Back before the Wii U Experience event in September of last year, I declared that Nintendo Land is the gutsiest move Nintendo has ever made. They were trying to cast it as Wii U’s unique answer to the Wii Sports phenomenon of the last generation, saying that its demonstration of the power of the Wii U GamePad would do for Wii U what Wii Sports did for the Wii Remote. My response was that while Nintendo Land certainly does try to re-create the “arcade” experience with the Wii U GamePad, a number of factors might hold it back from success.
Now that the Wii U launch has come and gone, and the extent of the system’s loss of momentum in 2013 is finally visible, I think it’s safe to say that Nintendo Land was no Wii Sports successor. The game failed to drive sales in any way that even remotely resembled the Wii Sports phenomenon. And I say this as a massive self-declared Nintendo Land junkie.
Before, I said one of Nintendo Land‘s biggest strengths and biggest claims to the “Wii Sports successor” name was its focus on arcade-like action and structure… but there was a caveat: I didn’t think Nintendo Land appropriately captured the look and feel of the arcades – or even the games on which its attractions were based.
I can understand that one of the motivations for adding in the cutesy kiddie touches was to make the game more family-friendly and fit in with the “theme park” thing the game had going on, but let’s get real: Metroid and F-Zero didn’t need to look kiddie back in the day, and they certainly don’t need to now. Does Nintendo really think that fans of the franchises are going to enjoy the way they’ve been butchered to dumb them down to an audience that they were never really meant to appeal to directly in the first place?
Not only that, but these are video games. A virtual theme park doesn’t need to look like it was pieced together mechanically – it can actually feature the characters and scenes from the games the attractions represent. For example, I thought it’d be pretty cool to see the world of Balloon Fight explored again as a progression through different times of day, but the “cloth” art style of the game wound up being an odd mis-match. As a result, while the game played pretty nicely, it didn’t really look like a new and improved Balloon Fight. It looked like what a lot of people read it as: a Balloon Fight themed mini-game.
Similarly, the F-Zero, Metroid, and Mario attractions look like something out of a toy box, Zelda looks like dolls, the Pikmin world has been relegated to cardboard cut-outs and those crappy little toys you get out of those capsule dispensers at the mall. They don’t look like Nintendo is testing out some ideas for its franchises using the GamePad – they look like Nintendo has reduced its franchises to “themes” to be slapped onto tech demos.
This wasn’t how Nintendo wanted people to see Nintendo Land. Nintendo made these games to each have the design potential to stand on their own due to their arcade-like nature. However, that concept seems to have been lost in translation based on the Nintendo Land brand image. They look like gimmicky, substance-less GamePad-based mini-games rather than arcade successors that take advantage of the GamePad.
Compare that to Wii Sports, where the presentation of the game’s sports was pretty neutral: the golf courses looked like golf courses, the bowling alley looked like a bowling alley, and the tennis court looked like a tennis court. No fancy visual “creativity” or thematic gimmickry. They look like sports games… that happen to be played with brand-new motion controls. And that’s exactly how people approached them – as a home entertainment sports pack. Wii Sports became the face of Wii and went on to become the best-selling game of all time.
Don’t get me wrong – I still think the games are tons of fun. But they by and large miss the appeal of their parent franchises. And it’s about more than just the aesthetics.
For example, Balloon Trip was supposed to be this never-ending high score mode, where you’d just keep going and going through a mostly randomized course until your balloons popped. Balloon Trip Breeze plays similarly, but instead involves a series of pre-set levels. The two are not the same.
Metroid was a shooter, yes, but it also involved players finding their way through a series of labyrinthine tunnels using a variety of weapons and tools. Metroid Blast has none of that. It’s all shooting, and literally zero exploration. Not the same.
Zelda is all about diving into a virtual garden to play in at your leisure… but not in Nintendo Land. Instead, it’s an on-rails experience that has you re-visit the same places over and over and over again, just from different angles and with different enemies. There’s very little combat variety, and absolutely zero “overworld.” Battle Quest is not The Legend of Zelda.
Of all the attractions, the only one to really capture its core franchise in terms of concept and feel is Luigi’s Ghost Mansion, which oddly enough is also the one that sticks closest visually to its source material. The mansions all look just like something out of Luigi’s Mansion, and the use of flashlights to stun ghosts, while it’s missing the “vacuum” element, is still pretty comparable to catching ghosts in the main franchise.
The kicker is that because none of these attractions is particularly representative of the franchises they’re supposed to be based on, they actually do a very poor job of introducing these franchises to new players. If you’re already a fan of Zelda or Metroid, you might appreciate the way the series’ basic controls adapt to the GamePad and Wii MotionPlus… but other than that, Nintendo Land isn’t a very good game for showing off the potential of these franchises on Wii U, either gameplay-wise or visually.
That’s a problem. That’s potentially a big problem. If the Wii U brand doesn’t match up with the Nintendo gold standard for quality that exists in many previous fans’ minds, Wii U is unlikely to be something that they’re interested in. As we’ve seen with Nintendo Land, people don’t actually seem to be sold on the idea of a Nintendo-themed game compilation – what does that say about the strength of the Nintendo brand, or of the potential benefits people see as far as Wii U delivering on enhanced gameplay?
I’d say it looks like the Nintendo brand is in trouble if Wii U’s flagship games can’t move systems.