Hands-On Preview: Nintendo Land

It’s not a tradition yet, but it’s well on the way to becoming one — Nintendo releases an odd piece of hardware and then a mini-game collection to show off how it works. The Wii U is odder than most, so it’s going to require a lot of explaining, and the twelve mini-games of Nintendo Land are designed to show off the possibilities. The theme park “attractions” are half single player and half multiplayer, with the multiplayer games divided equally between competitive and cooperative.

Each game in the compendium is based on a Nintendo franchise, ranging from the obvious to the ultra-obscure. Zelda, Mario, Metroid? All there, of course. Game & Watch Octopus? That’s there too, although how it not only got picked for revival but also repurposed into a rhythm game is anyone’s guess. It’s always good to see Nintendo visiting the more obscure corners of their history while using them to point the way to their future.

The future, of course, is the tablet, and all the interactions it can offer, and that’s what the games are there to showcase. Each game uses the tablet in a different way, whether its showcasing the potential of asymmetric multiplayer or just the number of things you can do alone.

Takamaru’s Ninja Castle, for example, uses the tablet as a throwing star launcher. You aim it at the screen, controlling a cursor to highlight origami ninjas on a pop-up book background, and a flick across the screen sends a shuriken flying. A light touch will see it arc downward, while a fast flick aims true, but it’s hard to hold the aim with the more vigorous movement.

Animal Crossing: Sweet Days, on the other hand, used four regular controllers for the villagers running through town, each with their own quadrant of the tv screen showing a limited view, and the tablet holder controls two guards simultaneously with a full view of the town layout. Villagers run through town collecting candy off trees while trying to avoid the guards, and the winner is either the villager team when they’ve collected fifty candies, or the guards when they’ve ko’ed all the villagers. More than being a clever party game, it shows off one of the many ways the tablet screen can be used to both bypass the limits and enhance the possibilities of multiplayer console gaming.

The rest of the games work to push this lesson as well, each using the tablet in its own way. In the co-op Zelda, three players fight with swords while the tablet is used for the archer. Yoshi’s Fruit Cart has the player drawing a path through fruit on the touch screen, but the fruit is only visible on the tv screen. Simple, but with the potential to get very tricky, very fast. Like Octopus Dance, the lid has been clamped down pretty firmly on in-depth specifics.

The ones with the most details are, of course, the games on display at E3 earlier in the year, and hands-on time revealed the potential winners and losers. My personal favorite was Donkey Kong’s Crash Course, which had a tiny cart running through a clever obstacle course that zig-zagged all over the screen. Tilt the tablet left or right to move the cart, and be careful about it because momentum is both friend and enemy. The control sticks and triggers worked to move various gadgets on screen, and the tablet screen gave a close-up view of the current section. The design on Crash Course felt absolutely perfect, like a Nintendo version of Trials HD, and the single course left me hoping for more. With less than two weeks before launch at the time of this writing, however, details on content volume are still scarce on the ground.

Still, like Wii Play and Wii Sports before it, Nintendo Land is working to show off what the Wii U is capable of. It would be unfair to write it off as a tech demo, even based on the little that’s been shown, primarily due to the creativity and fun on display. Whether that justifies the $60 price tag or not is too early to say, but free with the black Wii U? Yeah, that’s a deal that will be hard to pass up, assuming there’s a single unit left on the shelves at launch. Good luck, and happy hardware hunting.