By: Steve Zachmann, contributor
As a bit of a departure from my typical dev-related posts, I’d like to talk about my experience with my new Wii U console. It was a pretty memorable one and I think it has some relevance in the area of development (and it’s my blog so I’ll post whatever I please).
To truly understand how profound my experience with the Wii U has been so far, you first have to understand my feelings towards Nintendo as a company. It’s have been documented in one form or another on this blog before but I don’t think I had ever truly unleashed them in full force before. Even though I grew up with Nintendo products (oddly enough I’ve owned every single Nintendo console ever made) I’ve never been a huge Nintendo fanboy. As I got older, my lack of fandom towards the company only got deeper as other companies began producing games that did a lot more to strike a chord with my maturing tastes. Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy VII gave way to Diablo and Call of Duty. I began to view Mario and his crew more as a kid’s intro to gaming than a powerhouse franchise. Even as Nintendo’s first party games continued to garner praise year after year I’d dismiss them out of hand, believing that I simply lacked the fanboy nostalgia required to appreciate them. I’ve never played a Zelda game. I haven’t cared about Mario in ages. For me, the Wii was a machine used to play a bowling game (although it’s a pretty awesome bowling game, let’s be honest). I have no reverence for Nintendo, no nostalgia, and no real appreciation for the companies seeming unwillingness to create anything outside of it’s tiny universe of cuteness.
Given my feelings on Nintendo, you might be wondering how it is I came to own a Wii U in the first place. First off, I told myself that I wanted to own a console this year so it was going to either be the Wii U or the PS-Bone (that’s my new pet name for the PS4 / Xbox One). Frankly, the list of exclusives for the PS-Bone didn’t excite me at all. Halo 5 and Uncharted 4 do nothing for me. Bloodborne and No Man’s Sky are both intriguing but will probably see PC releases at some point. I saw no reason to buy either of those consoles. Meanwhile, Bayonetta 2 has been setting the world on fire, there is a recent Mario Kart release, a semi-recent traditional Mario game, a Donkey Kong game, Super Smash Bros… the list goes on. In addition, there is a Star Fox and Zelda release set for 2015. Given my New Year’s resolutions, I couldn’t think of a better choice. Its library offered me the chance to play a bunch of games that fell into the ‘branching out’ category, I could finally knock that Zelda thing off my bucket list, and I’d actually own a console! On top of all that, the Wii U was cheaper than either of the other consoles and the bundle we got came with 2 games, Super Mario 3D World and Nintendoland. It was a no brainer.
We got the console and hooked it up in our bedroom. We sat down in bed about 9pm and decided to boot up Nintendoland. Right off the bat, I enjoyed the game. Other than the annoying robot lady, the game is super fun and ridiculous. The first “attraction” we tried was the Donkey Kong cart game where you tilt the controller. I thought the tablet was just a second screen, I didn’t realize that it had an accelerometer and did all kinds of other cool tilt-ey stuff! We tilted the cart back and forth, and even blew into the microphone to raise and lower elevators (another unexpected feature). It was fun…like, really, really fun. Nintendoland is meant to show of the features of what the Wii U can do, and it does that fantastically. From the hide and seek game in Luigi’s Mansion to the incredibly weird experience of moving and rotating the tablet to line up shots in the Metroid shooter, Nintendoland does a fantastic job of showing off the cool aspects that separate the Wii U from its competitors.
Sometime on Saturday I mentioned to my wife that I felt like Nintendo has somehow become the Apple of video games. The products they make are nothing like the products their competitors are making in both quality and innovation, and they have a rabid, sometimes blindingly allegiant fan base. On some level that might be a bad thing, but it’s hard not to jump on the “Nintendo is amazing” train while you’re holding the Wii U gamepad. Everything about my new Wii U screams quality. The hardware is beautiful and beautifully functional. Its feature list is incredible and it did things I never expected (and never expected to care about). If ever there was a question about whether or not Nintendo crafts its hardware with loving care, the Wii U answers it.
This all amounted to my mind beginning to change in reference to what Nintendo seems to be now, but I still hadn’t experienced my favorite part of the Wii U. With my feet firmly planted in the “every Mario game is a rehash of the same crap” camp I booted up Super Mario 3D World. If ever there was a game not made for me, this was it. It’s a platformer (which I don’t particularly like). Its art style is very childish, colorful, and whimsical (I’m not 5). It’s another game in a long line of games from a company that I’ve come to actively and vocally dislike. So when I say this, I’m as surprised as you…Super Mario 3D World is incredible. From top to bottom it is the video game personification of joy. It’s cute and whimsical and silly, but it’s also mechanically spectacular. For a game featuring a bunch of characters that I’ve seen portrayed countless times in countless ways to be this beautiful is an absolute feat. The characters don’t look different, but they look gorgeous, as do the environments and effects. All around, Super Mario 3D World is a brilliant achievement.
The levels in the game go out of their way to be unique, to the degree that each one feels almost like it’s own game. I’ve played my fair share of Mario games, but never have I been so eager to see what the next level had to offer. Instead of each world being populated by several levels that are essentially remixes of a few core concepts, each level in Super Mario 3D World feels like something completely different. What strikes me most about the game though, is its intangibles.
I’ve never gone into a gaming experience expecting so little and getting so much. On some level I feel like Super Mario 3D World stared me in the face and said, “Come on, play me, I dare you try and hate me.” The thing is, I can’t. I cannot dislike this game. With my Wii U I also purchased Bayonetta 2. My original intent was to play a few minutes of Mario just so that I could say that I had and then move on to my big boy game. As of now, Bayonetta 2’s packaging still hasn’t been removed, and I don’t even care. I was supposed to set several hours aside this weekend to play Metal Gear Solid 4. Instead I played a Mario game. Perhaps my experience was so profound because I have spent so many years actively staying away from experiences like the ones Nintendo tends to offer. I play games like Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, and Skyrim; games that focus more on violence, or competition, or grinding. I’m the guy who loves to die in Dark Souls. Super Mario 3D World is such a profoundly different experience from that that maybe my brain just melted a little bit. At any rate, I felt a sense of childlike joy in playing that game that I haven’t experienced in any game I’ve played in years.
As we as gamers grow up, the experiences we expect in games grow up as well. A game like The Last of Us would not have had a market twenty years ago. That maturation process is important, but it’s also important not to forget our roots as gamers (and as game developers). The “gameplay loop” that a game offers should be fun and satisfying, regardless of whether you’re fighting Nazi zombies or goombas. I had forgotten that some games need little more than the right mix of beautiful art and quality execution to become something much greater than the sum of their parts. I think it’s also been eye opening for me to be able to appreciate something so different from my typical fare. 2015 is just beginning but I’d be hard-pressed not to already have a clear front runner for the best game I’ve played this year. I will for the foreseeable future be placing every single Nintendo release on my radar. That’s not to say that I’ve become some blind fanboy overnight, I recognize that not every game they make is perfect, but I feel that I’m finally in a place to appreciate the overall work of the company in terms of both hardware and software.