With the Wii U now in homes across North America, a fuller picture is starting to form of the launch titles which have accompanied its release. That catalogue has proven to be both varied and fairly well received, with a range of games from traditional Nintendo IP, through the minigames which the Wii became so (in)famous for, to titles focused very clearly outside of the market which the Wii so notably established.
However, so far, there have been no stand-out classics, nothing which has reached beyond that magic 90th percentile. In fact, a quick look at the Metacritic leaderboard for the system reveals that it's two third-party ports which are the best scoring titles so far, ahead of New Super Mario Bros. U, Nintendo's highest scoring first-party entry. On top is THQ's Darksiders 2 at 85 per cent, followed by Batman Arkham City - Armored Edition at 84 before we get to Mario at 82.
Whilst you can argue that those ports had a head start, and that launch titles are never amongst a platform's strongest, it's surprising to see Nintendo's poster boy superseded by two third-parties. Looking more closely at the reviews, the score has been dragged down a little by some outlying low scores, particularly that of Giant Bomb, at 3/5. In that assessment, Brad Shoemaker finds NSMB U to be a workhorse rather than a racing stallion, describing it as a game which "fits nicely in the role of a sturdy, well-made†Mario†nostalgia piece to go along with your freshly purchased launch†Wii U," but "sticks a little too closely to the precise formula employed by its three predecessors."
Shoemaker's point is that this is perhaps a misuse of the term New - if you've played any of the core Mario titles since the reintroduction of the side-scrolling 2D aesthetic, then you're unlikely to find too much here which surprises and delights in the way in which Mario fans have become accustomed to. "The ins and outs of the individual levels don't play around with the conventions of 2D Mario action nearly as much as I would have liked," he writes. "While a few levels do get a little creative with elements like light and darkness, you won't find anywhere near the level of invention that you saw in the best recent Mario games, like†Galaxy†and†3D Land."
"Aside from playing it too safe, Nintendo's gravest miscalculation with this game is releasing it a mere three months after New Super Mario Bros. 2 on the 3DS."
Brad Shoemaker, Giant Bomb
Shoemaker finds time for a little praise of the multiplayer modes, which are "fun in short bursts," although "a little too manic for my tastes." The other modes, closer to party games, offer "a neat, diverse set of challenges" but feel "more like a novelty than something to spend serious time on."
"Everything about New Super Mario Bros. U is pretty exciting, except the game itself," shoemaker concludes. "Is it possible that this is the best game in the "New" series to date--not to mention one of the best exclusive Wii U games on the market, by default - and at the same time kind of flatly uninteresting? Apparently so. The game is perfectly well made for what it is, and I had plenty of fun playing it in short bursts here and there, but at this point the series' by-the-numbers design philosophy is starting to lend the name 'New Super Mario Bros.' a degree of unintentional irony."
At the other end of the Spectrum is Game Informer, where Bryan Vore awards a 9.25, calling NSMB U "The best New Super Mario Bros. game yet." Intially, Vore expresses some of the same concerns as Shoemaker: that perhaps the 'New' tag is wearing a little thin, having found the series' most recent 3DS outing to be a bit stale. "I feared this dip in quality signalled stormy skies for New Super Mario Bros. U on Nintendo's next home console," Vore ponders, "but I couldn't have been more wrong."
Vore notes the impact of seeing Mario in HD for the first time, offering his appreciation of levels which hum with visual energy and freshness, particularly a stage inspired by Van Gogh's Starry Night. "New enemies and themes are constantly popping up, and each only appears once or twice," says Vore, before praising boss encounters - particularly "the thrilling final boss...one of the best in the entire Mario series."
Eurogamer's Chris Donlan review of Mario is less brief than Vore's, but offer equal approbation, awarding a 9 for a game which is "riddled with playful surprises," especially a map which harks back to the days of Super Mario World and manages "to pull the motley collection of gimmicks, in-jokes and nutty one-off ideas that make up a Mario game - especially one that comes on odd new hardware - into some kind of shape."
Moving to the meat of the game, Donlan finds that level design follows the map's enchanting lead and continues to impress with "a range of inventive treats that benefit from the best of the older Mario games' ideas." In particular, Donlan is enamoured with the Boost Mode multiplayer option which offers the chance to engage a player not so certain of their platforming skills in local co-op.
"Throw the main campaign open to up to four friends in local co-op and Mario, Luigi and a couple of Toads are relegated to Wii remotes. The GamePad, meanwhile, busts out the stylus and becomes home to Boost Mode, turning whoever wields it into a pared-back Mushroom Kingdom dungeon master."
Single player levels, he finds, are "more creative than most things the New Super Mario Bros. series has offered to date," meaning that "It's a pleasure to have to master this calibre of level design again."
"Is the plumber's Wii U debut as good as his recent 3D outings? Not quite, but for the New Super Mario Bros. series, it's a real step forward in detailing, imagination and character. There's always been a keen Mario brain working away inside these 2D design exercises. Now, it feels like there's a proper soul to go along with it."
Nintendo Land - the spiritual successor to the Wii's pack-in titles Wii Sports and Wii Resort, is a selection of minigames, activities and party games designed to gently introduce the capabilities and control systems of the Wii U, but packs some surprisingly core experiences for those who want them. A 76 per cent Metascore is a reflection of some mixed scoring, but on a fairly smooth scale from the top mark of 87 to the lowest of 65.
IGN's Audrey Drake, who awards that top score, finds a game which is "exceptionally fun, and a fitting show of what tablet gaming on a home console is all about." The collection, Drake writes, is brought together coherently through a well-designed central environment and a "hilarious" robot guide.
"The attractions themselves offer ample variety and are ridiculously, unabashedly entertaining. Every play session I've had, no matter the size of the group, always resulted in an eruption of laughter and good times."
"Riotously fun whether you're playing alone, with a partner or with a group," Drake sees Nintendo Land as a perfect introduction to the Game Pad's touch screen and gyroscope, as well as helping to initiate those who've not used a Wii-mote before. Depth, accessibility and range are the key factors for Drake in a brilliant show of what Nintendo's new console and tablet controller are capable of ."
Eurogamer's Oli Welsh, on his way to an 8, sees Land as "part party game, part tech demo, part game design propaganda," which performs better as an insight to the potential for the hardware than it does as a pure entertainment product, resulting in a "a weird game for a weird console."
"Surprisingly, it's not made by the image-conscious, jogging-pants Nintendo of recent years, either," writes Welsh. "Instead this is the Nintendo that infiltrated the seaside bars and truck stops of the 1980s with Punch-Out!! and Balloon Fight and Mario Bros.; the Nintendo that drove a generation of schoolchildren mad with the sadistic bleeps of Game & Watch; the Nintendo that whiled away the 1970s peddling light-gun games in abandoned bowling alleys. This is the brash, testy, brawling Nintendo of the arcade. Roll up, roll up!"
Pikmin Adventure is the game singled out as the best offering by Eurogamer, representing a well-executed challenge which makes clever use of the Gamepad. Takamaru's Ninja Castle, Captain Falcon's Twister Race and Donkey Kong Crash Course are also highlights. Unlike Drake, Welsh finds that the games here to be much more enjoyable with a full compliment of players, heightening both competitive tension and the trademark cute chaos of the brand.
There are a few misses in the collection, by Welsh's judgement, but Nintendo Land remains a solid title.
None of the games is bad, but between a few throwaway solo attractions and the repetitious "competitive games, Nintendo Land's focus could certainly have been tighter. It's more killer than filler, though - and it's great value, with a huge breadth and depth of content backed up by rock-solid design, genuine challenge and winsome attention to detail. It's easy to take for granted because it's a Nintendo release, but no one else makes mini-game compilations that come even close to this standard."
Agreeing with Oli's assertion that Nintendo Land is here to acclimatise audiences to the Game Pad, something it does brilliantly, is Destructoid's reviews editor Jim Sterling, who settles on a 7.
"Combining the ease of using a touch tablet with gyroscope controls and an additional screen feels really fresh, and is something that's simply never been done before."
Audrey Drake, IGN
"While none of the games included in this glorified tour of the Wii U's capabilities are compelling enough on their own merits, they contribute to an overall package that does an exemplary job of showing why the Wii U has so much promise as a system," Sterling writes. "This is a game with one job - to sell you on the merits of a GamePad."
Ninja Castle and Crash Course are again picked out as highlights, as is the collection's Zelda spin-off. Mario Chase and Luigi's Ghost Mansion also attract praise.
For Sterling, though, the central 'hub' area which ties the minigames together is something of a disappointment, as is robotic host Monita.
"For all its promise as a virtual amusement park, Nintendo Land as a place isn't all that amusing. Outside of the attractions, there's very little to do, and the 'park' is but a small circular arena that lays sterile in its clinical nothingness. The game might as well be a menu from which the games can be selected - an idea given more credence when, after a few plays, you're given the ability to†open a menu from which the games can be selected."
"Those unconvinced about what the Wii U can do would benefit from finding themselves a way of trying out†Nintendo Land," Sterling concludes. "It manages to do a lot with the system without, I believe, even scratching the surface of what more focused and dedicated videogames could achieve."
ZombiU is perhaps the most unusual of the three pillar titles here, and has attracted an accordingly broad range of scores, from 90 per cent at Eurogamer to 45 from GameSpot. A remake of Ubisoft's very first game, the pitch of a adult horror survival game for a Nintendo launch catalogue must have been a very precise one, although it fulfils the platform holder's promise of reuniting core and casual audiences nicely.
Rich Stanton is at the helm for Eurogamer's 9/10 review, and is struck with the punishing and uncompromising nature of the game from the off.
"No timid attempt at carving off a slice of the bloated zombie market, ZombiU takes a new path - one that cuts a swathe through the horde," Stanton opens. "If it's not quite perfect then that's no terrible criticism, and whatever else, it is one hell of a launch title."
ZombiU's combination of roguelike mechanics and FPS action is a winning one for Stanton, who appreciates the challenge of permadeath and an item loss conceit which calls Dark Souls to mind. Nonetheless, as Stanton points out, the original Zombi actually did it first.
"This aspect of ZombiU is beautifully handled, with the previous character turning into a zombi and wandering undead where they fell," he writes. "The next survivor spawns with basic weapons (there's also a lockbox at base to store things across characters) and your first mission is always the same: find your previous self and stove its head in with a cricket bat."
ZombiU's play area isn't vast, which means a lot of backtracking across old areas, but for Stanton this offers a way of empowering players with shortcuts and secrets rather than becoming too repetitious.
"[A] well-implemented part of its design is how the areas gradually unlock their shortcuts and secrets, meaning you begin to feel a little like an experienced runner - knowing the turf, planning the fastest route, then thinking on your feet when things go wrong. The randomised enemy placement, which plays well with the game's sprinkling of set-pieces, means you can never be quite certain about what's around the next corner."
Tension is built and extrapolated not just with clever level design and punishing enemies but with the practicalities of some mechanics, too, such as having the Game Pad host the game's map and backpack, forcing players to take their eyes off the action to check their whereabouts or rearrange inventory items.
"This is a much neater touch than it sounds," says Stanton, "because on-screen the character can be seen rummaging through things with an angle on what's behind them. ZombiU is very restrained in how it takes advantage of these moments, which means that on the few occasions you see a Zombi shuffling onto the TV screen mid-rummage, it comes as a big fright."
"ZombiU isn't the obligatory FPS launch title, but an original twist on the genre that has no console equivalent."
Rich Stanton, Eurogamer.
In the middle of the scattered pack of scores we find Edge, with a score of 7 from the publication's traditionally unnamed authors. Once more praising the brave decision to keep things tough, especially with the death mechanic which means that the first task players tend to perform after respawning is to kill their former, now zombified selves, Edge again references Dark Souls and its director, Hidetaka Miyazaki.
"Armed with a mere six pistol rounds and a willow bat, respawning is a grisly process that invariably involves murdering your former zombie self. It's a somewhat lightweight variant of what Hidetaka Miyazaki acolytes have come to adore, yes, but this trick can help the game ratchet up to a remarkable level of tension. Fear of lost ground and fear of losing your gradually levelling character's abilities keeps you alert, involved and deep-set within a survival mindset that an autosave safety net would dispel."
The unique opportunities presented by the Game Pad to build tension by distracting players from the big screen are lauded again here, resulting in some genuinely unsettling shocks and surprises.
"Ubisoft Montpellier has been given free rein to experiment with the new hardware, and it's relished every moment. ZombiU makes the relationship between TV and GamePad screens feel fresh, and - displaying a clear awareness of horror gaming conventions - it toys with you brilliantly.
"Red herring clues, twitching corpses and suspect doors all play into its manipulation and contribute to sophisticated shocks. The GamePad's new way to play also presents new ways for you to be played, and the resulting surprises are often delightful."
Still, when the formula changes - particularly during ZombiU's conclusion, Edge finds that the enjoyment can easily disappear, diluted by frustration and a sense of grind - especially once tougher enemies become more commplace.
"The terrors of the horde that has descended on London come with caveats, then. ZombiU, however, is a title that will infuse impulse buyers, early adopters and Nintendo diehards with relief and appreciation for the novel gameplay that Wii U can and will continue to provide. It's a confident start, if not an end in itself - one that makes us eagerly anticipate where Montpellier will take its ideas next."
GameSpot UK's editor Maxwell McGee is not as impressed. Summarising ZombiU as a game which "not only fails to create an engaging horror experience, but also falls short of being a good game," McGee sess the combat as irritatingly grinding - forcing players to kite individual zombis away from packs to be put to rest with a cricket bat.
"Firearms are faster and deadlier, but are not as readily available as the cricket bat," continues McGee. "A shortage of weapons is not uncommon for the survival horror genre, but ZombiU's emphasis on fighting makes this scarcity sting."
McGee is also unimpressed by the respawn methods which have charmed other reviewers, feeling that the mechanic causes problems with the game's narrative logic.
"ZombiU takes an interesting approach by casting you as a new character every time you die, but struggles to stay consistent. In the beginning, your hero is taken in by the Prepper, a military man well versed in zombie survival (and conspiracy theories). But when that first character dies, the game's logic dies with him. It is not uncommon for the Prepper to yell at newcomers about issues they know nothing about."
McGee also feels that the Game Pad "doesn't contribute much to the game," bastardising "functions are simply better handled through traditional controller inputs." Fetch quests and unimaginative, repetetive puzzles are also condemned, a judgement ameliorated somewhat by enjoyable multiplayer.
"ZombiU is a game trapped in the wrong genre," McGee ends. "The run-and-gun multiplayer modes emphasize the game's competent shooting mechanics and ability to create interesting enemy encounters.
"However, these two aspects are discouraged in the single-player campaign for the sake of survival. To compensate, there's the bare minimum of a story and a few simple puzzles. And so much cricket bat. ZombiU could have been an enjoyable action game, but instead it is a poor entry in the survival horror genre."