Nintendo has had a pretty rough summer. Most fans were disappointed in their showing at this year’s E3 which was followed several weeks later by the fairly sudden passing of their CEO of twelve years, Satoru Iwata, who had not only become the face of the company to fans but helped steer Nintendo into the company’s most prosperous decade of business ever. However, if we look past the dark clouds hanging over them, we’ll see that Nintendo’s immediate future looks quite bright. A little over a week ago, Nintendo invited local media to sample some of their fall line up. The event was held in a small event space in Toronto’s fashion district, barely big enough for everyone to fit comfortably. The line up Nintendo brought was only a fraction of what they have in store for the rest of the year, notable absences include the heavily anticipated Xenoblade Chronicles X and the Japanese horror title, Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water. Even with these exceptions, Nintendo had quite a few first party heavy hitters like Star Fox and Super Mario Maker on the floor for attendees to try out and that’s just on the Wii U, the 3DS has quite a few things to look forward to as well.
The big three Wii U games at the event were Yoshi’s Woolly World, Star Fox Zero and Mario Maker. Yoshi has already been released outside the Americas and is slated to arrive here October 16 while Star Fox Zero still only has an unspecified “Q4” release. Super Mario Maker, on the other hand, is less than two months away with a September 11th launch. When Nintendo first announced that they would be demoing Super Mario Maker at Best Buy stores during this year’s E3 I just didn’t get it. It was one thing to demo Mario Kart or Smash Brothers as they had done in previous years but Mario Maker seemed like more of a tool than a game, something to tinker around with for hours at a time, not a quick pick up and play experience that’s conducive to a quick demo. That said, seeing it in person shattered this perception of Mario Maker for me. After all, at its core, it’s still a Mario game and the pre-made levels Nintendo showed off were stunning. Even after years of classically inspired indie games, seeing an “8-bit” Mario game in HD with hundreds of sprites on screen is a bit of a surreal experience, it looks like an NES game running on turbo. It’s a legitimately pretty game and the levels on show were creative and complex showing not only what can be done with the tool set but the type of thing players can look forward from more skilled content creators if they themselves aren’t up to the task of “making Mario.”
Yoshi’s Woolly World may be arriving late in North America but fans of 2D platformers look like they have another solid entry on the Wii U which has provided an embarrassment of riches for the genre’s fans. Yoshi and his woolly world are adorable. Every character, item and environment is made of yarn and is endearingly animated. Yoshi is capable of transforming itself into vehicles like planes and motorcycles to get past certain obstacles, a mechanic that has returned from Good Feel’s last yarn based title, Kirby’s Epic Yarn. While it technically works, seeing Yoshi transform into a yarn plane looks pretty ridiculous. Kirby has been morphing into inanimate objects for a while but seeing Yoshi, a character who doesn’t have that history, do it seems like a lazy way of just using what worked in the last game where it doesn’t belong. Regardless of minor thematic issues, this looks to be a thoughtfully designed game. The environments are beautifully rendered and players will likely have a pleasant time going from point A to B. The level I played had secrets for players to discover though exploration and experimentation with tons of collectable doodads to entice completionists. Players seeking a true challenge are better off with something like Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze instead since, like most Yoshi games, Woolly World is designed for newcomers in mind. That isn’t to say the game has nothing to offer platforming veterans, it just won’t be a test of one’s skill. Woolly World also utilizes amiibo, Nintendo’s insanely popular NFC toy line. A super cute plush yarn Yoshi amiibo will be available to double the number of Yoshi on screen, much like the double cherry in Mario 3D World. The Yarn Yoshi itself is neat but hardly essential to the game and that can be said for all of the game’s amiibo functionality. Almost all other amiibo are compatible by giving Yoshi themed skins based on the character you scanned.
Of course while Yoshi and Super Mario Maker are cool, what I was personally excited about getting to play was Star Fox Zero. Zero is the first original Star Fox in nearly ten years. The last new game was Star Fox Command on the Nintendo DS and, in this writer’s opinion, it was the weakest entry in the franchise. Zero is a “reimagining” of series touchstone, Star Fox 64. When the game was first shown publicly at this year’s E3, many decried the graphical fidelity of the game, comparing it to the GameCube entry, Star Fox Assault. These comparisons are silly once the game is seen in person. While Zero isn’t pushing the Wii U to its limits, it is no GameCube game. In Corneria, the first level, mountain and water textures look great and long draw distance gives the planet an epic feel and a sense of place it’s never had before. The game runs smoothly at a steady frame rate and Fox and company do a fantastic job emulating the feel of Thunderbirds, an aesthetic Nintendo’s been trying to capture with the series since the first entry. Star Fox Zero strives to justify the Wii U gamepad and here is where I believe some may have issues, the standard controls are a mix of the traditional Star Fox scheme with gamepad controlled aiming via the motion sensors. The gamepad screen provides a first person cockpit view where players can aim via motion at any target regardless of where your vehicle is facing. Pressing the “-” button brings the first-person view to the TV so players worried about craning their necks up and down need not worry too much. By the time I completed the level I was starting to get the hang of it but I wouldn’t be honest with you if I said I didn’t feel like going back to the traditional control scheme. That’s not to say there aren’t obvious improvements, barrel rolls and boosting are now tied to the right analog stick making these manoeuvres simpler and more fluid than they’ve ever been. Earlier games removed Fox from his Arwing to the outrage of many fans but Zero keeps Fox in a vehicles at all times and the Arwing itself transforms into a walker, allowing Fox and crew to take care of ground missions without completely losing the series’ arcade action feel. Other changes include the removal of smart bombs and the addition of the gyrocopter, a helicopter vehicle designed for precision flight in narrow spaces. As of now, Star Fox Zero is one of the few big first party titles coming this year that does not have any known amiibo support. Star Fox Zero is being developed by cult favourite Japanese studio Platinum Games which was responsible for the Bayonetta series and Madworld.
Lest I forget, the Wii U will also play host to a new Mario Tennis later this year with the release of Mario Tennis Ultra Smash. There’s not much to say about the game other than it plays like every other game in the series. Mario characters playing tennis with the help of ridiculous power ups. The gameplay is tight and familiar and the graphics are technically on par with the likes of Mario Kart. On the other hand, the demo felt sterile. A basic grass court was the only venue available to play on and the only power-up was the giant mushroom. I expect and hope that the final game will have far greater variety.
Of course, Nintendo has a handheld system as well and they certainly haven’t forgotten it. The Nintendo 3DS keeps chugging along and the second half of 2015 and early 2016 looks like it’s going have quite a healthy line up. Those into RPGs with find the 3DS welcoming with the Western release of Japanese phenomenon Yokai Watch by the end of the year. Complete with a localized anime, the game threatens to explode in much the same way Pokémon had nearly twenty years ago. Next Spring will bring Mario and Luigi Paper Jam, the Paper Mario/Mario & Luigi crossover we never knew we needed, which looks and plays absolutely brilliantly, combining the style and form of both Mario RPG franchises in one. There’s also the much maligned Metroid Prime Federation Force, a game that got so much backlash when it was announced at E3 this year that people seriously signed a petition asking for its cancellation. Asking for a game to be cancelled may be asinine but at the same time I can see where some of the fury comes from. Nintendo had only a single multiplayer mode called Blast Ball playable at the event and outside of the game’s heads up display, it had precious little to do with Metroid Prime. A three on three soccer game where you shoot the ball by blasting at it, the game was clunky to control and lacked any personality, a stark contrast to every single other title on display. Of course this is only a portion of the game and I’ve got faith in Next Level Games. The Canadian studio is developing the title and they also worked on great games like Punch-Out (Wii) and Luigi’s Mansion Dark Moon. The biggest surprise of the event was Chibi Robo Zip Lash which, unlike previous Chibi Robo titles, plays more like a 2D side-scroller akin to Bionic Commando. Chibi Robo, a tiny robot, navigates levels by swing around hazards with its electrical cord. The cord can also be used to destroy obstacles and enemies. Zip Lash may alienate old fans but as someone who never really got into the series it offers players a chance to get to know this obscure Nintendo character a little better. Zip Lash will also support an amiibo of Chibi Robo itself and can be used to make him temporarily invincible.
It needs to be emphasized again that this is only a portion of the first party lineup Nintendo has in store for both systems. The sheer quantity of Nintendo’s own output is impressive but also necessary as third parties have all but abandoned their platforms. You may not be getting the next Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed but if you’re a Nintendo fan there’s a lot to be excited about in the coming months on both 3DS and Wii U. Just don’t take out a loan for those amiibo, is a tiny figurine of the the Duck Hunt Dog really worth the crippling debt?