Nintendo Land has a lot to live up to. Not only does its name invoke a fantastic, imaginary kingdom many of us would happily sail to sight-unseen, it's also the game poised to provide proof of the Wii U's concept, as Wii Sports did for the Wii back in 2006. And like Wii Sports before it, if you've picked up a Deluxe Wii U it's already in the box. The similarities end there, however; this is a very different game for a very different system.
Is Nintendo Land worth the trip even if you're sticking with the Basic Wii U? Absolutely. Not because it shows off the Wii U's GamePad - though it does that very well - but because it's a joy to play, mixing a collection of wonderful, varied games with a generous helping of Nintendo fan service, all presented with a level of polish and charm that only Kyoto's finest could provide.
Nintendo Land bills itself as a virtual theme park, and at its heart is a collection of 12 attractions modelled on classic Nintendo games and franchises. Each one has been re-imagined in a distinctive visual style, and your Mii characters dress up in endearing costumes to look the part. These games fall into three categories: cooperative, competitive, and single-player experiences. The three co-op games are Nintendo Land's biggest hitters, and illustrate exactly why Nintendo calls them "attractions" rather than "mini-games". Each could stand on its own as an enjoyable eShop release, and they're all massively fun with a group of friends.
First up is The Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest, which sees a GamePad-wielding archer and up to four Wii Remote swashbucklers charging into battle against hordes of felted foes over nine levels. Flinging arrows as the archer by pulling back the right analogue stick feels great, and it really is incredible to physically rotate your GamePad view to cover your comrades from all angles. Foot soldiers, meanwhile, will take out enemies with classic Motion Plus swordplay on rails, with plenty of dodging and precision slashes involved. Revisiting familiar Zelda scenes as a team is a thrill, and the challenge ramps up quickly enough that it feels like a true quest.
Less demanding but just as fun, Pikmin Adventure is a surprisingly robust romp through a mechanical jungle of 16 levels. The GamePad player controls Olimar and flings Pikmin on the touch screen, while the Wii Remote players get the chance to be one of the brave bulbed warriors directly. With levelling up, power-ups, boss fights, and plenty of secrets to find, Nintendo Land's pseudo-Pikmin title packs quite a punch. It's just as much fun to be a Pikmin as it is to play Olimar, though the GamePad player does have the ability to gather their minions (including player-controlled Pikmin) with a blow of the whistle; whether you spam that power or use it to save a friend in need is up to you. And if the competitive spirit truly grabs you, there's even a frantic versus mode that puts one Olimar and up to four Pikmin in a tightly enclosed free-for-all match to collect the most nectar, by bashing it out of friends and foes alike. Watching a rogue Pikmin pounding Olimar with its petals is something you're unlikely to witness outside of Nintendo Land, and it's great frenzied fun.
The final co-op attraction, Metroid Blast, is an arena-based 3rd-person space shooter that lets up to four Samus characters take out enemies from the ground as one lucky player gets to rain down death from above, piloting Samus' ship with the GamePad. It's a complicated control scheme, taking advantage of both analogue sticks and the gyroscope, but once mastered it feels great. The ground troops can grapple-hook onto Samus' ship to be whisked to safety or just used as a living turret, and making it through the 20-stage campaign requires plenty of communication (and cover fire!) between both parties. Like Pikmin Adventure, if you've had enough camaraderie, Metroid Blast also features two competitive modes that let you and your friends duke it out. Surface to Air lets one player control the ship while four Samus Miis team up to take it down, and Ground Combat is a classic deathmatch for up to four players, all using the Wii Remote & Nunchuck combo. It's charming, simple shooting with style, and the slick neon environments are well designed with warp pads, lots of vertical space, and plenty of places to seek cover.
Next up are the three bona fide competitive games, all of which use the GamePad's asymmetrical multiplayer potential to present three very different versions of a perennial playground favourite: tag. Mario Chase is the simplest, and a great example of how absurdly fun such a basic concept can be. The GamePad player dons a Mario cap, and uses a full overhead map view to try and evade capture by the Wii Remote players' Toads. The Toads need to make up for their zoomed-in view by shouting out Mario sightings, and working together to cut the plumber off at the pass. It's a blast with friends, and Mario's blood pressure will absolutely skyrocket.
Animal Crossing: Sweet Day reverses these roles, and has the GamePad controlling two separate and adorable K-9 officers - one with each analogue stick - who try to nab the Wii Remote-controlled animals collecting candy in their comically enormous noggins. Sweet Day is simple, chaotic fun at its best, and hilariously disorienting for non-ambidextrous GamePad players.
Finally, Luigi's Ghost Mansion is a spooky reworking of the chase concept: a ghost, invisible on the TV but in full sight to its GamePad player, tries to take out up to four other players' Luigis by sneaking up on them. The ghostbusters can feel when the spirit is near with the Wii Remote's rumble, and can stun it with a flashlight if they find the ghost before it finds them. There're plenty of opportunities for mischief, and this game tends to be played in tense silence followed quickly by lots of real-world shrieks and laughter.
All three of the competitive games rely heavily on teamwork between the Wii Remote players, and that could easily have made these attractions unfairly one-sided with only two people. Instead, each game takes a unique approach to two-player, and the results are just as enjoyable and nearly as frantic as when playing with a full couch. Mario Chase provides a solitary Toad with two Yoshi Cart helpers that speed around the stage and announce any Mario sightings in their robotic tones, while Luigi's Ghost Mansion gives a lone Luigi three mechanical assistants who will spin in place when a ghost is near. Animal Crossing: Sweet Day changes the game entirely: instead of holding all the looted lollies in their enlarged head, the Wii Remote player tries to deposit a certain number of sweets in candy bowls placed throughout the stage.
For all its focus on multiplayer, perhaps the biggest surprise in Nintendo Land's attraction arsenal is the depth and variety of the single-player games. All the co-op games can be played alone (Pikmin works especially well for one) but there are also six specifically solo attractions, and each one is compelling in its own way.
Donkey Kong's Crash Course is a standout, with wonderfully addictive arcade gameplay that will have you searching for an insert-coin slot at the Continue screen. Players tilt the GamePad to guide a fragile cart through an intricate chalkboard maze filled with switches, pulleys, and a host of other interactive obstacles. The difficulty curve is deviously perfect, making for a satisfying challenge that's impossible to put down. Each failure comes with a charmingly animated splat and helpless snapping sound - you'd never guess so much personality could fit into a simplified mine cart.
The second cart-based attraction, Yoshi's Fruit Cart uses the Wii U's two screens to set up an interesting puzzle: drawing a path on the GamePad's touchscreen to guide Yoshi from point A to point B, you'll need to pick up fruit along the way that's only visible on the TV. It's more intuitive than it sounds, and makes for a nice change of pace from the more arcade-oriented attractions. It won't be everybody's basket of fruit, but players looking for a more methodical experience will definitely enjoy it.
Octopus Dance picks up the tempo with a Space Channel 5-like rhythm game that starts out deceptively simply: move an arm using each analogue stick to mimic the moves of your underwater dive/dance instructor in time with the music. The game continually piles on additional inputs and twists - such as ink obscuring your view on the Gamepad so that you'll need to look at the movements in mirror image on the TV - and by the end you'll be jumping, leaning, and waving to keep up.
Faster still is Captain Falcon's Twister Race, and while it isn't going to quell desires for a new F-Zero, it's still a unique little racer that puts the GamePad's gyroscope to good use. Players hold the GamePad vertically, twisting the track around in their hands as the Blue Falcon flies ever forward, occasionally glancing up at the TV when tunnels obscure the overhead view. It's a fun challenge, and it controls quite well, though the gorgeous view on the big screen does make the slot car perspective on the GamePad feel underwhelming by comparison.
One of Nintendo Land's sleeper hits, Takamaru's Ninja Castle, takes a relatively obscure Famicom gem and turns it into a beautiful, origami-themed shuriken-'em-up classic, complete with occasional swordplay and spectacular boss battles. Players hold the GamePad sideways and swipe stars off the touch screen towards the TV, and Okami-like gestures are used to set off bombs and activate a slow-motion mode. The GamePad is amazingly accurate for star-throwing, the atmosphere is fantastic, and it's quite a difficult game, so score-chasers will be coming back to this one often.
Saving the best for last, Balloon Trip Breeze is easily one of the most brilliantly realized attractions in the entire package. It's a modern update of Balloon Trip, the beloved side-scrolling "B-side" to Balloon Fight, and the touchscreen controls work so well with the game's naturally floaty flight that it's hard to imagine ever going back to fluttering button presses. Budding balloonists swipe anywhere on the GamePad's screen to create a breeze in that direction, guiding their Mii safely towards balloons, out of reach of ocean-dwelling predators, through impossibly dense fields of spikes, and onto the safe haven of each successive island. It's challenging and completely captivating, and one of Nintendo Land's finest musical tracks keeps this attraction aloft over many, many trips.
In true Nintendo Land spirit, all of the single-player outings include an optional "Assist Mode" role for a second player on a Wii Remote. There are bronze, silver, and gold trophies to earn for high scores in the solo games, and there's also a series of stamps to collect in each of the 12 attractions - badges of pride for things like gathering a certain number of rupees in Battle Quest, or narrowly escaping the fishy maw of death in Balloon Trip Breeze.
There's also an Attraction Train mode that will whisk you and your friends on a tour of the park's various games, letting you pick a difficulty level and how much time you have to play. It's perfect for a quick session, and having the game choose the attractions for you means you'll spend less time deciding and more time playing, especially in a large group.
Nintendo Land's attractions are accessed from a small central plaza, and while you can bypass it by bringing up an easy menu, there are a few very good reasons to take the scenic route. First, when you initially arrive, the plaza looks surprisingly bare - but it won't be for long. For nearly everything you do in Nintendo Land, you'll earn coins, which can be spent on a habit-forming pachinko game. Prizes include all manner of additions to liven up your park: a jukebox with unlockable music from the games, living statues of attraction elements, such as a giant Deku Tree or Bulborb, and switches with some surprise effects. The more you play, the more vibrant Nintendo Land becomes, and filling the game with souvenirs of your adventures is a fun and rewarding way to watch your progress.
The second - and most compelling - reason to explore Nintendo Land's plaza is its exciting Miiverse integration. Miis from all over will come to visit, and as you walk past them in the hub their latest thoughts will appear. You might see, for example, that Nina is having a blast playing Pikmin with her family, Abe needs help on the 3rd Night of Balloon Trip Breeze (any takers?), and Sarah's just drawn an insanely impressive sketch of Ness. You can "Yeah!" these posts and share your own thoughts right from Nintendo Land. Tapping any of the visiting Miis will show you that player's most played attraction, stamp count, and trophies earned in each game, along with a link to their Miiverse profile.
The Miiverse component goes beyond the central plaza, too. After you finish playing an attraction, comments from other users playing the same game will pop up on the Continue screen. It's a simple feature that adds so much to the experience, and makes Nintendo Land feel like a giant, friendly, internet arcade. When you splatter your chalk outline on Area 10 of Donkey Kong's Crash Course for the fifth time in a row, it's heartening to see that Jalal from Toronto is right there with you. By the same token, seeing that Alison from Utah just beat that same area is serious motivation to have another go at it yourself! Nintendo Land's Miiverse integration delivers on the promise to bring gamers together even when they're playing alone, and for all the creativity shown in its use of the GamePad, this might be its most innovative feature.
Taking visual cues from Kirby's Epic Yarn and Paper Mario, Nintendo Land plays with materials and textures to create a beautifully stylized world with the seams still showing. From the patchwork landscapes and button-eyed enemies of Battle Quest to the wind-up world of Pikmin Adventure, the imperfectly creased origami of Takamaru's Ninja Castle, and the billowy curtains of Balloon Trip Breeze, each attraction has its own unique feel, and it fits the theme park conceit perfectly. Everything looks absolutely glorious in HD - you'll want to reach out and touch the quilted ground in Animal Crossing: Sweet Day, and pause to admire the cool metal siding and neon sheen of a mechanical Kraid as you're firing away in Metroid Blast.
As you'd expect from a game based on Nintendo franchises, Nintendo Land's soundtrack is fantastic. Remixed versions of old favourites blend orchestral and synthesized instrumentation to invoke retro memories and a modern feel at the same time. You'll hear Saria's Song, Mute City, and plenty of other classics - longtime Nintendo fans will catch musical references constantly. There are a few new tunes as well, and the main Nintendo Land theme is a catchy jingle that's oddly reminiscent of a memorable melody from the musical South Pacific. If there's a misstep in Nintendo Land's audio presentation, it's the voice of your robotic guide, Monita. It's mechanical and relentlessly monotone, befitting a robot, perhaps - but not one who talks so often and teaches you all there is to know about Nintendo Land.
One final note is that to get the most out of Nintendo Land, you're going to need a decent collection of hardware: Wii Remote Plus controllers are required for Metroid Blast and Zelda: Battle Quest (though every other attraction is playable with a standard Wii Remote), and the Metroid game needs a Nunchuck for each ground player as well.
Nintendo Land is both a wonderful celebration of Nintendo's past and an exciting glimpse into its future, but more importantly it is incredibly, riotously fun. It's one of the best local multiplayer experiences ever crafted, and playing with friends is a guaranteed great time. There's also a surprising amount of depth to the single-player offerings, and Miiverse integration means you're never really on your own. It definitely taps into the nostalgia vein - and this is fan service par excellence - but it's also just pure entertainment. Nintendo Land will make you feel like a kid again. Welcome home.