Heading towards the festive period I often revisit older games, favourites that have perhaps been untouched for a year or two. That's certainly the case this year, where relatively few recent blockbusters (on any platform) have been tempting enough to make me part from my cash. There's also a bit of premature nostalgia at play, as I'm giving the Wii U a bit of time; after all, it'll be all about the Nintendo Switch as the big N's next 'home gaming system' when 2017 rolls around.
On top of this, a certain genre has grabbed my attention yet again. The Wii U has a broad range of excellent games in its back catalogue, but I've found myself drifting towards 2D platformers. For one thing, I'm rediscovering them and starting from scratch after a certain incident with my hard drive and save data, and it's also the sort of gameplay that's been on my mind. As an Android user I'm yet to even try Super Mario Run, even on anyone else's iPhone / iPad, and my goofy article on alternatives via Google Play didn't fill the gap. On top of that I was bemused to see recent news that the old NES Mega Man titles are coming to smart devices; surely they'll be fundamentally unplayable without using an external controller.
In any case, I've felt a desire to play top-notch platformers with good old-fashioned physical controls. Though tempted to go retro with the NES Mini, four Wii U games have jumped to the top of my list. The passing of time may have seen these drift off a lot of player's radars, so as a simple editorial for today I thought I'd talk them up and explain why, ultimately, they should be experienced by any Wii U owner who loves the platforming genre.
I think this was the second Wii U game I ever played; having gone to a midnight launch I dutifully waited for the day one system update, then Nintendo Land updated, and then I played the pack-in title with my family. It didn't take long to get to New Super Mario Bros. U after that; it was a strange game. On the one hand it wasn't hugely different to New Super Mario Bros. Wii visually, or so it seemed at the time aside from a simple HD overcoat. It also played pretty much the same, too, and that led to some being rather down on it, as they felt it didn't evolve the series enough.
There are fair arguments for that, but I still reckon it's the best of the 'New' series games, and a darn good 2D Mario overall. There are some smart level designs that raise a smile, and the quality of the craft is clear to see. After the quirky diversion of courses in Super Mario Maker, going back to NSMBU has felt like putting on a rather comfortable pair of shoes.
It controls beautifully, for one thing, with Mario following commands with attentiveness and athleticism. The precision is fantastic, and the stages can be dashed through with a real sense of flow and momentum; on the flipside, searching for secrets and large coins becomes important in the late-game. I've not found the playthrough particularly challenging, with familiarity playing a part, but I think the progression of stage design and themes is beautifully handled in what will always be the first HD Mario game.
I also want to mention New Super Luigi U, which is included in the current Nintendo Selects version of the game. I haven't started replaying this yet, but I remember enjoying it when reviewing it. Luigi's flutter jump in this DLC is a bit of a game-changer, while the short and frantic stages are like a formal precursor to the mayhem in Super Mario Maker.
A case can be made for Rayman Legends to be the finest 2D platformer of this generation, and it's certainly right up there in the conversation for me. Michel Ancel and his team did an extraordinary job in expanding upon the brilliant Rayman Origins, while it's also a visual tour de force.
I had a mixed opinion of Origins, to be honest; I could appreciate its quality, while admiring the mechanics and elaborate stages. Despite that I felt the level design fell slightly short, often demanding fussy exploration that disrupted the flow. Legends fixes a lot of this in my opinion - when the tempo drops it does so smoothly, bringing you with it. Combining the improved physics and controls with the UbiArt engine at its best, Legends is a fantastic experience.
My plan is to play in co-op, though, as I still believe the solo Murfy levels are a mis-step on Wii U. They force you onto the GamePad touchscreen while AI controls the main character; these controlled characters amble along without a care in the world while you dutifully flick switches and so on. I've had some interesting discussions about the merits of these GamePad levels over the year, and I agree they work wonderfully in co-op. I still argue they're naff when playing solo, though.
That aside, though, this game is a true gem. Amazing visuals, outstanding music, and shining creativity throughout. Rayman also offers a very distinct style, with his clambering up ledges, punches and kicks. It's a very different feel to a Nintendo platformer, providing an excellent change of pace.
I'm looking forward to trying this on 3DS, but I struggle to see how it can match the experience (to use Reggie Fils Aime's favourite word) on Wii U. Though I like Kirby's Epic Yarn, I think Good-Feel went up a notch with this title, taking the best of the Yoshi franchise mechanics and blending them seamlessly with the woollen premise.
Oddly, after my yabbering on about 'flow' in relation to why Legends is better than Origins in the Rayman series, I should recognise that Yoshi's Woolly World is all about taking your time and exploring every nook and cranny. In my defence, I think quicker action and gameplay suits the Rayman mechanics better, whereas Yoshi's moveset (and the concept of this game) perfectly suit laidback exploration. Finding all of the flowers, yarn and Miiverse stamps in each stage takes plenty of time, and it's perfect for unwinding.
There are some up-tempo moments, such as transformation areas (where Yoshi becomes a bike, giant Yoshi and so on) along with a few levels that fling you around - bringing to mind the Donkey Kong Country Returns games. Yet a lot of the time you'll find yourself looking for secrets, watching for signs of hidden walls.
All the while the woollen floor subtly moves under Yoshi's feet, and the cuteness overwhelms you. I find it impossible to remain in a sour mood when I play this game.
Finally, we have the Retro Studios contribution to the Wii U generation, and what a terrific effort it is. Oddly, this was a game that gave early signs of the GamePad being more a nuisance than innovation to Nintendo's teams (it's only used for off-TV and goes blank otherwise). This game focused on iteration, expanding upon its Wii predecessor in smart ways - there's HD fur, too.
This finds a happy medium, perhaps, between the slow and steady exploration of Yoshi's Woolly World and the up-tempo nature that NSMBU and Rayman Legends encourage; you still seek out hidden secrets, but you also swing and clamber through stages at a fair clip. Often platforms and environments fall away under DK's feet, and clinging on for survival becomes part of the challenge. Additional playable characters also shake up the approach to certain challenges, but some things stay the same - mine cart levels are still fun, though add twists, while rocket levels continue to entertain.
It's a gorgeous game, too, and like some of the best Wii U titles it still stacks up well by 2016 standards. Often this happens in highly stylised games, which the latter three in this list certainly are - the cartoonish look delivers on Nintendo's system. The capabilities of Wii U go beyond bright visuals in this one, too, as Retro Studios shows off some dynamic camera angles and effects to add a little extra spice. The audio's fantastic too, with David Wise contributing memorable tracks.
These are all platformers I'm revisiting at the moment, which all landed between 2012 and 2015. The anarchy of Super Mario Maker may have its appeal, but I still love playing carefully constructed and structured 2D platformers. The teams behind these games found the right balance between sensible design and moments of surprising creativity. They're all very different from one another, too, each ideal for a particular mood. New Super Mario Bros. U gives me my Mario fix, Rayman Legends delivers a bit of anarchy, Yoshi's Woolly World is delightfully cute, and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze brings weighty clambering and swinging into the genre.
With so many disappointments around the fate that's befallen Wii U, one thing is tough to be down on - it has fantastic games, especially for platformer fans.