It was the last E3 that Nintendo would ever attend, and the House of Mario was eager to recapture the shocking success of Wii Sports—the game that propelled the Wii to record sales. Its secret weapon was Nintendo Land, a collection of minigames featuring many of Nintendo's biggest franchises at the time, from Zelda to Metroid.
This was Nintendo's "casual era," when it was still trying to capture the mercurial blue ocean audience of the Wii. In theory, Nintendo Land was supposed to grab the attention of casual players with a host of clever little minigames, with core fans being drawn by the presence of Nintendo's brightest stars. It didn't quite work out that way, but it did give me one of my all-time favorite party games: Animal Crossing: Sweet Day, which may well be my most-played Wii U game ever. No, I'm not kidding.
It's been quite a while since I last turned on my Wii U, but I still think of Animal Crossing: Sweet Day from time to time. When we were planning Play Together Week, it was the first thing that popped into my head, well before any of the usual suspects. There are better, more accessible party games out there, but I'm not sure I've ever laughed harder when playing a game than I have with Animal Crossing: Sweet Day.
Despite its name, Animal Crossing: Sweet Day bears little resemblance to the adorable lifestyle simulator currently dominating gaming. You do not idly tool around an island, chatting with animal friends and decorating your house. Instead, up to four players control Miis dressed as animal characters, who are charged with collecting sweets that literally grow on trees. They are opposed by two guards wielding a knife and a fork respectively—we affectionately referred to them as "Knifey" and "Forky"— who are guided using the Wii U Gamepad.
The result is sheer chaos. The animal characters coordinate with one another to release sweets from the trees and tote them around in their cheeks, the omnipresent danger of Knifey and Forky always lingering just off-screen. I almost always controlled the guards, and as I discovered, independently controlling them was rather difficult—a gamified version of patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. My strategy was to send them to opposite sides of the map, then have them converge toward the middle, using the Wii U Gamepad's second screen to coordinate the closing of the net.
Making my job easier was that gobbling up candy caused animals to inflate like a balloon, growing more and more bulbous until they could only waddle from the sheer weight of the sweets packed in their mouths. When spotted, they would have to quickly vomit up the candy and flee, or they would be easy pickings. This led our group to nickname the game "Puke and Run"—a name that still brings out chuckles of nostalgia whenever it's mentioned.
"Puke and Run" would invariably leave our group doubled up in laughter, whether because of a particularly fat little animal lumbering around on the screen, or because someone was just barely able to evade the grasp of the guards. Anthony, an inveterate troll who always controlled the frog character, would try to draw the attention of one of the guards, always dancing just out of range with a mocking, "Stick to the pond, Forky!" We were evenly matched, and games were almost always decided by a razor-thin margin, the animals frantically trying to reach the candy threshold while the guards closed in.
The Simple Complexity of Animal Crossing: Sweet Day
What still stands out to me about Animal Crossing: Sweet Day is how effectively it encouraged teamwork and communication. Gathering a sufficient number of sweets before the guards caught you three times was tough. It demanded a certain amount of rapidfire coordination, whether in calling out their location, or in choosing which trees to tackle.
Shaking candy out of trees meant having to stand in one spot for a certain amount of time, with some requiring the presence of multiple players at once. The result was a certain amount of tension as you waited nervously, fearful that either Knifey or Forky (or both!) would suddenly appear from just offscreen. One of my favorite tactics was to wait until a couple players committed to a tree, then move in from either side to corral and trap them.
It was tempting to play it safe and stick to the trees that required only one or two players to unlock, but actually the best strategy was to make a beeline for the high-value trees from the start—the ones that required three animals to activate but yielded a ton of candy. Better to end the round as quickly as possible, because the longer a match went on, the more the odds of being caught would rise.
Animal Crossing: Sweet Day wound up being a great study in simple complexity, pairing an easy-to-grasp concept (get the candy!) with a great deal of tension and hilarity. Heck, just the inherent comedy of watching Miis in animal costumes balloon to impossible sizes was enough to set it apart from the rest of the Nintendo Land collection. We had a good time with Mario Chase, which was basically what the name applies, and we dabbled a bit in Luigi's Ghost Mansion, but it was Animal Crossing: Sweet Day that invariably led to the greatest amount of cheering and laughter.
Nintendo Land, for its part, sold surprisingly well for a Wii U game, ultimately moving about 5 million copies worldwide. By that metric, it was a success. But it never came close to matching the crossover appeal of Wii Sports, which saw more than 80 million copies sold over its lifetime. Indeed, when I tried to introduce Nintendo Land to my parents, I was mostly met with blank stares, whereas the Wii's simple and intuitive controls immediately grabbed them.
Nintendo Land had another problem as well: You had to have a fair amount of controllers to accommodate all the players needed to make it fun. It was a barrier to entry that wasn't nearly as acute in Wii Sports.
Today, the Nintendo minigame era is largely over. 1-2 Switch was completely overshadowed by Breath of the Wild, and many of the Switch's most successful party games are of the more traditional variety, with Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. leading the way. We didn't know it at the time, but Nintendo Land was kind of the last gasp of a dying era for Nintendo.
Still, I have a warm place in my heart for "Puke and Run." Even now, my Wii U is still hooked up, just in case I happen to have some friends over and we're looking for a change of pace from the usual fare. Nintendo Land may be largely forgotten, but there may yet come a day when Knifey and Forky ride again.