Although Nintendo skipped out on holding a big E3 press conference this year, the company tried to get its message to the people via Nintendo Directs and demonstration events held at Best Buys across the country. We attended one of these events to see how the Wii U's future games are shaping up.
The four games showcased at the event we attended were Super Mario 3D World, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, and Mario Kart 8. The first three games are coming out before the end of this year, while Mario Kart 8 will be released next spring. Here are our impressions of these Wii U games so far.
Super Mario 3D World
Our hands-on preview of this game contains quite a bit of information, so this segment will be brief. 3D World looks quite nice, and is a definite visual improvement over New Super Mario Bros. U. The Cat Mario power-up is both adorable and fun; it’s probably the best all-new upgrade to come to the Super Mario series in some time.
Despite the excellence of the Super Mario 3D Land level design, one can't help but be a bit disappointed that this new 3D Mario lacks the close-up sense of wonder and exploration that tends to be a hallmark of the non-2D games. The far-away viewpoint and semi-3D movement may work great for multiplayer shenanigans, but they take away from the single-player experience somewhat. Not every new 3D Mario game can be Super Mario Galaxy, it's true, but we'd love to see that kind of innovation and freshness from the Mario franchise again.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
Donkey Kong Country is all the rage again. Donkey Kong Country Returns made a splash on the Wii and 3DS, and now we're getting the first HD entry in the series later this year. Although the graphics at this point could stand to look a bit sharper, they're coming along quite well. The character models, at least, look great with their new fuzzy textures. The levels we saw were classic DKC, with tons of hidden secrets, collectable challenge letters, and death traps.
The familiarity is given an exciting twist when the game switches to a 3D view, which we saw in a flying-barrel segment in the demo. The 3D angle looks great. We're looking forward to seeing what different kinds of uses the developers have for the 3D level segments, as we're sure there's plenty more variety to them than just shooting monkeys out of barrels.
We're certainly looking forward to the return of Dixie Kong, as her propeller ponytail makes her quite versatile. The game's producer has stated that a mystery fourth character will be joining Donkey, Diddy, and Dixie. Players can freely choose which character to use in the game, and of course, secrets have been hidden away that require the special abilities of particular characters to uncover.
In a callback to Super Mario Bros. 2, Donkey and friends will be able to pull items up out of the ground; an ability that can be used to reveal secrets and solve puzzles. They'll also be able to pick up stunned enemies and toss them around. We saw that ability used to find a hidden KONG letter in the demo level, as Donkey threw a stunned penguin at an archery target, opening the way to the letter.
The Wii U may be playing host to an overabundance of 2D platformers, but Donkey Kong Country is a perennial favorite among players who enjoy a challenge. As this one is developed by Retro, a team renowned for its talent, we're sure it will continue the DKC tradition of excellence.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD
The original Wind Waker looked good; this HD remake looks fantastic. There were occasional frame-rate issues in the demo, but these were fairly minor and will hopefully be fixed in the release version. The best part of the graphical upgrade is the way the new lighting effects add an extra dimension to the graphics. Just watching the sun and shadows play across Link's hat as it blows in the wind is a pleasant experience.
Gyroscope controls have been added when adjusting Link's point of view and aiming certain tools. These are optional, so players can continue to use the left and right sticks in the traditional manner if they dislike the gyroscope. We asked the Nintendo representative present whether it would be possible to use a Wiimote to aim these same tools in the final version, but she was unable to answer that question.
A Nintendo Developer Direct on the game demonstrated some of the other changes that have been made to the original. The entire game can be played on the GamePad only, and when doing so, the player can use the stylus instead of the left stick when Link is using the Wind Waker baton. In addition, the ship speed has been increased greatly because the Wii U has the capability to load the entire ocean at once. Players will have to unlock the fast sailing partway through the game, however.
Finally, Nintendo has hinted that there will be some changes to make the slower-moving parts of the game, like the infamous Triforce Hunt, flow more smoothly. However, the company is not yet revealing what these changes will be.
Mario Kart 8
Mario Kart looks simply fantastic on the Wii U. The graphics really pop, and the visual effects are top-notch despite this being a relatively early build of the game. It's currently running at 60fps for single-player, and the team hopes to get that working for two-player races as well. As seen in the E3 Nintendo Direct, players can once again choose to ride a kart or a motorbike in the race, with plenty of customization choices for both. We didn't see any new power-ups, so we don't know if any are in store for us yet.
The game controls are up to the series' usual high standard, although the poor second player at the demo event was forced to use the single-Wiimote setup. They attempted to steer with motion control while the player with the GamePad laughed and won easily (the races were hard-locked to 50cc). Fortunately, the final version of the game will support “all controllers,” which we assume includes the Classic Controller Pro.
The new twist to Mario Kart 8 is the anti-gravity feature, in which players are able to drive sideways and even upside down on special segments of track. Although these segments look crazy from afar, they feel quite intuitive during actual gameplay. The best part of this feature is the many opportunities it provides for shortcuts and alternate routes.
The game is fully integrated with the Miiverse, a fact that allows for more interesting interactions with fellow racers. Instead of simply racing faceless people from around the world, players will be able to communicate with each other before and after races (which should be all kinds of fun for the Miiverse moderators). Nintendo is even making a service called Mario Kart TV, to which players can upload highlight reels of races that are created automatically by the game. Up to twelve karts can compete in local and online races this time.
Although Nintendo didn't bust out with anything crazy and innovative this year, the games it has coming out for the Wii U in the near future are solid and will provide Wii U owners with many hours of entertainment. Whether they will shift tons of hardware units remains to be seen, but Nintendo fans should be pretty happy with what the company has in store for them.
Senior Contributing Writer