I love my Wii U, but I'll openly admit the console never became what Nintendo wanted it to be.
In all honesty, no one—not even its developers—could possibly recreate a phenomenon like Wii Sports, the experience that had a good portion of the world screaming, flailing, and occasionally shattering TVs nearly a decade ago. NintendoLand attempted to capture this same magic, but its various experiments in asymmetrical gameplay barely registered a blip on consumers' radars. Since then, the GamePad has rarely acted as more than a second screen, which, while useful, definitely doesn't make up for the new types of games I once assumed I'd be playing on the Wii U.
In my various adventures at trade shows, though, I've stumbled upon a game that manages to capture that same level of group enthusiasm as Wii Sports—if there's a kiosk up and running, you'll likely hear the participants screaming, cursing, and laughing from hundreds of feet away. 13AM Games' Runbow doesn't aspire to be as revelatory as the pack-in that sold tens of millions of Wiis, but that's okay. It might have been a long time coming, but soon, we'll finally have another multiplayer experience that taps into the Wii U's original mission.
Runbow's premise is devastatingly simple: Essentially, it's a challenging platformer, where you're tasked with reaching the end of a level while escaping death. The twist comes with its multiplayer component, where up to eight other players can join you in a race for first place. Attacks from these competitors can slow your progress, but the biggest challenge comes in adapting to the various color changes that wipe across the screen every few seconds, which temporarily erase the platforms that match its particular hue. It's a visually chaotic game, but that's baked into its design—and certain pick-ups flip the world upside down and swap character bodies just to accentuate the confusion.
Runbow could be a little too overwhelming if not for its short-burst approach: Each competition is broken up into a series of races that run about 30 seconds—with a five-second breather between each one—so even if you die right out of the gate, jumping back in won't take long. And, in order to get so many people playing at once, Runbow makes some creative uses of Wii U compatible controllers; a Wiimote-nunchuck combo can actually support two players if you don't mind being tethered to someone who most likely wants you to lose.
Even though it borders on sensory overload at times, Runbow stands as a great, pick-up-and-play experience—and one developed exclusively for the Wii U, which seems like an unorthodox choice for an up-and-coming indie. But 13AM Games producer Dave Proctor claims their console exclusivity has given them a good friend in Nintendo. "The Wii U's actual eShop engagement base is improving constantly and [Nintendo's] done a lot of work pushing new units out—they're up to 10 million units right now," says Proctor. "What we like about Nintendo is that... they seem to really dedicate their time and their effort to products that are fun. And things that they deem are at a level of quality fitting the Nintendo brand. We're focusing on the Wii U because it has the hardware that we want to deliver the experience we want. We have a nine-player game—and it's designed for nine players; we're not just picking an arbitrary limit. So that extra risk for [development] has been mitigated a lot by the help and attention [Nintendo's] been able to give us."
I still have my doubts about the longevity of the Runbow experience—it feels a little too high-energy to play for more than half an hour at a time—but, to be fair, I've only had a chance to experience the most basic of its seven modes. Still, in my brief experience with the game, Runbow managed to capture that Wii Sports brand of whimsy, even if it would have would have been a little more welcome a few years ago. We'll see if it causes living rooms to once again erupt with Nintendo-fueled commotion when it launches this summer.