The Wii U always struck me as a console in the grips of an identity crisis. Nintendo wanted to attract a more mature audience without alienating its core all-ages consumer base, and splitting the difference resulted in a product that sold to neither. The Wii U’s early retail struggles weren’t entirely unexpected.
Fortunately, a lot can change in two years, and after sampling Nintendo’s holiday offerings at the post-E3 showcase in Toronto, things are definitely looking up. While Sony and Microsoft have spent the past six months awkwardly pawing at their next-gen consoles with non-committal ambivalence, Nintendo has used its lead-time to figure out what it wants to do with the Wii U. The growing pains are over. Unlike its rivals, Nintendo’s console finally has a sense of purpose.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the Wii U is poised for an immediate turnaround. Super Mario 3D World was touted as a system seller up until it wasn’t, and save for one notable exception, most of Nintendo’s lineup is still being developed in-house so the Wii U doesn’t have much in the way of aesthetic depth or variety.
It does, however, have some excellent first-party software in the pipeline, which ensures that new Wii U owners won’t be disappointed. It’s now a strict value-add to your home entertainment display (especially if you have kids), and that’s a major step in the right direction.
So what about the games? Glad you asked:
At a Sony or Microsoft preview – galas that typically take place in nightclub atmospheres with open bars and unnecessarily loud house music – Bayonetta 2 would be on full display with sex and gore splattered across multiple projection screens. At Nintendo’s preview, it was tucked away in the far corner, the corresponding television the only one that wasn’t facing the kid-oriented center of the room.
Bayonetta 2 is therefore emblematic of the Wii U’s lingering confusion. The game was announced at the Wii U’s launch, back when Nintendo was still hoping to poach Sony and Microsoft’s M-rated clientele. That effort has largely been abandoned. Nintendo’s demographic once again skews decidedly younger than Bayonetta, resulting in an unmistakably hardcore brawler that already feels like a relic. Nintendo seems to be hitting its stride with its usual family-friendly fare. If Bayonetta 2 underperforms the company may double down on Zelda and Mario.
That would be unfortunate, and not just because Bayonetta in a Princess Peach outfit is fittingly bizarre. Though the difficulty seems to have been scaled back just a hair, Bayonetta 2 plays like an extension of the first, with smoother controls and a shinier HD finish. If it lives up to that early promise, then it deserves to find an audience.
The most creative uses of Mario Maker will have little to do with Mario. Sure, Mario Maker is an exceptional design tool, an astonishingly accessible engine that will foster limitless expansions of the core platforming concept.
But it might be an even better instrument of anarchy. In an official Mario game, the goal is always to reach the end of the level. With Mario Maker, the metric for success can be any broken idea you desire.
Players will find that it’s a lot easier to make silly or memorable levels than it is to make fair ones. I accidentally crafted a stage with pathways that were too small to navigate. The person after me stuffed the first 20 tiles of his stage with approximately 142 hammer throwing turtles. No one could beat that level. But it was still delightfully entertaining in a way I’m not likely to forget.
Mario Maker is charming because it gives players the opportunity and the inclination to create chaos with 2D Mario sprites, and I’m looking forward to the nonsense it inspires.
Zelda and Friends
The Legend of Zelda has always leaned towards adventure rather than action, which is appropriate for a game that prioritizes the delicate balance of sword and shield.
It’s therefore surprisingly cathartic when Hyrule Warriors removes the restraints and allows you to recklessly eviscerate entire legions of the franchise’s most vexing enemies. The motion-sensitive goblins from Skyward Sword made me want to throw my Wii across the living room, so I enjoyed venting those frustrations in-game in a way that didn’t lead to a pile of broken electronics.
Hyrule Warriors is an otherwise admirable spin on the Dynasty Warriors template, though it is inevitably repetitive and unlikely to attract those who aren’t fans of the genre. You hit buttons until everything is dead, but that’s just how it’s done.
Meanwhile, Hyrule Warriors demonstrates that Link is not the only competent individual in Hyrule, a fact that will benefit historically underutilized favorites like Ruto and Zelda herself. The fresh perspectives could even elevate the supporting cast to headliner status. If Toad can get top billing in his own Mario spinoff, a similar approach to Zelda would allow Nintendo to explore new design space without the need for new IP. Hyrule Warriors is at least proof that the Zelda universe still has plenty of untapped ideas.
Fine. I’ll talk about Smash Bros., though there’s not all that much to say. The game is just as fun and functional as the franchise ever was. If you like the old Band of (Smash) Brothers, you’ll almost certainly like the new one.
Oddly, I preferred playing Smash Bros. on the 3DS rather than the Wii U, primarily because the conventional diamond button configuration felt more familiar to my PlayStation conditioning. The Wii U display was wired with four Gamecube controllers, a device that – in retrospect – is afflicted with a stunning lack of symmetry.
It is curious that Nintendo has stubbornly persisted with its own proprietary controller designs for nearly two decades dating to the N64. That doesn’t make those controllers worse, but it does make them slightly alienating to anyone unfamiliar with the unique layouts.
I’m starting to wonder if that’s hurt Nintendo more than it’s helped over the years. Games like Bayonetta run fine on the Wii U, but they can be much tougher to play if your muscle memory hasn’t been calibrated for Nintendo. It’s easier to jump from PlayStation to Xbox than it is to jump from PlayStation to the Wii U, which might partially explain why the Wii U has had so much trouble attracting new players.
I could be wrong about that. But I’d rather play Mario Kart 8 with a Classic Controller Pro than the Wii U Game Pad, and that’s probably not a coincidence.