When I was growing up, there was a very thick wall that divided the worlds of PC gaming and console gaming. PCs were the place to play CRPGs like
Ultima, point-and-click adventure games like Myst, and real-time strategy games like Warcraft—games with complex gameplay mechanics, stories, and worlds. Consoles were essentially home platforms for the sorts of games that would show up in arcades—platformers, action games, fighting games, and sometimes even actual arcade ports. The two worlds existed in parallel and were fairly easily distinguishable throughout the ’80s and most of the ’90s.
I played a few PC games here and there as a kid, but it was the console space that really drew me in—and Nintendo was the undisputed king of that space. There’s a reason they’ve been one of the most renowned publishers for the last 30 years—their games are consistently great, their characters and worlds are perpetually memorable, and their talent at appealing to both new and experienced gamers alike is unmatched.
That’s a pedigree that wouldn’t have been possible without dedicated hardware—Nintendo’s games were (and are) built around a very specific, very controlled development environment and user experience, from the NES control pad to the Wii Remote to the Wii U GamePad. The company has a penchant for giving users exactly the right games backed by exactly the right hardware—a lesson learned from their intro into gaming via ’80s arcades.
Nowadays, however, console gaming is a very different beast. While consoles and PCs developed in very different directions throughout most of the ’80s and ’90s, the arrival of PlayStation heralded the beginning of an era of convergence. Sony started attracting PC developers with the prospect of bringing the best PC games to the CD-ROM-powered platform, Microsoft soon responded by releasing their own TV-connected game machine, and since then we’ve seen more and more games go multi-platform. In the long run, that’s led to greater parity between PCs and consoles—today’s PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are basically simple plug-and-play set-top gaming PCs.
That’s not true for Wii U, however. For better or worse, Nintendo has stubbornly clung to the old ideas that made game consoles so distinctive—their retro arcade roots. While this hasn’t won them any gamer-points in a world where everybody expects their consoles to have similar libraries and behaviors to modern PCs, what it has won them is the best traditional console-focused games on any platform this generation. It’s also led to some of the most lovingly-crafted games in the company’s entire history.
I don’t make this claim lightly. Nintendo has, after all, produced some absolutely stellar games over its 35 years in the industry. But let’s run down Wii U’s list of greats.
Nintendo Land‘s stable of multiplayer modes really is one of the finest collections of arcade-like cooperative and competitive games ever produced. The competitive games in particular stand out as a great case study for how fun local multiplayer can be when you strip out all the complicated movesets and rules and just turn people loose in a kind of virtual “tag” session.
There are no frills here: the developers latched on to a compelling core idea—giving one player the role of “it” while the others scramble to hunt him or her down…or keep themselves from getting caught—and matched it with an ideal hardware configuration that puts four players on the TV against another on the GamePad. That’s exactly the kind of thinking that set consoles apart as specialized game players, put to work with technology that wouldn’t have been feasible in the last hardware generation.
Pikmin 3 solved one of the conundrums the series has faced from the beginning: how do you emphasize strategy in an RTS where the scenery plays just as a big a role as the map layouts? Previous games, after all, didn’t really give you an overview of the map unless you entered the pause menu, making it kind of annoying to coordinate your limited time, man-power, and resources.
Nintendo’s answer: let the scenery pop on the big HD screen, and give the player a dynamic, real-time map view on a second screen. The result is easily the deepest game in the series, which benefits from a much more intuitive and rewarding multi-tasking system that will challenge even experienced
Pikmin vets to get the most out of each in-game day.
If you’ve ever played the original
Legend of Zelda, you probably remember how clumsy navigation and secret-hunting could be if you didn’t have the map memorized. Thanks to the power of Wii U’s second screen, The Wind Waker HD could squeeze out the perfect solution: a zoomable, 100% real-time map that’s always with you, and even lets you overlay different information depending on the extra charts you’ve gathered over the course of your game.
For a franchise that revolves around navigating a vast world, that’s an absolute game-changer. Thanks largely to these exploration improvements, the HD
Wind Waker remake easily offers the most enhanced user experience of any current-gen remaster. It’s more than just a remix and a spec boost—the changes actually make it a better game!
These are the kinds of solutions that consoles were originally designed to bring to the table. They examined the barriers to play, then created hardware to break down those barriers for would-be gamers. 2D movement was forever changed by the D-pad; 3D movement by the analog stick; touch- and gesture-based controls first cracked open an expanded audience on DS and Wii and continue to bring in new players on mobile devices. Nintendo’s shown an extreme dedication to continuing to use hardware to make games more approachable and fun, even when their competitors have largely settled on tried-and-true hardware designs that are starting to show signs of stagnation.
Even in cases where the games Nintendo puts out really
are just more complex, higher-spec sequels, the games have been backed by such an extreme level of passion and polish that I can’t help but wonder how some publishers think they can get away with releasing half-broken iterations of last year’s blockbuster hit. Meanwhile, Nintendo’s been putting out some of their all-time bests:
- Super Mario 3D World may not be the open-world 3D Mario game fans wanted, but that doesn’t stop it from being the tightest 3D platformer ever made. Even the filler levels are meaty! And even after playing 3D Land, it feels very much like Nintendo went back to the drawing board and reimagined what a Mario game should be like in 3D. The results made me question whether I’d even played a real Mario game in 3D before—that’s how bastardized the other 3D Marios seem in comparison.
- Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is probably the freshest take on an old franchise that I’ve played in years, even after going through Returns, which admittedly felt a bit too familiar. It’s challenging, creative, and positively oozing with well-crafted artwork, music, and level design. If you’re a fan of the classics and you yearn for a time when new games felt truly special and not like an effort to capitalize on last year’s characters and assets, Tropical Freeze is a top-tier choice, not just for this generation but for the last 15 years.
- Mario Kart 8 took all the great ideas from the Wii and 3DS games and somehow managed to make them even better. Not only did Nintendo actually make 12-player online play feel more balanced with changes to the item system, they also implemented the all-terrain gimmick from Mario Kart 7 so that it feels like more of a track enhancement and less of a distraction. Throw in the most well-made takes on Mario‘s universe and a bundle of well-priced DLC that expands the game by 50% by adding in some of fans’ biggest retro track requests, and you’ve practically got the perfect Mario Kart (the lack of a worthwhile Battle Mode still stings a bit, though).
- Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is, plain and simple, the biggest Smash Bros. ever made, with an insane cast of both fan favorites like Rosalina, Palutena, and Robin and out-of-the-blue surprises like Mega Man, Wii Fit Trainer, and Duck Hunt. And Nintendo did something completely unexpected to get the maximum mileage out of the bigger roster and the tremendous boost in computing horsepower: they added a local 8-player mode that evolves the crazy fighting fun of the previous games into its ultimate frenetic form. The end result is not a mere new-gen sequel, but the definitive realization of the original vision for Smash Bros.
No one can mistake these for “annualized” sequels; they’re the sorts of follow-ups I remember from a time when gaming was young and had to stay fresh to retain new players. For Nintendo in particular, these are benchmark titles—the first major HD games from their top-tier developers like EAD Group 1, EAD Tokyo, Retro Studios, and Project Sora. And with these first steps into HD, Nintendo hasn’t promised us the moon and failed to clear orbit—they’ve stayed far, far away from the traditional hype cycle and delivered games that often actually exceed expectations.
It’s worth mentioning that for each of the games mentioned in the list above, Nintendo absolutely
killed it in the soundtrack department, bringing all the iconic bombast that makes the themes from their classic games some of the most memorable in the business. These songs act like the trend toward subtle, ambient, or dramatic soundtracks that we’ve seen over the last few years simply doesn’t exist—they’re the sorts of tunes I imagine our kids will still find catchy 20 years from now.
These games are also incredibly faithful to their roots: they eschew the tendency for every game to build on major industry middleware and physics engines, and as a result they’ve got incredibly tight and responsive controls, vibrant visuals, and a distinct arcade-like feel—or an NES/SNES/N64/Wii-like feel, if you’re too young to remember the arcades. This is a feel you simply can’t find anywhere else nowadays, outside of retro reissues like the upcoming
Mega Man collection.
In the past, the PC gaming trajectory and the home arcade/console trajectory existed side-by-side. They complemented each other: PC gaming was targeted at the tech enthusiasts, while arcade and console gaming brought in the average joes, the families, the kids, and anyone else who didn’t have the know-how or the cash to worry about having the latest graphics driver. Nowadays, however, it seems like Nintendo is the only option for an authentic traditional console experience—and that’s a sad thing.
Wii U certainly doesn’t have the biggest library, or the best featureset, or even the brightest future as a platform—all things that can and should be valued in a game console. I’d be doing you a disservice if I tried to suggest otherwise. But I’ve seen and felt the sadness of fans of franchises like
Sonic, Bomberman, Mega Man, and Crash Bandicoot as that flavor of gaming has flickered out in recent years, only to be replaced by cinematic, online-heavy, and free-to-play fare. In such a world, I think it’s safe to say that Wii U stands alone as a beacon of hope that “good old gaming” may have a place today—not just as a relic of the past to be constantly rehashed or re-released for easy nostalgia cash, but as one of the living pillars of the modern games industry.
For that reason alone, without even considering new and upcoming games like
Splatoon, Xenoblade Chronicles X, and The Legend of Zelda, Wii U is a console that’s definitely worth owning—even and especially if you already have a PC, PS4, or Xbox One—and in the end, I think it’ll be more fondly remembered than most people expect. That’s because Nintendo doesn’t focus on chasing industry trends—they focus on building upon the essential core of gaming.