Nintendo knows a thing or two about crafting worlds that have memorable, immediately recognizable characteristics. Perhaps, for you, the five-note theme that often accompanies Samus' appearance in Metroid games always conjures memories of many happy hours spent exploring alien landscapes. Maybe a glimpse of the Triforce is enough to stir the heart of the legendary hero residing in you. In Nintendo Land, the storied developer leverages the fondness many players feel for some of its most enduring series, while also employing some properties you probably haven't thought about in decades, or you never even knew existed. But while the window dressing at this amusement park of Nintendo-based attractions lends the game a good deal of personality, the real attraction is the gameplay.
There are 12 attractions accessible from the plaza that serves as Nintendo Land's hub. Six of them are for one player, three allow for both solo players or groups, and three are multiplayer only. The most serene attraction is the single-player Yoshi's Fruit Cart. Here, your Mii is placed in a cart modeled on the titular lovable dinosaur. The screen on the tablet and the screen on the television both show a green environment from a top-down view. On the TV, however, you can see fruits to collect and sometimes hazards to avoid, while the screen on the tablet shows only your starting position, the exits, and any patterns or shadows that might be on the stage's surface. You must draw a line on the tablet that takes the cart from its starting point to the exit, eating all the available fruit and winding your way around hazards.
It's a pleasantly absorbing exercise, trying to draw a safe path on the tablet using the information on the TV, sometimes relying on the shadows of clouds or other environmental features for reference. Completing stages is quite easy at first, but the challenge ramps up steadily as fruit starts to move in circular patterns and pitfalls become more prevalent. On these harder stages, it's a bit nerve-racking to hit the Go! button after drawing your line, and then watch the cart follow your path and hope it safely navigates its way through the hazards surrounding it.
The solo attraction Octopus Dance picks up the pace a bit. (Who is Octopus, you ask? Why, he's the star of the Game and Watch game Octopus, of course!) In this attraction, your Mii becomes a deep-sea-diving dancer who tries to keep up with the moves demonstrated by an instructor. (Octopus is content to watch from the background, and occasionally squirt some ink that obscures your view on the tablet but leaves the TV unaffected.) The left and right thumbsticks on the tablet move your left and right arms; you can tilt the tablet to lean, and shake it to jump. That's all you need to do to perform all of the dance moves.
The moves come in sets of three and sometimes come at you very quickly, so just taking note of what you need to do and then doing it along with the rhythm gets tricky. Making matters trickier still is the fact that your Mii sometimes gets spun around by the dance instructor, which encourages you to shift your gaze between the tablet and the TV. It's easier to mimic dance moves when you're viewing your Mii from behind; if he or she is facing you, you have to flip everything around in your brain, which is difficult when things are moving quickly. Octopus Dance is rather simple, but it's nonetheless a fast-paced and fun test of skill that makes interesting use of the Wii U's capacity to show you different things on the tablet and the television.
In Donkey Kong's Crash Course, your Mii is creepily morphed into a roller (a vehicle with springy wheels and the face of your Mii) and placed into an obstacle course whose color scheme and chalk artwork recall the original Donkey Kong. The object is to get your roller safely to the end of each obstacle course by tilting the tablet to roll left or right. Navigating the courses is quite difficult and requires finesse. It's satisfying to guide the roller safely to the goal at the end of the course, but the extreme fragility of the roller, as well as the bothersome need to blow on the microphone occasionally to move platforms, makes Crash Course one of the lesser attractions at Nintendo Land.
Takamaru's Ninja Castle takes its name from a 1986 Famicom game that never saw release outside of Japan. In this first-person on-rails attraction, you infiltrate a ninja fortress to rescue a kidnapped princess. You hold the tablet with the screen pointed at the television lengthwise, and slide your finger along the screen to toss throwing stars at the cute cardboard ninjas who stand in your way. The action is fast, the star-throwing motion feels natural, and the environments have an endearing handcrafted look.
Captain Falcon's Twister Race tosses you into the futuristic purple racer of Captain Falcon. The television displays a traditional behind-the-vehicle view common to many racing games, which is great for any spectating friends. In the driver's seat, however, you're usually better served by the top-down perspective provided on the tablet, which gives you a much better view of upcoming turns, speed-boosting arrows, and obstacles. Your racer always heads straight up on the tablet; tilting the tablet to steer, you try to find the speediest route along the twisty track. The controls are terrifically responsive; if you go careening off the track or speed straight into a hazard, it's your fault, not the game's. The course starts out simple but gets progressively more treacherous, and it's fun to return to Twister Race to improve your best times and compete with those established by other players.
Balloon Trip Breeze is a side-scrolling attraction in which you watch the television while moving the stylus on the tablet, which creates breezes that carry your balloon-wearing Mii along. The indirect control method makes avoiding floating spikes and avian adversaries pleasantly tricky, and the presentation, in which curtains of various colors hang in the background to suggest different times of day, is charming.
Moving on to attractions that support multiple players, The Legend of Zelda Battle Quest lets you and up to three friends venture into Nintendo Land's charming fabric-and-buttons imitation of Hyrule. If you wield the tablet, your weapon is a bow. As you move the tablet around, the screen acts like a window into the gameworld, letting you look in any direction. Pulling back on the right stick draws your bow, and releasing it lets your arrow fly. If you're playing with a Wii Remote, you take the role of a swordsman. Swordplay is similar to that in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Enemies are often shielded from vertical strikes but vulnerable to horizontal swings (or vice versa), and you've got to change up your attacks accordingly. Both swordplay and archery feel great, and the freedom to look in all directions via the tablet is a particularly nifty use of the Wii U's capabilities. Unfortunately, though this attraction can be played by one player, the difficulty doesn't scale well; unless you approach it with a good number of friends, the challenge becomes overwhelming after the first few stages.
Most of Nintendo Land's attractions are pleasantly simple and straightforward, but Pikmin Adventure strays into shallowness. Your role again varies depending on whether you're playing with the tablet or with a remote. With the tablet, your Mii dons Captain Olimar's spacesuit and attacks enemies and environmental objects by throwing pikmin at them; you simply tap something on the touch screen to hurl pikmin at it. If you're playing with a remote, you dress up as a pikmin and attack things directly. There's a solo or cooperative Challenge mode in which you try to progress through 16 stages, and a competitive Versus mode in which players battle it out to see who can claim the most candy. It's diverting for a little while, and the Pikmin-esque trappings are cute, but the button-mashing (or, if you're playing with the tablet, whatever you call the touch screen equivalent of button-mashing) gameplay is too basic to make this attraction more than a brief diversion.
Significantly better than Pikmin Adventure is Metroid Blast. With the tablet, you take control of a cartoonishly small version of Samus Aran's gunship. The piloting controls are intuitive, and because the vulnerable spots on enemies are often quite small, you'll want to take advantage of the ship's zoom function and engage in some satisfying sharpshooting as you soar around. With a remote and nunchuk, you fight on foot in the Mii equivalent of Samus' distinctive suit. The competitive option in Metroid Blast pits the gunship pilot against the other players. The pilot has the advantage of aerial maneuverability, but the other players are smaller, more elusive targets, capable of curling up into a ball and of zipping up to grapple points scattered around the arena. (You can also eschew the tablet and just battle on the ground.)
Competitive Metroid Blast is an enjoyable sci-fi shootout, especially if you and your friends take turns piloting the gunship. And the solo or cooperative Assault Mission mode is a great offering that takes you through a variety of Metroid-inspired environments and pits you against an assortment of Metroid-inspired enemies, including a towering version of the monster Kraid.
Finally, there are those attractions that are strictly multiplayer and competitive. Each of these features asymmetrical multiplayer in which the player with the tablet plays a very different role from those wielding remotes. In Animal Crossing: Sweet Day, players with remotes run around an environment collecting candy. The player with the tablet controls two gatekeepers, one with each thumbstick, and tries to catch the other players, who move more slowly as they pick up more candy. Controlling the two gatekeepers puts you in a position where a number of things might be competing for your attention and you have to make quick decisions about how best to corner and capture the other players. As a fruit collector, you have your own decisions to make when the gatekeepers are near. Do you jettison some fruit to gain speed, or do you hang on to the fruit you've collected and risk getting caught in pursuit of the glory of victory?
Luigi's Ghost Mansion casts the player with the tablet as a ghost who must sneak up on the other players, causing them to faint. The other players are ghost hunters equipped with flashlights; if they catch the ghost in the beam of their light, the ghost flees and loses some health. The ghost is invisible on the television screen, though it may become briefly visible in a flash of lightning. Ghost hunters must use their flashlights sparingly--batteries drain quickly--but remotes start to vibrate when the ghost is near, encouraging ghost hunters to call out to each other and work together to defeat the ghost. It's suspenseful to feel the ghost near you and frantically try to find it with your flashlight, and playing as the ghost, successfully sneaking up to spook a ghost hunter is satisfying.
The best of the competitive bunch, though, is also the most traditional. Mario Chase is just a big game of hide-and-seek with a nifty technological twist. The player with the tablet is Mario; everyone else is a Toad whose job is to pursue Mario. In the Mario role, the tablet's screen shows you a map of the entire arena, and you can see your pursuers' positions at all times. This certainly gives you an edge, but you're outnumbered, and though the Toads don't know where you are, they can always see how far away from you they are, and whether they're getting closer to you or further away. Arenas are divided into four colored zones, making it easy for pursuers to call out to each other when they spot Mario and rally everyone to that area. It's a game full of thrilling captures and narrow escapes of the sort that elicit squeals of delight from victors and cries of anguish from losers. All in all, it's simply a great time.
There's one last thing to do in Nintendo Land. In each attraction, you earn coins, and you can spend these coins to play a simple game reminiscent of Peggle. Clearing stages here earns you prizes that reside in the park plaza. The pixelated coin drop game is oddly compelling, and it's rewarding to see your plaza go from an empty space to one filled with neat Nintendo-y things.
But like Nintendo Land's use of familiar properties, this bevy of prizes to collect wouldn't be worth much if it wasn't supported by good gameplay. Thankfully, it is. Nintendo Land isn't just a fine showcase of the Wii U's capabilities, though it certainly is that. It's also a great game in its own right, and particularly if you have friends or family members with whom you can play all of the multiplayer attractions, it's a great way to start getting a lot of enjoyment out of the new console immediately.