It's no secret that Nintendo has struggled with getting the word out about the Wii U. Unclear branding and messaging — not to mention a lack of consumer awareness and hard-hitting software in the first half of 2013 — have resulted in a lot of confusion and missed opportunities. More importantly, the company itself has even admitted that it hasn't had the games it needs to help set the system apart from the competition. It desperately needs something to clearly and effectively explain to the masses just what the Wii U is, even if it is painfully obvious to those of us who've played it.
This is where Wii Party U comes in. It's true that the party game genre has been dragged through the mud in recent years, no doubt thanks to the unending deluge of low-quality, waggle-fest mini-game compilations which spilled on to Wii during its prime. However, party games have always been much more versatile than traditional games when it comes to making the most of a system's hardware features; disjointed and individual mini-games mean that the developer isn't limited by other factors such as narrative and can focus on lots of unique ideas that don't necessarily have to make sense in the context of the game's world and setting. In this regard, Wii Party U is a veritable showcase of the Wii U difference. Nintendo has taken the system's unique features and worked them into a range of simple, easy-to-understand and — most importantly — entertaining mini-games and activities. It's not perfect, but if there's one game that the company should be waving in front of the casual audience right now, it's this.
What sets Wii Party U apart from most mini-game compilations is that it offers an incredible variety of activities to enjoy. Not only that, but it also goes beyond the mere waggling that was far too commonplace in budget Wii titles. In this sense, it's very much like Nintendo Land, except for the fact that its mini-games tend to be simpler and there are far more of them. In fact, it's quite astonishing just how much content there is and the game does a fantastic job of catering for a number of different situations and moods.
The game provides three main categories to choose from: TV Party, House Party and GamePad Party, and players can choose from a number of activities and mini-games within each one. Everything is delightfully presented using those ever-popular Miis, and while the visuals aren't especially detailed, the game does exude a lot of charm. Your Mii expresses a whole range of emotions during play and even dresses up in some rather adorable costumes along the way. Most importantly, the menus are extremely clear, adopting a similar layout and structure to Mario Party 9 — in fact, some menus look near enough identical. Instructions are always clearly conveyed, with the game frequently providing demonstrations for added clarity.
The TV Party mode is the core of the game and provides a traditional party game experience similar to the Mario Party series, in which players compete in board games and mini-games. The key difference here though is that Wii Party U offers a lot more variety when it comes to its board games. For example, in Highway Rollers it's a race to the finish where high dice rolls are the key to success. Mini-games feature heavily in this mode, essentially determining how many dice players get to roll per turn. However, it's almost the complete opposite in Mii Fashion Plaza. In this mode you spend each trip around the board trying to collect pieces to complete a costume, which you then show off at the end of your circuit. Here, Mini-games take a back seat to the action, with the emphasis being placed instead on strategic choices and dice rolls. The variations between boards helps to keep things feeling fresher for longer, and adds a surprising amount of depth. Single players are also covered, with most of TV Party modes allowing you to go it alone against CPU players, although the AI is perhaps a little too simple.
It's within TV Party that you'll find most of the standard mini-games, the majority of which tend to use just the Wii Remote. There's a good range on offer here, although nothing revolutionary by any means. Shooting down UFOs, riding animals to the finish line and whacking each other with mallets has all been done before, but it's still good, silly fun. Experienced gamers may, however, be put off by how simplistic some of the mini-games are; quite a few of them amount to little more than button-bashing and are over in less than ten seconds. It's very clear that this game has been designed with everyone — even your Grandma — in mind.
Sadly though, Nintendo has gone a tad overboard in ensuring that everyone feels included by rubber-banding the experience and removing the need for geniune skill. Some of the mini-games are entirely chance-based and amount to little more than pressing a button and praying to the Gods that you're not struck down to last place. This deliberate balancing act ruins what could have been some great mini-games. For example, in Run for the Sun, your Mii dons a Superman-esque suit and flies through space, dodging incoming meteors. However, instead of the game letting you swerve out of the way at the last minute or barge an opponent into a nice chunk of rock, what you actually do is just select a flight path and find out a few seconds later if you got hit or not. It's something of a pointless exercise, and a victory feels quite shallow if you just win through chance. Thankfully, you can rate mini-games using the power of the internet, and warn other players which games are truly duds.
While TV Party serves up the bulk of the Wii Party U experience, it's the House Party mode that makes the most of the Wii U GamePad's unique features, and there are many superb examples within this category. In Lost-and-Found Square — a particular favourite of ours — up to three players must search a busy area filled with look-alikes of another player who is "lost". The separated player uses the GamePad to look at their surroundings and describe what they see to the other players in the hope that it will help them be found. Other mini-games borrow ideas from elsewhere; Button Battle is essentially a finger-based version of Twister and Sketchy Situation is a drawing game that feels reminiscent of Pictionary. If there's one thing that the House Party games truly succeed at, it's providing experiences that simply can't be done on other systems. It's novel, but never gimmicky, and we only wish that there was a bigger selection of games on offer.
And incredibly, there's even more content to be found in Wii Party U than what we've already covered. The third major feature in the game's already impressive line-up is the GamePad Party mode, which if you hadn't guessed, revolves exclusively around the GamePad controller. The mini-game ideas found in this mode hark back to the concepts that Nintendo showed off when it first unveiled the Wii U at E3 2011. In these two-player games, each competitor takes one side of the controller and primarily use their respective joystick or shoulder button to control the on-screen action.
These are fun little side attractions that certainly make the most of the features on offer. Nevertheless, they're quite basic; in Tabletop Football, the joystick moves all of your players at the same time (because it's the only way you can play), which makes sense, but naturally this means it lacks a great deal of control compared to the real experience. Otherwise, the selection on offer here is quite slim, and we can't help but think that the lack of a multi-touch screen had a limiting effect in this regard. Nevertheless, it's odd that the buttons and D-Pad weren't also consider for use; the symmetrical layout, for example, could have provided some entertaining top-down or side-scrolling platforming mini-games.
Stuffed to the brim with content, Wii Party U is a shining example of the Wii U difference. Many of the mini-games on offer really push the unique features of the system to create novel yet highly entertaining experiences that can't be found elsewhere. While the TV Party mode mostly contains traditional mini-game examples that tend to place the emphasis on the Wii Remote rather than the Wii U GamePad, the choice on offer is staggering.
It's not perfect, however; some of the mini-games rely a little too much on chance and the rather limited GamePad Party mode detracts from the experience somewhat. These minor points aside, Wii Party U is an impressive and innovative showcase of what the Wii U can do, and serves as one of the most effective demonstrations of the console's unique hardware that we've seen so far.