Sean Colleli and Jeff Kintner visit the annual Nintendo Airstream. Check out what they thought of this year's showing.
Last week Jeff Kintner and I headed to the annual Nintendo Airstream demo. I always enjoy these events for three reasons: they’re casual and personable; we get to play a lot of cool games; and it means that Halloween is just around the corner! Seriously though, there was plenty on offer this year and Gil Ruta, the courteous and enthusiastic Nintendo rep handling the demo this year, answered my usual phalanx of annoying fanboy questions with aplomb. The first thing that caught our eyes as we entered the trailer was the new Nintendo 2DS.
Jeff’s thoughts on the 2DS
The first thing that was put into our hands was the upcoming 2DS- a.k.a the unofficial Pokemon launch partner. It was a lot smaller than I expected it to be, but it's still not exactly something you can slip into your pocket. It's about the size of a fully opened 3DS, and the buttons are placed higher to make it a little easier to hold. If I had kids, I'd definitely get them the 2DS over the standard 3DS- it feels more substantial, like it could take a couple dives off the dinner table and still be good to go. And the $40.00 price difference is nice too.
And Sean’s take
When I first saw the 2DS when it was announced I thought it was a joke—like a bad SNL skit, or the thing you and your friends laugh about after a few beers. But getting it in my hands…well damn, it makes sense. Like the SNES, GameCube and Game Boy Color, I can tell this thing is built like a tank just by holding it in my hands. The ergonomics are also surprisingly endearing; I expected the shoulder buttons to be inconvenient all the way at the top, but you really grip this thing like the original GBA.
Time (and more experience) will tell if the buttons being at the top makes using the touch screen difficult, but like most Nintendo handhelds the feel of the 2DS just clicked. While the build quality is certainly resilient and inexpensive, that doesn’t necessarily make it cheap. I like the little flip-door for the SD card and the even wider shoulder buttons better than both of their counterparts on the 3DS XL. The 2DS is definitely less stylish than the XL, but it isn’t supposed to be sleeker and sexier; this is a device aimed at kids. It has the rugged toy-like quality and resilience that makes it something a kid can and will love, for years if need be. I am a little worried about the screen getting scratched, but then again the weakest link on all DS models, even going back to the original, has been the hinge. If I had a dollar for the number of those things I’ve seen cracked or snapped in half…ugh. Makes me shudder.
I almost certainly wouldn’t buy a 2DS for myself, even at the reduced $130 price point, because the lack of 3D, mono sound (without headphones) and lesser battery life make the 2DS fairly redundant. But then again I have a 3DS XL, so Nintendo isn’t selling to me directly, but rather my sensibilities as an older brother or parent. With Pokemon X/Y rapidly approaching it’s crucial for Nintendo to hit both of those targets: the “hey kids you NEED a new DS to play the new Pokemon!” and the “hey parents you NEED to buy your kids a safer, cheaper, sturdier new DS for that Pokemon game they won’t shut up about” demographics. I must admit to being pleasantly surprised by the 2DS and I hope I get to review the little guy at some point.
Jeff’s take on The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
I'm a huge Zelda freak, so I was pumped to get my hands on the demo for A Link Between Worlds. Stylistically, it's a cuter and shinier version of A Link to the Past- but it's very much its own game. It still has the top-down camera, but when you pop into the walls you get a closer, quick-shifting perspective that moves with you. Between entering the walls and the increased focus on using multiple layers in the environment, there's gonna be some cool platforming aspects in this game. The touch screen made switching between items quick and easy, but what I really liked is the ability to equip items to both X and Y. I can tell A Link Between Worlds is gonna be a heavy-hitter in the 3DS line up.
Playing A Link Between Worlds was a very weird experience in deja vu. Everything about it made it feel like a crisp HD up-convert of A Link to the Past, so I got that same “nostalgic-but-not” sense I had with Perfect Dark HD on XBLA and the excellent Black Mesa Half Life remake mod. As soon as I booted up the demo, college memories came flooding back, of playing the GBA port of Link to the Past on my DS Lite, killing time riding the COTA bus back and forth to OSU campus.
While there are a few changes, the overworld map is practically identical and the art style hews very close to Link to the Past’s original concept and advertising art. The music is also very similar but fully orchestral—something I really wish they had done for Ocarina of Time 3D a couple years ago. Basic gameplay is also remarkably similar, and thankfully the controls conform to the old SNES standard. The completely touch-based control scheme for Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks was creative, but also imprecise, caused hand cramps and was generally too innovative for its own good. That said I wish Nintendo had preserved a few of the cooler touch screen elements, like the Spirit Flute or scribbling notes on your map.
While it takes place in the same environment, A Link Between Worlds is a new, separate experience with several gameplay improvements. Instead of using individual ammo each item depletes Link’s magic meter, which recharges after a few seconds. This streamlines things a bit so you don’t have to go hunting through grass or clay pots if you run out of bombs and arrows, but it also keeps you from spamming powerful items. The megaton hammer can exhaust Link’s meter after a few repeated swings so it’s better to combo it with your sword in combat.
Of course the big new addition is Link’s ability to turn into a painting and flatten himself against walls. I was initially worried this would be an isolated, one-off gimmick but it appears to be the game’s central new mechanic—Link can paint himself to any flat vertical surface, which opens up a ton of possibilities for environmental puzzles. This also drains the magic meter but much, much slower than the items do. Once I got into the first dungeon I found myself wracking my brains for solutions, only to remember I could slip onto a wall and creep sideways over gaps. You can even stick to floating platforms or pass through barred windows.
I can already tell that the puzzles and dungeons in this game might be the best in the series. With the ability to rent any of the key items (hookshot, bow, hammer) at the game’s shop you can tackle the dungeons in any order, and I can imagine designing puzzles around such gameplay freedom must have been a real challenge for Aonuma-san and his team. After some experimental cel-shaded DS Zelda games it’s great to be home again, as it were.
Jeff’s Wonderful 101 Wind Waker experience
To be honest, this was my first time even putting my hands on a Wii U. It took me a bit to get used to the new control scheme- especially the touch screen- but I still thoroughly enjoyed all the demos we got to pick up and play.
The first game I picked up was the HD Wind Waker remake. It looks amazing, but you should check out Sean's review for a more informed look.
Next, I got to play some of The Wonderful 101. Like I said, I was completely new to the Wii U's setup, so using the touch screen in conjunction with the controls took some getting used to- and once you get used to the controls, The Wonderful 101 is still a difficult game. But the combat system is fresh and fun and I loved it. For a more in-depth look, you should check out Matt's review
Was it Wonderful for Sean?
Wonderful 101 is one of those games that hurts in all the right ways. The controls are strange—unorthodox to say the least. The difficulty goes from brisk on easy mode to grueling on any other mode. The mechanics are a bizarre mixture of Okami, Viewtiful Joe, Bayonetta and Pikmin. Sitting down with Wonderful 101 a year after I first played it at the 2012 Nintendo Airstream was still a bit of a shock. And yet, if you have a little patience—something that is in short supply these days—the game’s brilliance begins to shine through.
Wonderful 101 is Hideki Kamiya’s master class, a real labor of love and the culmination of everything he’s worked on previously. It’s a game where the easy difficulty setting isn’t just a throwaway option for kids—it’s there to teach you how to play this incredibly offbeat, challenging game so you get even more out of it the second time through. It’s an old school game in the purest sense, dripping with HD graphics and modern flash and color but also incredibly solid at its core. It’s an experiment at merging retro challenge and game design with modern presentation, and for the most part it works.
As Jeff said, you should check out Matt’s review for a more detailed look at this admittedly flawed but audacious, ambitious game. If you’re on the fence I recommend downloading the demo, but at least give Wonderful 101 a chance. In an industry of annual Call of Duties and Assassin’s Creeds, something this original is quite rare and valuable. Numerous delays and the game’s inherent strangeness may have put people off, but I’m really hoping Nintendo markets the daylights out of Wonderful 101 this holiday, because it truly deserves its day in the sun.
Jeff tries 3D Mario without the 3D, but with the World
If there's one game that gives me the burning desire for a Wii U, it's Super Mario 3D World. It feels a lot like the Super Mario Bros. 2 of old- considering Mario, Luigi, Peach and Toad all have their abilities from it (except Toad is super fast instead of super strong). The multiplayer is a lot of fun, and considering it's a 3D platformer instead of a side-scroller, there's room for everyone to run around and explore without tripping over each other. I even got to play with the game pad, so I had the added ability of swiping my finger all over the screen to uncover secrets. Even if you don't want to use it to poke around the levels, it's a good way to take charge of the group and direct everyone where to go, since everything you swipe on the pad shows up on the TV.
Sean is sold on 3D World too
Just from our brief demo I can tell Super Mario 3D World is going to be an absolute hit at parties. This is the first true 3D, four-player Mario game and it’s about damn time too. After enduring several of the modern-retro-2D New Super Mario platformers—which have gotten increasingly stale as of late—it was refreshing to play what I’ve imagined in my head ever since Mario 64 in the mid 90s.
As Jeff stated, the problem with the 2D New Super series is that a side-scroller gets far too crowded with four people jumping around on screen, especially when players can screw each other up by jumping on each others’ heads, stealing all the items that pop out of a question mark block, or intentionally lagging behind to run out the timer. These problems still exist in 3D World, but that third dimension gives a lot more breathing room so it isn’t nearly as problematic.
3D world has the same bite-sized, almost isometric level design that first showed up in the excellent Mario 3D Land for the 3DS. The levels are a bit bigger now to accommodate four players but they are still relatively small and focused. This worked very well for a handheld—on the 3DS the levels imparted a sense of freedom while still being compact and suited to short bursts of play. On the Wii U this design still works well but I can’t help but feeling like it’s a bit limited, especially after the massive, free-roaming worlds we saw in Mario 64, Mario Galaxy and even Mario Sunshine. That said the smaller scale lends itself to multiplayer very well and without much tweaking, which was probably the appeal for Miyamoto-san and his team. I’m still confused by that ticking timer though. Being on the clock always annoyed me in 3D Land and in a home console game like 3D World, it feels like an increasingly irrelevant nostalgia vestige, like the 1-ups that still hang around for no logical gameplay reason.
Finally having princess Peach as a playable character again is a nice switch from the incredibly lazy Toad clones in New Super, and like Jeff said each character plays a lot like they did in Mario 2 back on the NES. The new powerups also add some much-needed fresh gameplay ideas, especially the cat bell. The kittycat suit almost feels a bit overpowered, allowing you to scamper up walls, swipe enemies with your claws and even perform a mid-air dive attack. It’s a nice change from the Mario powerups of old, which usually imparted some fantastic new ability but at some crippling tradeoff.
As I said before, the promise of this game has teased Mario fans for years. From Miyamoto-san cryptically mentioning an unfinished cooperative-enabled Mario 64 sequel that never worked out, to the rather shallow four-player competitive modes in Mario 64 DS, Nintendo has been toying with this idea for a very long time. I’m a little annoyed that it took them this long to execute an idea that’s been obvious to Mario fans for close to two decades. Regardless , Super Mario 3D World will be THE go-to Wii U party game, at least until Smash Bros. comes out next year, and it will be the must-have Wii U game this holiday, especially considering Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze has been delayed.
Jeff goes bananas for Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
It's disappointing that Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze has been pushed back to February, but after playing the demo, I can safely say that it'll be worth the wait. It plays exactly like every other DKC, with all of the platforming challenges and secrets, and the level design and graphics are absolutely amazing. Plus, it's a return to the original DK island, and you get more members of the DK family than just Donkey and Diddy Kong.
Sean likes it too
Despite sounding like a new summer-oriented Mountain Dew flavor, Tropical Freeze is everything I wanted in a sequel to 2010’s Donkey Kong Country Returns. To start, it’s gorgeous. Nintendo took an entire console generation to warm up to HD but damn are they capitalizing on it now. Of course it helps that Retro Studios has some of the best artists in the industry, and they’ve graced the new DK game with flowing water, golden sunsets, shattering rock, and all at 60 frames per second. DK and Diddy are covered in subtle fur-mapping, proving that you can add realistic details without sacrificing a stylized aesthetic.
Don’t worry about the game’s challenge level, though—Tropical Freeze might be prettier but it’s definitely not easier. It still has that subtle difficulty curve, where the first few levels start easy but by the time you’re halfway through the game you’re wondering when it go so darn hard. Jeff and I went from one extreme to another, starting off in a pretty early level and then transitioning right to one of the infamous mine cart stages.
The basic level was similar to the early ones in DK Country Returns, but demonstrated a few new gameplay ideas. DK and his pals can swim underwater again, but instead of standalone underwater levels these sections are integrated seamlessly into the standard stages. The transition feels perfectly natural, although that added another difficulty twist—unlike the classic SNES games, the Kongs can run out of breath now, making future levels potentially harder. Hopefully Enguarde the swordfish will show up again to make things more manageable.
DK’s ability to blow on propellers and flowers has been replaced by brute strength: now he can rip certain items right out of the ground, or yank pull-chains to toggle platforms and background scenery. This is a bit more appropriate than having the gorilla stop to delicately blow dandelion seeds into the air and I’m curious to see the ways Retro uses it in later levels.
The minecart sequence was surprisingly old school, but is where the new co-op mode really helped out. DK and Diddy (or Dixie, or whoever else Nintendo has yet to announce) can both be controlled independently by two players. Diddy can still impart a jetpack boost by sitting on DK’s shoulders, but can jump off so player 2 can explore or fight enemies cooperatively. These features showed up in DK Country Returns, but were especially helpful in the minecart. At certain points I wasn’t quick enough on the jump button, so Jeff saved our bacon a few times by having better platforming skills than mine. I’m really curious to see how the other Kongs control or what their abilities are, but for now Nintendo isn’t talking.
Sean’s final thoughts
Tropical Freeze is already looking like some of Retro’s best work—it’s just a shame it’s been delayed until February. Nintendo has a strong holiday lineup but I’m worried that it might not be strong enough. I personally thing they should have pushed Mario Kart 8 up to make the holiday too, giving that triple-threat of Mario 3D World, DK Tropical Freeze and Mario Kart, with Smash Bros. waiting in the wings to carry that momentum into 2014. As it stands I hope Mario 3D World is enough—it’s certainly a good enough game, but people need to buy it—and the Wii U—first, to realize how great they both really are.
I also hope that Wonderful 101 gets another marketing push going into the holidays, a second wind so to speak. It’s a weird game, no doubt about it, but with the right outreach it could turn into a sleeper hit. As for the 3DS, it’s doing just fine; the launch of Pokemon X/Y and the 2DS, not to mention A Link Between Worlds, will keep the handheld strong right into 2014. I’m only worried about Wii U at this point, because I really love the console and I wish other people would give it a chance and see the potential in it. Gil Ruta was right though: Nintendo is really dedicated to listening to its fans now, and those fans have plenty of suggestions on what they want to see on Wii U. This year’s Nintendo Airstream had one of the best showings I’ve seen in a while, which will make the wait for all of these great games all the more difficult.
Jeff's final thoughts
Like I said, this was my first time wrapping my mitts around a Wii U- and now I've got the Wind Waker HD bundle dancing around my head like visions of sugarplum fairies. My personal favorite demo of the day was definitely Super Mario 3D World. Between the SMB 2 flashbacks, the 3D layout and the obvious emphasis on co-op play, this is probably going to be the Wii U's big game until the new Smash Bros. comes out. The award for prettiest game has to go to Tropical Freeze- not just because the graphics are good, but the level design is jaw-dropping. Exploding planes, ships barreling onto beaches, and corkscrew minecart rides... all I can say is dynamic environments galore.
The 2DS obviously isn't going to revolutionize the industry, but it's well designed for what it intends to do. And if you're poor and have weak will power like me, any price drop is a godsend. We only got a tiny glimpse of A Link Between Worlds, but I get the feeling that it's got enough ambition behind it to be as influential in the series as the original Link to the Past. I'll be keeping my ear to the ground on this one right up until it releases.
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