If Nintendo was being absolutely upfront with us, Nintendo Land would centre on a whiteboard; not a theme park. It would be a messy one, covered with different peoples' handwriting, scribbled diagrams, and the kinds of stains that splatter analysts would conclude could only be created by staying up all night and shaking with a physiological cocktail of endorphins and sleep deprivation.
You'd select which games you wanted to play by choosing the words scrawled with no semblance of order, across the board's surface - words like "hilarious" or "asymmetric" or "robot Bulborb dung". Then the game would represent each idea as they would have been pitched by crazed designers, desperately trying to get across what they mean by constructing rudimentary facsmiles using plastic cups, pens and strips of their own torn clothing. Even if none of it looks anything like this, it is certainly how Nintendo Land feels. It's a riotous barrage of ideas presented in no particular order: some don't work, and some are so brilliant that we've been thinking about them for weeks now, and every single one is a completely unfiltered look at the process of designing games for something as new and different as the Wii U. We love it for that.
The obvious comparison is Wii Sports. Both have been included as pack-in games with their respective consoles (although less prominently this time around, as Nintendo Land only comes with the Premium Wii U bundle) and both act as an introduction to the new control systems they utilise. But this isn't the most accurate way of approaching the new title, and that's entirely down to the atmosphere of wild-eyed experimentation that surrounds it.
Where Wii Sports showed us what the Wii would be about by showing exactly how it all worked, Nintendo Land shows us what the Wii U will be about, by showing us just how many ways it could work. The GamePad's multiple input systems (touchscreen, gyroscope, camera, microphone, buttons, controll sticks, and let's face it, probably like a mini microwave or something) mean that the the now nostalgia-tinged moment of realising "Oh, this controller is a golf club and tennis racquet and a boxing glove" isn't there, to be replaced by a kind of happy indecision. No one, not even Nintendo, has decided a definitive way to use the GamePad yet. We think we prefer it that way.
Each of the game's 12 games - sorry, attractions - is essentially a showcase for how the console and its new controller can be used differently. On the surface, this boils down to thee distinct types of games - three competitive attractions, three team attractions, and six solo attractions - but within each one is a new idea, something that tries to show you exactly what's going on inside your new piece of hardware.
You'll probably have heard most about the competitive attractions, made up of Animal Crossing: Sweet Day, Luigi's Ghost Mansion, and Mario Chase. That's because these are the most immediately approachable modes, each drawing in their own way from childhood games of Tag, Hide and Seek, or Chases (physical violence between Miis is surprisingly and welcomely widespread in these modes). Any of them can be played with two to five players; one on the GamePad and everyone else acting as a team on Wii Remotes, with any empty slots usually filled by slightly less efficient AI stand-ins.
Sweet Day is a simple game of risk and reward - collect a set number of giant sweets to fill your appropriately sized PEZ-like animal hat without being tacked by the GamePad user's guards. Things get more complex for both sides, however: each sweet collected by the Wiimote players incrementally slows them down, while the GamePad player has to control both guards at once, meaning more hectic sections can result in what feels like an impromptu corpus callosotomy (look it up, neurosurgery fans).
Luigi's Ghost Mansion sees Wiimote users take on the role of quivering ghost hunters, each equipped with a spectre-damaging flashlight. The GamePad player controls a ghost that can only be seen in the beam of flashing light or the occasional lightning strike. The aim is simple - the spook needs to make the hunters faint (achieved by running into them) but has a health count that can't reach zero. It sounds simplistic, and that's because it is, but the game can get remarkably subtle, with teamwork (hunters can revive each other at their own risk), random powerups and each of the five arena's unique distractions and obstacles changing how everyone plays.
Mario Chase turns the tables on the usually aggressive GamePad player, making them the prey - albeit of the omniscient variety - by providing a map showing the entire arena and the Remote Player's positions on it. The Remote Players (dressed as Toads) simply need to takcle the GamePad player once in each two minute round, but need to rely on shouting to each other to locate the quarry.
The shouting shows what's at the heart of this set of attractions. In every one, you'll be calling advice to your teammates, bellowing abuse at your opponent and yelling at yourself for silly mistakes. We shouted so much that we were told to shut up because we were interrupting a meeting next door. In a way, these are the least innovative games, relying more on truly old-fashioned local multiplayer fun. Even so, they're only possible with the Wii U's distinct mix of controllers and the varied inputs and information they offer as a result. The Team attractions are a little more high-concept. Each of Metroid Blast, The Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest and Pikmin Adventure is playable as a single-player mode, but come alive with some help from the Remote players, freeing the GamePad to act on its own.
Metroid Blast is probably the most fleshed-out attraction of the game. Centred around a 20-level Assault Mission campaign mode (with wave-based elimination rounds, time-attack collecting missions and huge boss battles), the mode uses a mix of the Game Pad (controlling a miniature version of Samus' gunship) and MotionPlus and Nunchuck, controlling armed and armoured Miis, to become a truly competent shooter. If we don't see more games adopting this kind of control scheme from now on, we'll be surprised. Factor in 'Land vs Air' and Ground Battle competitive modes and this might just be our favourite attraction.
That's not to say Pikmin Adventure and Battle Quest are resting on their laurels, though. The former is perhaps most suited to solo play, with the GamePad player taking on the role of Olimar and a growing swarm of Pikmin in a light RPG stomp though a dinky, wind-up version of Pikmin's uncharted planet in 16 bite-sized missions. Remote users take the role of Miis in Pikmin suits (PikMiin?) who level up independently, but are ultimately at the behest of Olimar, who can drag them back across the map with a blow of that familiar whistle. A slightly underwhelming Battle mode means there is some scope for competitive play, but it's probably the weakest example on offer.
Battle Quest wisely dispenses with any infighting and simply places you on a scenic, nine-level journey though a plushy version of Hyrule, with the GamePad taking on lightgun-esque archery duties and up to three MotionPlus users taking point and slashing away at stuffed Moblins, Skyward Sword-style. It might seem simple for the first few missions, but once multiple threats start to appear, you'll need to start communicating to get through without losing your own fluffy innards. Where the Competitive options might stay simple, the Team attractions are seemingly here to show how fuller, complex games could utilise the Wii U's various abilities. Each collaborative game highlights a different style - shooter, on-rails fighter, and action RPG - and polishes it down to a shiny pure gem of an idea.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the solo attractions. This is where the collection stumbles, because where the multiplayer attractions showcase how to use the Wii U to make games, many of the solitary events simply show off singular features or ideas that don't necessarily translate to intriguing play. The prime culprit is Octopus Dance, a tedious memory-based rhythm action game that involves using a mixture of analogue sticks and the GamePad's gyroscopes to replicate moves onscreen. It's only innovation is to show different viewpoints on the TV and GamePad screens, a nice enough idea but one that never makes you care about what you're actually having to do. Alongside it are Captain Falcon's Twister Race, the F-Zero themed time attack game, replacing stick steering with GamePad tilting, Takamura's Ninja Castle, the token touchscreen-only game, using the pad to chuck shuriken at increasing cost to your fingertips, and Balloon Trip Breeze, which, while undoubtedly pretty, simply boils down to an obstacle course that uses the stylus as its control scheme.
The saving graces for this section are Donkey Kong's Crash Course and Yoshi's Fruit Cart. The former, while yet another tilt-based affair, is just a classically great game of speed versus caution. Seeing you taking the form of a rickety trolley, playing is a case of getting from one end of the Meccano-like course to the other, battling mechanical elements, obstacles and your own building rage as you go.
Fruit Cart is the only solo game that manages to create a truly asymmetric experience for one person. On your TV, you'll see your fruit-based goals and an exit door. On your GamePad, all you can see is the door. Using the stylus, you need to trace a route from the starting point, estimating how to grab all the fruit and get to the door without running out of fuel. It's amazingly strssful watching the cart follow your half-guessed path, and brilliant when you get it just right. Despite these best efforts, these games can't match even the slower moments of the multiplayer games. Excuse the obvious simile, but the solo attractions are rather like getting in the single rider queue at a theme park; while you can skip the queue of gathering friends and controllers to play, the ride just isn't as much fun alone.
It's a stroke of brilliance then, that Nintendo figured out a way to make even the poorest elements of the game part of its greatest strength - multiplayer. Every proper theme park has its own mini transit system - Disneyland has a train, Sea World has a monorail, and Nintendo Land has the Attraction Tour Train. Acting as what's essentially a Tournament Mode, getting on the train (found circling around the game's hub menu system) enables you to organise a timed competition between up to five players, which then chooses a mix of events in which to compete. Solo attractions are included as score attack modes where the GamePad is passed around, transforming even Octopus Dance into an at least passable multiplayer experience. It's wonderful.
The hub itself is another beautiful touch. What might have been simple menu is transformed into a busy little playground. If you have your Wii U connected to the Internet, the Miis wandering around will actually be other players (whose in-game stats you can check and gloat at) and the giant structure in the centre is a playable Pachinko machine in which you use coins earned in all other games to win trophies, statues and even songs for a usable jukebox that then litter the hub itself.
Everything seems to come out of a sense of that peculiar magic, the tiny imperceptible touches that have always pervaded Nintendo's best titles. It's a wonder manifested best in the hidden scale of the game. It's not exactly slim at first glance, but in our time with it, Nintendo Land started revealing whole new aspects you're not told about from the outset. I don't want to spoil anything, but I'll say that we found a special move for the ghost in Luigi's Ghost Mansion, that a second player with a MotionPlus controller can help or hinder in some of the Solo attractions and, most impressively, that finishing many of the games certainly does not mean you've completed them - there's often more to them than meets the eye.
And that's the very crux of Nintendo Land. There's so much more here than the stigma-laced term "minigame collection" might imply, you just have to put the time and effort into getting it. We won't pretend that Nintendo Land is anywhere near as good by yourself as it is with friends, but playing it with four or five people is exactly how it was meant to be experienced, so it seems a little unfair to mark it down too much for that fact. Perhaps the greatest compliment we can pay Nintendo Land is that you certainly don't need to play it with other people, but you'll absolutely, unquestionably want to. Nintendo might have begun to embrace the online world, but this is a clarion call for local multiplayer - you won't be able to play like this anywhere else.