go back to basics in terms of the simplicity of the classics.

I’ve made the analogy before that Mario Chase is basically a video game adaptation of tag. It’s a pretty good example of the kind of simplicity I’m talking about. The only gameplay element in Mario Chase is the chase. Everything else, from the level design to the temporary invincibility powerup, revolves around that central element. The mud slows you down, making you easier to catch. The various walls and structures in the levels offer both places to hide and a means of being cornered.

And sure, this is true to some extent for most of the AAA games I think Nintendo Land stands in contrast to – but most games also offer a more complex set of tasks, objectives, and gameplay variations as well. That’s at odds with that “basic, lowest common denominator” philosophy. The more complex the game is, the less accessible it is. There are simply more barriers to entry, more hurdles to jump through.

Just as Kid Icarus offers fun not through its complexity but through its tight level design that fits right in with the “short bursts” style of play, just as Wii Sports didn’t try to offer as many in-depth features as possible but instead focused on the most essential actions, Nintendo Land offers just the right blend of gameplay elements to fit a lot of fun into a more compact single- and multiplayer experience.

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