Review: Game & Wario (Wii U)

Wario party

Going back a few years, it was something of a tradition for Nintendo to launch a new platform with a WarioWare title in hot pursuit. Charming bundles of micro-games that packed as much personality and gameplay as possible into seconds-long chunks, and perfect for demonstrating the unique capabilities of new hardware, the WarioWare games have always been popular with fans due to their off-the-wall, lightning-fast approach and humour that more often than not leans towards the gross, ridiculous or plain old malevolent.

However, the trend was broken when it came to the dawn of the 3DS's first day, and while Wario makes his return on Wii U with Game & Wario, it's not from quite the same stable as other WarioWare titles – hence the change in name. Instead, Game & Wario is a collection of 16 single- and multiplayer mini-games that set out to prove the potential of the Wii U GamePad in numerous different ways. Each game is played solely with a single GamePad – there's not a Wii Remote in sight here.

Does it manage to pull it off? Well, yes and no. When Game & Wario's better games strike, they absolutely sell their concepts and take advantage of Wii U in convincing – and often hilarious – fashion. But the effect is dampened by several not-quite-so-special efforts that, by contrast, do little to show off Wii U's unique appeal and, at worst, come across as derivative and uninteresting.

Take Kung Fu, for instance. You join Young Cricket as he attempts to hop over a series of chasms towards Master Mantis, leaping up to snatch buns as he goes. With an overhead view on the GamePad and a camera planted behind Cricket on the television, you tilt the GamePad forwards, backwards, left and right to control your jumps. If you want to move a decent distance, you flick the pad far forward; if you require more accuracy, use smaller movements to bounce along. There's nothing particularly wrong with it, but it feels like it's all been done before on mobile devices.

Similarly, Ashley's sickly-sweet confectionary-based horizontal shooter displays nothing new, outside of a fun little loop-de-loop mechanic to grab precious candy. Holding the GamePad up towards the screen, you swivel the controller like a steering wheel to direct Ashley up and down, while the handheld screen displays a zoomed in view of her face. If you get hit too much you have to tap her repeatedly to calm her down before you can carry on. It doesn't exactly scream “this is only possible on Wii U!”

But then you encounter Camera. Pirate. The multiplayer games. There are six or seven distractions in Game & Wario that do a fantastic job of reminding you that the Wii U does have a great, varied feature set, that there are possibilities for experiences here that aren't so readily available elsewhere. Some of these games could be emulated on other platforms, but most likely not with the same feel.

Mona's latest photography adventure, Camera, gives you five targets, and the idea is to get as clear a snapshot of them as possible: eyes open, face on, filling the viewfinder. The TV is home to a view of the whole area, while the GamePad – your camera, naturally – offers only a small window into the action. You hold the GamePad up to the primary display and scan around for your subjects, and only when they're in shot on the controller screen can you photograph them. With a limited view on the GamePad, you've got to constantly look between the TV and controller to coordinate your efforts.

Pirate will be familiar to anybody who saw the Shield Pose demonstration a couple of E3s ago. Captain Wario's minions shoot arrows at you from four directions – centre, left, right and overhead – and you have to block them by moving the GamePad into the appropriate positions in time to the rhythm, before flicking the arrows off with a downward swipe and preparing for the next volley. It's a really fun way to show off the controller, giving the impression that the game world expands beyond the television to surround you – shifting the pad around shows off more of the seven seas than you can see on the main screen. Each round ends with an insane dance segment, in which Wario encourages you to match his moves – a series of increasingly dodgy arm stretches, squats, bounces and thrusts.

One of the stand outs arises when Wario steps back over towards the Ware side of town. Gamer features naughty 9-Volt fiddling with his handheld games console in bed, despite being ordered to sleep by his mother. You play WarioWare-style micro-games on the GamePad screen, but at the same time you have to keep one eye and ear on the television; 9-Volt's mum is on the prowl, and if she catches him awake – or you fail too many micro-games – you lose. You have to quickly hold ZL and ZR to hide beneath the bed sheets whenever you hear or see the concerned parent approaching – but ducking under when it's not necessary saps your energy, which can lead to you falling asleep instead. It's a brilliant concept that turns the micro-game idea on its head, keeps you on edge and gets genuinely stressful in later stages, particularly when things get creepier and mum starts paying tribute to The Ring by clambering out of 9-Volt's TV. If you want to play the WarioWare games alone, there's an 18-Volt alternative without any of the added pressure.

The multiplayer-focused side of the package is particularly strong. There's Islands, which is reminiscent of a board game; players pass the GamePad around and take it in turns to flick Fronks onto a target, aiming to land the critters in high scoring zones – though you can also try to knock other players' creatures off the board and hit buttons for point multipliers. In Disco, two players sit on either side of the GamePad and tap out rhythms at each other in turn, the winner being the one that can most accurately match the other's beats.

Fruit puts the GamePad player into the role of a vitamin C-loving thief as they try to blend in among crowds of AI characters and steal fruit without being spotted. Other players watch the television and try to work out who the robber is – watching who's hanging about when an apple disappears, for example. At the end of the game, when all the pieces of fruit have been taken, the GamePad is passed to the spectators one by one so that they can guess the culprit. It's surprisingly tough to work out who the criminal is, as with little effort players can imitate the CPU-controlled characters; anything they can do, the player can do. TV watchers get a little help, though: every 30 seconds the game pauses and highlights the general area that the player is currently in, and there's also a very brief indicator on the thief whenever they snatch one of the snacks up.

Artwork is essentially Pictionary: all competing players take a photo of themselves and then take turns with the GamePad, drawing against the clock while the others look to the television and try to guess what's being sketched. If a player guesses correctly, the GamePad holder taps a button and identifies the person who called out the right answer. Once everybody's had a go, the winner is the person with the highest score: typically the one who scribbled the most drawings that were guessed correctly and called out the most answers. It's followed by a hysterical slideshow of the round's 'art' – and naturally, being a Wario title, the suggestions for drawings aren't necessarily what you would find in your standard game of Pictionary.

It's just a shame that the whole package doesn't match up to these high points. Other games lie somewhere in between the great and the grotty: on their own merits they're pretty decent, but they lack magic and don't really show why anybody should rush out to buy a Wii U. Design is smart; after challenging players to draw lines and shapes of certain lengths, angles and diameters off the cuff, it uses some clever wizardry to determine how accurate the sketches are. Taxi's a fun enough driving / shooting game in which you pick up passengers and blow up UFOs; it shows an overhead map on the television and a first person view point on GamePad, but it's most likely that you'll just keep your eyes on the controller screen and ignore the rest.

Patchwork is a fine little puzzle game in which you slot pieces of fabric onto a board to make objects. It's a touch screen demo more than anything else, though, albeit one with a lot of content; there are dozens of puzzles to complete. In Arrow you hold the GamePad vertically — it houses a nose-shaped bow and arrow, used to shoot down approaching enemies on the television by aiming with motion and shooting arrows with a drag on the touch screen.

Bowling and Ski similarly use a vertically-held GamePad. The former is a fairly unremarkable take on the sport in which you swipe the ball towards pins before applying aftertouch with tilt. Ski fairs worse as the least satisfying of the bunch – with a 3D view on the TV, top down angle on a vertically-held GamePad and tilt controls, it feels like a poor man's version of Nintendo Land's Captain Falcon's Twister Race. Rounding out the collection is Bird – another take on the popular Pyoro mini-game that's appeared in many-a WarioWare, delivered in a couple of fun art styles that we'll leave you to discover for yourselves.

Each game does switch its style up as you play more; there are extra levels which completely change scenarios and become more difficult: whereas Camera starts off with static levels, by the end it's scrolling around, making those special shots even more difficult to capture. Fruit moves from a relatively straightforward city into a darkened museum, forcing players to pick out the thief by peering at silhouettes.

These alterations add quite a lot of replayability to Game & Wario, but we'd say that it's not a game you're going to play for a long time if you're going solo – despite its single controller focus and the single player games outweighing the multiplayer, this is a game to experience in a crowd. The four multiplayer titles are obviously the first port of call, but several of the single player attractions have a passive spectator appeal and so could easily be played with more people – having people help scout about in Camera, for example.

Wario has never looked quite so good as in high definition, with crisp, chunky cartoon visuals on display much of the time, mixed in with 3D interpretations of the characters, photographs and bizarrely-styled drawings. As ever, Nintendo stitches together the mish-mash of contrasting styles well, and it's peppered with funny little details; eagle-eyed readers might spot some characters from the Rhythm Heaven series slipping into Wario's territory. It fares well on the sound side as well, with a few hummable head-nodders and plenty of cheeky sound effects soundtracking the action. We also have to give a special mention to the lovely credits sequence — it's one of the most interesting we've ever seen.

As is standard in the WarioWare series, there are also tons of unlockables to grab, from the ludicrous to the completely pointless – several of the ones we've got like to play funny tricks with the GamePad's camera. They're bought from a capsule machine with tokens earned by playing the main games, and charmingly they're delivered via a chicken's bottom. Also, there's built-in Miiverse functionality based around the Artwork game; players suggest words for others to draw in a time limit, which are then uploaded to the Game & Wario community. Unfortunately we've not been able to test this, as the community isn't live on the European Miiverse yet, but if the multiplayer game is anything to go by it's going to be a fun addition.

Conclusion

Game & Wario doesn't do quite as much with Wii U as we'd hoped, with several of the games included doing little to showcase the hardware's unique functions. However, there are some games that shine and do a fantastic job of differentiating the console from the rest of the market, demonstrating ways to play that aren't possible on other systems. Despite the number of single player games indicating otherwise, Game & Wario isn't at its best when played alone — with multiple willing participants it's a hoot and, while it doesn't match up to Nintendo Land as Wii U's premier multiplayer experience, it certainly has its share of games that you're going to want to play again and again.

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