It’s easy to write off a pack-in bundle of minigames as being somehow “lesser” than full-scale titles. But the Wii U’s Nintendo Land was special — and in a different way from its spiritual predecessor Wii Sports.
Functioning as a joyous celebration of Nintendo’s most beloved properties — and a few slightly more obscure ones, too — Nintendo Land is an enjoyable enough experience in single-player, with several games specifically designed with solo play in mind, but it’s in multiplayer that it truly shines: Nintendo’s same-room party gaming at its finest.
And it’s an evergreen title, too; some five years after its initial release, for many Wii U owners it’s a game that still gets regular play, particularly when friends come to visit. Let’s take a closer look at what makes it so special.
Nintendo Land deliberately eschews any attempt to make its minigames look exactly like their source material. Given that they have such diverse aesthetics between them — the dark sci-fi of Metroid, the colourful fantasy of Zelda, the cartoon mayhem of Mario, the acid trip that is Animal Crossing — it would have been easy for Nintendo Land to come across as an unfocused mess.
Nintendo instead made the wise decision to theme Nintendo Land’s aesthetic around one of the most iconic features of both the Wii and the Wii U: the short, stubby, stylised Mii avatars. Start the game and you’ll find your user’s Mii being introduced to the various attractions of the titular theme park. Connect to the Internet and you’ll see other players’ Miis wandering around, each offering a Miiverse post when interacted with. And when you jump into an attraction, your Mii — and any other players you have chosen to bring with you — change into costumes inspired by the games the attraction is themed around.
Nintendo Land’s games run as broad a gamut as their source material in terms of theme, style and overall gameplay. Some are competitive, some are cooperative, some focus on chasing high scores and some blend everything together.
On the single-player front, a particular highlight is the Donkey Kong-themed game, in which your Mii becomes a Tinkertoy-esque rolling wagon attempting to negotiate a perilous course that looks as if it’s mounted on a blackboard. Indeed, crashing marks the spot you met your demise with a chalk-marked explosion, just to remind you of where the difficult bits are.
By tilting the Wii U GamePad from side to side, you’re able to roll your wagon around the course. At various points, you’ll have to move platforms and seesaws by pressing various buttons on the GamePad or (optionally) blowing into the microphone. Success demands careful timing and a rudimentary understanding of physics; this is an unforgiving game, and it’s quite an achievement to even get off the first level.
Elsewhere, solo players are also catered to with a Yoshi-themed game in which you must draw a path on the GamePad that enables Yoshi to eat all the fruit and then exit the level — with the twist being that you can only see the important things, such as the fruit and the obstacles, on the TV screen. This proves to be a surprisingly compelling and addictive puzzle game of sorts, and has a solid selection of levels to work your way through.
A more short-form game for solo players comes in the form of Octopus, based on an old Game & Watch handheld game. Here, your Mii is tasked with following the dance moves of a diver: their two arms are operated independently using the two analogue sticks on the GamePad, while their whole body can be tilted to the side by tipping the GamePad over. This game has a delightful feeling of physicality about it, and features some charming visual gags throughout that attempt to distract you from the task at hand.
Other single-player games include an F-Zero themed racer with an unusual GamePad-based control scheme that just makes it all the more painful we haven’t had a proper F-Zero for years, an excellent ninja-themed shooting gallery where you “flick” shuriken using the GamePad’s touchscreen, and a compulsively addictive reinterpretation of NES classic Balloon Fight, where you control the wind by swiping across the touchscreen, rather than controlling your character directly.
On the cooperative front, we have a Zelda-themed game, in which the player with the GamePad is able to aim and shoot arrows, while up to three other players with Wii Remotes can swing their swords to attack enemies. The game is effectively a rail shooter of sorts, with players proceeding through linear levels on a set path, taking out groups of enemies and attempting to survive as long as possible. Its mechanics are simple but very effective and enormously enjoyable, particularly with a large group of people. It’s a highlight of the complete collection for sure.
A more complex cooperative game is found in the Metroid-themed attraction. Here, the player with the GamePad has the ability to fly, while players with Wii Remotes and Nunchuks are on the ground. The main cooperative mode in this attraction sees players working together to eliminate enemies, while two competitive modes see the ground-based players attempting to shoot down the flying player or everyone competing against everyone else to collect coins. This particular game is less accessible to newcomers than some of Nintendo Land’s other attractions, but that’s no bad thing — those who balk at the idea of playing “minigames” will find this one to feel remarkably like a “proper game”, for want of a better term.
Underappreciated series Pikmin gets a look in, too, with a hugely enjoyable cooperative action adventure in which the GamePad player controls a character like in the full Pikmin games, while other players control individual Pikmin to support.
The true star of Nintendo Land comes in the form of its asymmetric competitive attractions, best enjoyed with a full complement of five people. Each of these make use of the GamePad in a creative way to provide one player with a unique experience, while those using Wii Remotes must cooperate to overcome their opponent somehow.
The simplest of these games is Mario Chase, in which up to four players on the television must chase the GamePad player around a maze. The television-based players view the action from a third-person, over-the-shoulder perspective, with the complete screen split into several sections according to how many players are. The GamePad player, meanwhile, has an overview map of the complete maze, including the positions of their pursuers, and can plan their route accordingly. At the end of the game you get a highly entertaining “replay” of what each player did over the course of the match on this overview map, allowing you to see how close you really got to victory.
The Animal Crossing-themed game increases the complexity a little by tasking the GamePad player with controlling two characters at once and putting them on the offensive this time. The Wii Remote players, meanwhile, must collect sweets without being caught by the two GamePad-controlled guards, with their movement speed slowing significantly the more sweets they are carrying at once. This one gets surprisingly tense!
The final asymmetric competitive game is based on Luigi’s Mansion, and places the GamePad player in the role of a ghost, while the Wii Remote players play various colours of Luigi, armed only with a torch each. The ghost has to scare the Luigi players by sneaking up on them without them noticing it, while the Luigi players must reveal and damage the ghost by shining their lights on them. The twist is that the ghost is invisible on the TV screen under most circumstances, the only exception being when it grabs a Luigi, gets damaged by a torch beam or is momentarily illuminated by lightning outside the mansion. To give the Luigi players a bit of a chance, their Wii Remotes vibrate slightly when the ghost is nearby, allowing them to communicate and figure out where their supernatural opponent might be hiding.
Nintendo Land’s various attractions are compelling enough in their own right, but Nintendo rounded out the whole package with an enjoyable (albeit simplistic) metagame in which you can use tokens earned in the attractions to gamble on an electronic pachinko machine to earn prizes. These prizes then become interactive toys in the main plaza of the park, allowing you to listen to pieces of music, trigger amusing animations and sound effects or learn trivia about Nintendo games and characters.
Ultimately each player’s “park” becomes a delightful museum to Nintendo — and a potent reminder that the company has never really forgotten its roots in toymaking. Nintendo Land is a wonderful box of toys that anyone and everyone can enjoy — and, like all the best toys, it’s best enjoyed by sharing the experience with others.
Wii U Essentials is a series of articles that each focus on a single retail game from the Wii U’s library. These articles aim to build a comprehensive record of this turbulent period in Nintendo’s history: a time when the company released some of its very finest games, yet it struggled to recapture popular attention and commercial success in the same way as the original Wii did.
If you enjoyed this article and want to see more like it, please consider showing your social support with likes, shares and comments, or financial support via my Patreon. Thank you!