The Wii U’s biggest problem is confusion. The average consumer just doesn’t understand what it is, and frankly I can’t blame them. The Wii was simple—wave the magic wand to play sports, cook, drive Mario Karts, shoot bad guys—and it came out during a simpler time. But the Wii U is a big bundle of mixed messages, conflicted marketing and lack of clear direction.
Its name is even weirder and more counterintuitive than its predecessor. The controller, while a brilliant little piece of kit, looks like a bizarre hybrid of a controller and a tablet. The way it’s been marketed, people think it’s just another expensive add-on for the old Wii. The Wii U uses all of the old remote controllers and plays all the old Wii games, further obfuscating things for consumers who don’t necessarily understand the natural progression of console technology. Nintendo has a very impressive new console on their hands, but the way they introduced it—and continue to market it—makes little sense to the uninitiated.
Wii U just doesn’t have a clear, core concept like the Wii did, something that spells out exactly what it is and what it does. It has a lot of great disparate ideas but without a unifying killer app, all of its promising ideas are left floating around disjointed. Nintendo needs a Wii Sports for Wii U, and it’s clear that Wii Party U is their attempt to explain the console to the casual masses. So, can Nintendo finally explain just what Wii U is a year into the console’s lifespan with another minigame collection? Well…yes and no.
Wii Party U is essentially playing the role that Wii Play did back in early 2007. It’s a compilation of explanatory minigames that comes bundled with a Wii remote, as added incentive for families rounding out their controller set. The difference is that Wii Play had the benefit of Wii Sports coming before it, blazing the trail and laying down a solid foundation. The Wii U’s pack-in, Nintendoland, did a great job of explaining the console’s abilities to the Nintendo faithful, but it apparently didn’t grab the fickle casual crowd the way Wii Sports did. In that regard Wii Party U has a lot more heavy lifting to do, and in many ways it’s up to the task.
Whereas Wii Play was little more than polished tech demos bundled with a controller, Wii Party U is far more substantial and varied, almost like a Mario Party-lite experience. The game is divided into four main modes: TV Party, GamePad Party, House Party and miscellaneous minigames. TV Party is the mode that is most similar to classic Mario Party. Players move their Mii around a game board and, depending what space they land on, participate in various minigames to determine who gets to roll first for the next move, how many dice they get, etcetera.
The thing that differs here are the game boards—five of them. For example, one looks like a marathon sprint on a winding track suspended over water. Another is based on a fashion plaza, where players collect pieces of clothing as they progress and try to build a matching outfit, with the ability to steal clothes from competitors by beating minigames. The minigames themselves are a healthy mix of activities, from kicking soccer balls into corresponding color-coded goals to winding up rubberband-powered helicopters. The balance between Wiimote waggle and button controls is pretty even, thankfully.
GamePad Party is probably the most unique mode in the package. It’s played by only two people with the GamePad placed between them. There are a lot of fun little parlor-style games here, including a foosball table you control with the analog sticks, and tabletop baseball, where players take turns batting and pitching. My favorite mode was a Nintendo spin on checkers and tic-tac-toe, where each person tries to line up heads, legs and torso pieces to make their Mii character on the board. The more Miis you can line up the more points you get, but sometimes it’s just as important to sacrifice a piece to block another player from making a Mii. GamePad Party is a little more subdued and intimate—it would be better to play with a friend or significant other instead of the more heated competitive games in TV Party mode.
House Party mode is less about competition and more about cutting up and just having a good time. As such, the eight minigames in this mode can be pretty hit and miss, as it’s harder to come up with classic house party games based around a videogame console. Dance with Mii is a Nintendo-themed Just Dance game, and it suffers from the same control and responsiveness issues I’ve seen in several dance games, from the aforementioned best-selling Ubisoft series to the pirate dance move game in Wario Ware.
The standout for me in House Party was Name that Face. It’s sort of like facial expression charades. The GamePad displays an event, like tasting something sour, being surprised or stubbing a toe, and the player holding the GamePad tries to approximate the right expression while everyone else tries to pick the right event from a multiple choice selection. The kicker is that the GamePad player takes a selfie with the controller’s camera and the other players guess based on that image.
Wii Party U is pretty standard when it comes to production values. It’s surprising how timeless the simple, shiny Wii Sports are style is after 7 years, but then again it’s getting kind of tedious as well. Wii Party U reminded me more than most other Nintendo games of the shovelware that plagued the Wii’s library; not in quality, just in presentation. The whole thing has a tiresome, generic cheerfulness that seems just a bit insincere.
The other issue, though it’s a small one, is the game’s hosts. Two Muppet-looking characters introduce all the minigames and give the tutorials in a grating, rambling gibberish that really got on my nerves. I would’ve preferred Monita, the talking LCD monitor from Nintendoland. I know a lot of people find her annoying, but I kind of liked Monita’s robotic deadpan; she was at least funnier and less obnoxious than the gameshow hosts in Wii Party U.
It’s difficult to avoid comparisons between Wii Party U and Nintendoland. Wii Party U certainly has more variety than Nintendoland and it’s easier for casual players to pick up and understand, but that variety comes at a cost. With only a couple exceptions, Nintendoland had a lot of strong offerings that demonstrated the kind of gameplay types the Wii U was capable of, if you only took a little time and initiative to explore them all. Wii Party U takes a more traditional approach, co-opting classic party games and adapting them to the Wii U GamePad. Some of it works very well, but too many of the minigames fall flat or just aren’t much fun to play for very long.
Wii Party U avoids the fate of Wii Play—it’s a better deal because it is ultimately a lot deeper and better thought out. That said, it’s still a Wii remote that comes with a bunch of minigames; they’re just more organized, better made and there are a lot more of them this time.
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