The console's "missing manual" title, Nintendo Land, helps shepherd players through Nintendo's unexpected gambit with contemporary culture. Those expecting to find a light-hearted, group-play experience akin to Wii Sports will be disappointed, but won't be justified in their disappointment. The Wii U is not just an HD Wii -- not at all. It's a double agent for both the entertainment and technology industries, playing both sides against the middle. It's split-attention gaming.
Nintendo Land's Mario Chase offers the simplest introduction to this central principle of the Wii U. In this hide-and-seek game, one player pilots a Mario-capped Mii on the GamePad screen, while others control toad-hatted Miis on the television screen, via a split view, attempting to find Mario. It's a simple enough idea, and no description can make it sound compelling. But strangely, it is compelling.
The view on the GamePad is also divided. A top-down map covers most of the screen, and a zoomed-in 3D view shows only a small area around Mario's current location. The player being chased devotes most of his or her attention to the map, which also displays the locations of the other players in pursuit.
Occasional glances to the 3D view are required to delineate between different types of terrain and obstacles, and occasional glances at the television screen or the other players on the couch also offer fodder for tactical adjustment.
Likewise, the Wii remote players might be tempted to steal glances of the secret information on the GamePad screen, an interesting evolution of the private, sonic cues that were possible with a Wii remote.
These players can also benefit from collaborating through verbal interaction, which the Mario player can hear and respond to as well. If Wii Sports activated the physical space between the couch and the television, games like Mario Chase activate the conceptual space between the couch, the TV, and a third, private screen.
A similar feeling arises from New Super Mario Bros. U. On its surface, the title is just another Mario title, more or less identical in play experience to New Super Mario Bros. Wii. The earlier game had promised collaborative gameplay that would allow players of different skill levels to work together, but in practice three or four players mostly got in each others' way -- particularly if one of those players was considerably less adept at maneuvering a platform character than the others.
The Wii U rendition of Mario offers an out: one player can act as a kind of assistant, touching locations mirrored on the GamePad screen to create temporary platforms that the active players can use in a pinch. The result helps a younger, less experienced, or less interested player participate in the game in a more meaningful way, while offering true benefit to the rest of a group.
Nintendo has been experimenting with this second screen idea for some time, but it's never really worked out (remember the Tingle Tuner?). New Super Mario Bros. U finally makes good on the idea, and it does so at least partly because we're now more accustomed to splitting our attention between different devices in front of the television.
Nintendo Land's single-player games also re-orient the player's attention. In Captain Falcon's Twister Race, based on the F-Zero franchise, the player holds the GamePad in a vertical orientation and rotates it to steer the vehicle. The television provides the expected 3D view of the track, while the GamePad offers a top-down, 2D view of the play area.
Thanks to its vertical orientation, more of the track is visible on the GamePad. But due to its 2D, top-down rendering style, it's much more difficult to discern obstacles on the GamePad, so glances up to the television become advantageous. In some cases, they are required: tunnels sometimes obscure track boosts when viewed top-down on the GamePad, and the player must pilot on-screen in order to maintain enough speed to reach the next checkpoint.
The Zombie Console
The experience of Twister Race is fun and cheery on its surface, but strangely alienating in its experience. There you are, having spent $350 on a new Wii U with accelerated 3D HD graphics, having climbed behind your receiver to route and plug in yet another HDMI cable, and you're staring at a lousy 2D image of the track you're not looking at on your giant LCD television. What the hell is going on?
Ubisoft's Wii U launch title ZombiU helps answer the question. This is an M for Mature offering, a survival horror game with a permadeath feature meant to appeal to the core gamer audience Nintendo has supposedly ignored. During play, the GamePad displays a map of the player's immediate surroundings and an inventory. It's also used to perform certain in-game commands. Moving and rotating the GamePad allows the player to look around on the television screen, but this maneuver fixes the player's position and thus increases vulnerability.
A one-liner on ZombiU's box copy helpfully summarizes that title: "Feel the tension mount as you try to keep an eye on your TV and controller screen." This is more than just marketing copy for a single game: it's a thesis statement for the entire console. The Wii U is a system thrust into the uncomfortable gap between mobile devices and televisions. Just as zombies are neither living nor dead, so Wii U follows suit: today, entertainment in general and video games in particular are neither a televisual medium nor a mobile medium. They are not both, but they are not neither, either. They are something else, something uncanny, unsettling, out of place.
Nintendo Land is Nintendo like Tomorrowland is the Future
It's no secret that a large part of Nintendo's appeal comes from its long-running properties: Mario, Zelda, Metroid, Animal Crossing, Pikmin, and so on. The availability of New Super Mario Bros U at console launch satisfies some of that craving, but Nintendo fanpersons are an impatient and finicky bunch bound to flood the internet with demands for a new version of their favorite games.
Over the years, some of those titles have marked significant shifts in the genres they represent: 1996's Super Mario 64 set the standard conventions for the 3D action-adventure game, and 1986's The Legend of Zelda made an important advance in what would later be called "open world" games. But overall, Nintendo's most famous and successful titles don't offer innovation so much as repetition. In today's game design community, where innovation is often fetishized but infrequently defined, Nintendo gets a tacit pass. A new Mario game is a new Mario game. Who doesn't want to play it?
But Nintendo Land doesn't offer a new Legend of Zelda or Animal Crossing or F-Zero or Pikmin. It doesn't contain mini-games either, exactly, since many titles are longer and more complex than the name mini-game usually affords. Instead, Nintendo Land offers renditions of possible games that are neither expandable into legitimate titles nor contractible into smaller vignettes. They are not video games so much as they are representations of video games.
Weird as this characterization may sound, the average player won't notice it, because the entire game is housed within the fictional conceit of a theme park. Individual games can be selected by menu if desired, or the player can pilot a Mii around a circular park and choose a game by entering a bannered portal. Playing games earns coins, which the player can spend in a pachinko-like kiosk at the top of the park's central tower, yielding curious décor that fills out the park's empty surfaces.
Theme parks are venues for abstraction. When you ride Peter Pan in Disneyland, you get a quick narrative and physical experience of the story and the film, but you hardly feel immersed in the holodeck sense of the term. Theme park attractions don't have to persuade visitors that they are real, for those visitors have already agreed to suspend disbelief and to partake of one real, physical world as if it were another.
Likewise, the games in Nintendo Land are not really games, but abstractions of games, icons that stand in for games that are not really present. Just as Tomorrowland isn't really the future and Adventureland isn't really an adventure, so Nintendo Land isn't really a Nintendo game, so much as a game evocative of the sensation of Nintenditude.
The entire title is rendered in a felted or crocheted style reminiscent of LittleBigPlanet, further emphasizing its false yet deliberately crafted style. Just as riding a theme park attraction draws an uncomfortable yet pleasurable dissonance between a source work or idea and a vertiginous physical and audiovisual experience, so playing Nintendo Land offers a strange new view on Nintendo's catalog. It's a pretend Nintendo; it's Nintendo admitting to pretense.
In the West we often forget just how traditionally Japanese Nintendo really is. This aesthetic choice might be seen as sloppy or arrogant in the United States, a failure to make a coherent collection of titles that explain the purpose of the Wii U through methodical demonstration.
I take it as a gesture of humility. Nintendo is stepping back, acknowledging that things have changed. That it can no longer make assumptions about what games are or what they should be. And that its players shouldn't either. This gesture of humility is a serious and profound one, in that it also refuses to accept the game industry's standard assumptions about the present reality of games as mobile, social, and free-to-play. Instead, Nintendo presents a substantial, costly effort as its pack-in title, whose overall message amounts to, "we don't know either."