When given the opportunity to revisit Nintendo's E3 showings outside of the L.A. Convention Center experience, Bob and Kat jumped at the chance. Does Nintendo's slew of upcoming releases put competing consoles' offerings to shame? Let's find out.
Bob: What gets me excited about Nintendo's upcoming games is the sheer amount of variety on display. Our preview appointment had a small collection of 3DSes being passed around, and whenever a PR rep handed me a new one, the experience contained on those two screens was guaranteed to be completely different from what I played last. I'm sure the lack of first and third-person shooters doesn't help Nintendo's bottom line, but the absence of these popular genres makes both the Wii U and 3DS library stand out. And a good number of these games, like Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, Mario vs. Donkey Kong, and Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright, feature an emphasis on puzzles, just to disprove all of us cynics who think games might be getting stupider.
Kat: It was a fun appointment! I enjoyed just sitting around for 90 minutes and getting a chance to play a lot of games. And as you said, Bob, the variety of experiences is impressive. It strikes me that Nintendo is feeling really experimental at the moment, and that they’re using their established franchises as a venue for new ideas.
I will say that a few of their ideas come off as the tiniest bit half-baked. Project Guard, for example, felt like a Nintendoland game that had been left on the cutting room floor. We all had a good time pointing out the various spots on the screen where the robot was looming so our colleague could shoot it, but it wasn’t clear what the practical application would be. I suppose that’s what happens when you decide to demo what amounts to a prototype.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is Captain Toad, which takes a fun idea from Super Mario 3D World and fleshes it into a complete game. Our fearless leader already wrote about this game at some length; but I think it’s worth reiterating that Captain Toad is really good. It was clearly the best game in Nintendo’s lineup at their event. Would you agree, Bob?
Bob: Yep, Captain Toad definitely leads the pack in terms of new Nintendo releases—as I said before, when I played those levels in Super Mario 3D World, I wanted more. And they've been able to tinker with the concept so much in this preview version, I can't wait to see what surprises the final release will hold. Captain Toad—the game, not the character—also looks absolutely gorgeous, and definitely ranks up there with some of the best-looking Wii U titles, like Mario Kart 8 and Pikmin 3. I'm not entirely sure what the Wii U is capable of, but it's definitely using all of the colors.
I have to echo your opinion on Project Guard. It's a neat concept, but, like you said, it feels more at home in a mini-game collection—it actually reminded me of the forgotten (and rightfully so) Game & Wario. It frustrates me that Nintendo is clearly capable of doing interesting things with the Wii U GamePad, but their ideas lack ambition. We've mostly seen shallow (albeit fun), toy-like experiences take full advantage of the GamePad's capabilities, but rarely anything larger in scope. I had the same issue with the 3DS and the simplicity of its StreetPass games, but Nintendo eventually brought out a small collection of releases a bit more complex than Find Mii. I'd like to see them take this same approach with the Wii U, but I doubt it'll ever happen.
On that note, two of the Wii U games on display were essentially GamePad-only—even if the TV was also in use—so I guess they're taking advantage of the GamePad in some way. Sort of.
Kat: I’m a little more optimistic than you are, actually. Nintendo has always had that sort of tinkerer’s mentality; and while not all of their ideas work out, others bloom. Project Guard and the like might not amount to much, but I’ll bet that they’ve got a million more interesting ideas that are actually being developed behind closed doors. With the sort of refresh that Wii U has received, it makes sense for them to continue building on what the Wii U Gamepad has to offer. I’d like to go on record as saying that I’m actually a bit fan of the Gamepad, if only because I love having the option to pick up a game while the TV is occupied.
In terms of two of the Wii U games on display being GamePad-only, I assume you’re referring to Mario Maker and Mario vs. Donkey Kong? Yeah, Jeremy also wrote at some length about Mario Maker. You know what Mario Maker actually reminds me of, Bob? Mario Paint. We’ll see if it’s still Youtube gold in about 20 years.
Bob: Actually, with Kirby and the Rainbow Curse, that makes three Wii U games where you won't be looking at the TV very often. But just like you, I do a lot of Wii U gaming on the GamePad alone, so these TV-free experiences aren't really an issue for me.
Let's Get Smashed
Bob: We also played Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS—god help me, that's the actual title—and I was more than relieved when you shared your thoughts with me after the appointment. I mean, I didn't want to be the one dissenting weirdo—so now I guess there are at least two. Seriously though, I've been playing Smash Bros. since the N64 debut, so I know how these games should feel. But something about the 3DS version felt off to me. I just don't think the Smash Bros. experience translates well to the handheld format; the graphics are tiny and indistinct (even with a thick black line drawn around the characters), and the 3DS just isn't ergonomic enough for the fast-twitch action of multiple Smash matches. I guess it would only make sense that Masahiro Sakurai would develop another game that comes with the curse of being extremely hard to play on a portable system—I'd love to dive into Kid Icarus: Uprising, but I quickly lose motivation when my joints start screaming after 20 minutes. (Note to readers: I am very far from retirement age.)
I still have hope for this new Smash Bros., but the fact that it's on 3DS feels more like Nintendo's "Plan B" than a thoughtful decision. Do you think we'd see a Smash sequel on a portable system if Nintendo's main console wasn't underperforming? I really doubt it.
Kat: I’m not sure, actually. In the past, Nintendo handhelds were always a little too weak for a Smash Bros. game. I think this is the first time that Nintendo and Sakurai have had a handheld powerful enough to host the game; and given that handheld culture has completely subsumed consoles in Japan, it makes sense that they want it on Nintendo 3DS. Gotta appeal to that domestic audience.
But yeah, I’ve played it multiple times now, and I’m just not feeling it. I keep wondering if it’s because I’m used to a GameCube controller and I can’t really get a grip on the 3DS button layout; but I think you made some really salient points about the size of the characters, Bob. And you’re right, the ergonomics of the 3DS itself kind of work against a twitch-based fighter like Super Smash Bros. Or maybe I’m just bitter because I can’t use the right analog smash stick without attaching a Circle Pad Pro. Whatever the case, the game mostly looks fine on the Nintendo 3DS; but I think there’s something to be said for the spectacle of playing it on a television with a group versus being glued to a handheld system.
By the way, you spent some time with the Smash Bros. 3DS exclusive mode. What did you think?
Bob: It's okay, but like the Subspace Emissary mode from Brawl, I doubt it'll hold most people's attention for long. The concept is novel, though: Smash Run generates a random "dungeon" that you explore for five minutes, while collecting items that permanently upgrade your stats. When those five minutes are up, you fight a boss, and can then bring that improved character into another round of Smash Run. It's interesting to see Smash incorporate RPG elements into a bonus mode, but, at best, Smash Run isn't much more than a curiosity.
Back to my thoughts on Smash Bros. 3DS as a whole: I just think fighting games don't work that well on handhelds—same with first-person shooters. I know Sakurai is an absolute perfectionist and his games always contain insanely detailed mechanics, so I still have faith that this version of Smash will improve. But I'm probably going to opt for the Wii U Smash Bros., whenever that's coming out.
...And the Rest
Bob: We certainly saw a lot of games, so not everything had a chance to stand out. I played roughly 20 minutes of Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright, and... it's exactly what you'd expect. Of course, Layton vs. Wright is a known quantity by this point—it's been out for nearly two years (!) in Japan—but it's still nice to see some support for Phoenix, even if his games don't sell as well as Capcom would like. I don't expect the game to amount to much more than publisher-sanctioned fan fiction, but I'm only slightly ashamed to say I'll be playing this just to see how Layton and Wright's worlds collide. Plus, Phoenix creator Shu Takumi is directing this one, and I have a lot of faith in that guy.
Kat, I know you played at least one thing I didn't: Fantasy Life. And I really wanted to check it out, mostly because Level-5 has a history of pumping out mediocre RPGs when left to their own devices. I want to see them make something good! What did you think of it?
Kat: It’s always hard to get a feel for an RPG at a demo since so much of the experience is predicated on building up your own characters. Anyway, Fantasy Life struck me as being kind of an Animal Crossing and Rune Factory hybrid with cutesy characters and art. The main gameplay loop seems to be predicated on leveling up every single job in the game—from tailor to paladin—so if that thing is in your wheelhouse then you’re in luck. It should be said that the actual gameplay isn’t especially deep. There are lots of quests to fulfill and jobs to do; but the combat is a bit like that of Zelda in that you can either attack or charge up a strike. I didn’t see much, if any, meaningful character customization. I don’t know, it looks like “My First RPG.” It might have an audience among Animal Crossing lovers.
Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright did a much better job of grabbing my attention. Admittedly, most of my experience with that game consisted of looking over your shoulder, but I really like the approach that Level-5 took with it. My understanding is that people are down on it because it’s basically watered down version of both games mashed into one; but I would argue that Professor Layton helps to balance out my least favorite elements of Phoenix Wright—the investigations. It seems to me that the Layton puzzles, however simple they might be, are a much better alternative to the sort of pixel hunts that tend to dominate Phoenix Wright’s investigations. Of all the Nintendo 3DS games on display, I think I liked Layton vs Wright the most. I think I’ll be picking it up.
Anything else, jump out at you, Bob?
Bob: I'm pretty sure we've covered it all—I wanted to try my hand at Mario Maker again, but our time was limited. Above all, though, Nintendo really knows how to shine in the face of adversity. Even if Smash Bros. stood as a bit of a disappointment, they simply have a ton of great and very different games on the way. If you're still on the fence and end up grabbing a Nintendo system this fall, you're going to have a lot to play. I know I'm excited.
Kat: Hmm… I don’t know if excited is the right word for me. At the risk of sounding overly cynical, I’ve already made my feelings clear about the fact that I think most of Nintendo’s best games will be coming out in 2015 and beyond (as will everyone else’s best games, to be honest). I do like how experimental Nintendo’s lineup is though. Between Yoshi’s Woolly World, Mario Maker, Mario vs. Donkey Kong and a bunch of others, we’re getting a lot of fun trinkety games that you won’t find on any other console.
With that said, I think Captain Toad is on track to be one of this fall’s most pleasant surprises, and I say this as someone who generally has no patience for puzzle games. The mind-bending spatial traversal puzzles are a pleasure to work through, and I don’t think it can be overstated just how gorgeous this game really is. During the demo’s boss fight—an entertaining affair in which Toad has to hide behind pillars to avoid a dragon’s fire attacks—I leaned over and mentioned just how good it looks. It may not sling too many polygons, but that art really does its share to close the gap between the Wii U and the PlayStation 4. I really can’t wait to see more.
On that note, I think it’s safe to say that I’m happy with Nintendo’s offerings this year. They may not have a Destiny—or a new Zelda—to show off this year, but they continue to do a good job of building up the Wii U’s library with interesting games.The main event may not be until next year; but in the meantime, I think there’s plenty to like about the Wii U’s current direction.