Nintendo Land is lots of fun. In some ways it's exactly the kind of fun you had when you played Wii Sports for the first time, regularly erupting into laughter and occasional curses when things don't go your way. It didn't look much on stage at E3, but Nintendo's right to put its faith in the game's ability to communicate what makes Wii U different: to play Nintendo Land with other people is to enjoy yourself immensely.
Leaping right into the game's multiplayer side we signed up for Animal Crossing: Sweet Day. Here, the GamePad users controls police pooches Copper and Booker — carrying a knife and fork respectively — who must chase after four Miis dressed as AC characters (Tangy, Lily, Peanut and what looks like Axel). The four players have to work together to collect 50 pieces of candy, released by shaking trees, but if the dogs make three 'arrests' it's all over.
Like all great multiplayer games, it's immediately straightforward but deceptively tactical. The biggest hauls of candy require three players to stand in the same spot for a few seconds, giving the dogs chance to close in, so smart teams will leave the sweets on the floor to collect later. The more each player eats the slower they go, so a rogue gobbler will be an easy target.
Matches can be over in seconds if the animals don't work together, or last for ages if they're smart (or the GamePad player is clueless). It all feels sharp and astutely honed; the competition is delicately balanced, and full of tense narrow escapes as the dogs fling themselves at nearby runners or a big-headed elephant drops its hard-won stash to flee from a dog with a giant fork.
There's more head-to-asymmetric-head in Luigi's Ghost Mansion. You've probably already had your fill of this after Nintendo laboured its reveal during E3, but after playing it we realised it was worth the stage time. On the surface it's hide and seek, but underneath it's a mischievous test of teamwork and psyching-out your competitors.
The GamePad user controls a ghost who must drag away four ghost hunters; the four frightened friends have to track down the ghost and shine their torches to damage it. The win conditions are simple, but it's more cut-and-thrust and far more tense than we'd expected.
The ghost's invisible, but when the spirit nears a player their Wii Remote will vibrate; slowly at first, then building strength as it gets closer and closer. Smart teams will use these indications to close in on the ghost, but the map's smartly designed and unless everyone works together a smart spook will be able to escape.
If the ghoul does grab a Mii and make it faint, other players can revive them by shining their torches on him or her, but this puts them at risk. Again, clever teams will place people on watch, while the ghost can try to lure them away by hovering just close enough to tempt them from their post. The vibrations also work through walls, so the ghost can use these for protection instead of putting itself in the line of fire.
Like Sweet Day, Luigi's Ghost Mansion is a simple concept that's easy to grasp but offers subtle depths. By our second game we were shouting commands at our team mates (whom we'd just met) and cursing them for taking the precious batteries, all while the ghost tried to psyche us out with sneaky runs and hints of its location. It's perfectly pitched, bouncing from tense silence to chaotic outbursts of laughter and yelped orders.
Nintendo Land isn't all competition, though; there's also collaboration in The Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest. Here the GamePad player fires arrows while three others use Wii Remote Plus controllers to swing their swords, with some enemies only succumbing to The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword-style directional slashing.
The GamePad player launches arrows using the controller's right analogue stick — no need for touch screen here — building more power the longer you hold down the stick. The motion control is impeccable, letting you loose accurate shots with little effort and playable in either portrait or landscape, depending on your preference. This being Zelda there are times you'll need to work together to activate switches to open areas, but the level we played was more about waves of enemies than putting puzzles in your way. A communal stash of six hearts depletes whenever any player takes damage but can be replenished by taking down special enemies: a cucco flies overhead at one point, requiring a keen eye and steady aim from your archer.
Of the multiplayer games so far, Battle Quest feels like it belongs the most to Nintendo Land's pitch as a Nintendo theme park; whether it's the on-rails movement or feeling of all working together, it's all about action on the path to the boss (a giant clothy Bokoblin, of course). It's jubilant and empowering: you'll hold your blade aloft not just to activate its Skyward Strike, but because it's fun to charge at its hordes of stitched-together enemies with your sword in the air. Battle cries are encouraged.
Nintendo Land wants to communicate Wii U's asymmetric concept for fans of multiplayer, and the three games we've played did that expertly. They don't need lengthy explanations, and while they may not have the immediate appeal of motion-controlled sports, they're certainly simple enough to be inviting for gamers and non-gamers alike.
Forget its underwhelming debut: Nintendo Land looks like being the real deal.