At first glance, Wii Party U appears to be indicative of the brand image Nintendo wants to put forth for its console. You're supposed to gather together your family or multiethnic group of male and female friends and have a fantastic time, smiling as you wave your Wii Remotes and laughing at the wacky antics on your Wii U GamePad, just like in all those publicity shots. The reality of the Wii Party U experience, however, is rather different: group sighing with indifference toward having to play a lousy minigame or wives yelling at husbands for goofing around and not following the rules are probably not the advertising images Nintendo wants to showcase.
Wii Party U is the follow-up to 2010's Wii Party and features similar aesthetics and motifs to its predecessor. Rather than playing as characters, you play using your created Mii avatars. Keeping with the Mii theme and the family-friendly party tone, everything is rounded, brightly colored, and cartoony. It's a look that's meant to be as soft and inoffensive as possible, but its lack of detail and its boring, indistinct designs make it tiresome after a while.
There's no denying the sheer variety of Wii Party U's lineup. Among the minigame mix are reflex-based games (Moonbase Escape, Snow Shredders), hidden object games (Heart Targets, Shutterbird), Wii Remote aiming games (Big Bang Blasters, Space Zappers), tilt control games (Cliff Riders, Maze Malaise), mind games ( Balanced Diet, Fruit or Scare), and GamePad-utilizing one-versus-three games (Catch a Wave, Zag-Ziggurat). For those completely devoid of motor or memory skills, there are even a handful of minigames based primarily on luck (Run to the Sun, Hide and Go Beak). Of course, players' tastes in games vary somewhat, but if there's a game that your crowd unanimously dislikes, there's no way to completely remove it from the rotation.
Even when you're inclined toward a particular type of minigame, many of these games aren't fun even the first time, much less several times over. While there are a few standouts like Big Bang Blasters and Pool Party, other games, such as Freeze! and Diamond is Mine, are so awful that you'll seriously wonder how they made the cut. Most of the games occupy the range between "mildly fun but forgettable" and "unpleasant." Generally, the minigames that make use of the GamePad tend to be more creative, and thus are the most enjoyable of the bunch.
There are three primary game modes: TV Party, House Party, and GamePad Party. TV Party is the main attraction, featuring several sub-modes styled like traditional board games, which tie together Wii Party U's various minigames. House Party consists of stand-alone games that use the Wii U GamePad and support two to four players. GamePad Party consists of a bunch of GamePad-only games and minigames for up to two players. In addition to the three main modes, there's a Minigame mode that lets you play any of the minigames as you please, or run through various themed minigame gauntlets solo or with friends. (On that note, many portions of Wii Party U can be played solo, but the utterly dopey AI competitors will have you calling your friends for impromptu party time pretty darn quick.)
TV Party mode provides a multiplayer board game experience that ties together the disparate minigames into a more focused goal, with your performance in individual games determining various outcomes and advantages you are given in the larger game, a la Mario Party. Some of these games are excellent: Mii Fashion Plaza adds fun collection and sabotage elements as you and your friends circle the board while coordinating outfits. GamePad Island puts the GamePad to great use as you play brief small-screen minigames to determine your movement and go past on-field obstacles. Others are lacking: waiting and watching colored balls drop off a pusher in Balldozer is astonishingly dull.
House Party mode, meanwhile, focuses on shorter, group-oriented games that use the GamePad in unique ways. There's some strong variety on display here, too: Button Smashers is like group Twister for fingers, Do U Know Mii? compares how you and your friends evaluate elements of your personality, and Name That Face makes use of the GamePad's built-in camera. Highlights from this crop include Lost and Found Square, which has you describing your GamePad-based surroundings to a TV-based search team, and Water Runners, which uses a clever coordination between the Wii Remote and the GamePad in a bottle-filling competition.
These games have the potential to be very fun, but the way many of them are designed means they lack in-game oversight to prevent cheating and tomfoolery--an advantage electronic group games have over their tabletop counterparts. Feed Mii! has you yelling fast-food orders to a cashier who must remember what each of you bought, and whose correctness you rate after you're served; you could very well cheat and say you're dissatisfied even if your server was completely correct. Sketchy Situation has your group drawing sketches based on words and guessing which of you was given a different subject than the rest, which is fine and dandy until one person realizes it's hilarious to just draw crude genitalia instead of responding to the prompt.
Finally, there's GamePad Party. This mode makes use of a bundled Wii U GamePad stand to allow the controller to sit easily on a table between two people. All of the games are pretty fun, though the more elaborate games prove to be the most interesting: Puzzle Blockade is a unique co-op experience, and Mii-in-a-Row is an engaging mix of Tic-Tac-Toe and Reversi. By supporting only two players, however, these games don't sport a lot of party potential.
The amount of fun you have with Wii Party U hinges by and large on the company you're with rather than the quality of the games themselves. Even with a perfect group of pals, though, there are potential hiccups: an awful minigame randomly thrown at you can deflate a fun atmosphere, an unclear explanation can prove confusing, and a badly paced board game can bore everybody. The sterile presentation and lack of options certainly don't help matters, either. While it has its highlights, the party is over before it can really get started.