Nintendo Land is the Wii U's Wii Sports, in both form--it's a collection of minigames--and focus, which is to show you how the system's fancy new second-screen gimmick can enhance traditional styles of gameplay, and make entirely new ones possible. Like most party games, a good portion of Nintendo Land's short, simplistic games don't stay interesting for long when you're playing by yourself. But if you can get five like-minded people into a room, and you've made the admittedly hefty investment in controllers to get all of them playing together, Nintendo Land can make for a pretty riotous good time.
As minigame collections go, this one begins with grander ambitions than Wii Sports' simple menu-driven list of activities. Nintendo Land isn't just the title on the game box, but also a vibrant theme park that acts as an interactive hub where you run your Mii around, walking right up to the attractions and hopping into them when you want to play them. Coins that you earn by playing each game can be cashed into a centrally located Plinko-like game that earns you all kinds of little Nintendo-themed trinkets that decorate the park grounds, and the whole package is just wallpapered with retro-styled Nintendo artwork and bursting with 8-bit-sounding classic music. I also couldn't help being charmed by the droll humor of your monotone computer-screen guide, Monita. As a longtime Nintendo fan, Nintendo Land is easy to love right out of the gate, though if a game called "Nintendo Land" weren't immediately lovable, there would be a real problem.
Anyway, the meat of the package is obviously in the minigames, and while a couple of them wear thin pretty quickly, the majority of the dozen games on offer here collectively add up to a unique experience that makes it feel like there might be something to this whole Wii U thing. The absolute best of the games are, unsurprisingly, the three that pit the most people against each other in head-to-head competition. These are themed with Mario, Luigi's Mansion, and Animal Crossing, and each is essentially some variation on Pac-Man, where the four players on the TV have limited information but the benefit of numbers, while the sole opposing player on the gamepad has greater awareness of the playing field but has to stare down four-to-one odds. Each game features a unique twist--Luigi incorporates stealth while Animal Crossing demands the gamepad player control two characters independently with the two analog sticks--and these three games in particular gave rise to the sort of heated competitive yelling that I thought this office full of jaded old games writers had lost their capacity to produce.
I expected to write off all the single-player minigames in Nintendo Land after trying them each once, but several of them really stuck with me, primarily the ones that make the smartest use of the Wii U's unique two-screen setup. My favorite, called simply Yoshi's Fruit Cart, has you trying to move Yoshi around a basic field on the television to pick up a bunch of fruit. You see everything on the touchscreen that you see on the TV, minus the fruit, and you have to draw a path from fruit to fruit without actually being able to see any of it. As you start running into fruit that moves or that you have to pick up in a specific order, this mode gets devilishly tricky, despite its initial simplicity. Another game styled after Balloon Fight has you blowing gusts of wind by swiping the touchscreen, and a Donkey Kong-themed race course makes you tilt the Wii U's GamePad back and forth to roll a little two-wheeled contraption from level to level without turning it over and spilling the egg it's carrying. These games have a grounded, tactile feel that makes them great fun to play, and their adherence to a less-is-more design sensibility makes them fun to come back to repeatedly.
Ironically, the games that try the hardest to recreate some of Nintendo's biggest, most complex franchises, like Metroid and Zelda, were the ones I felt the least urge to spend extra time with. The Metroid game lets you fly around in Samus' ship or run around on foot to shoot at classic enemies, but that sort of gameplay doesn't make particularly engaging use of the gamepad's unique capabilities. Zelda likewise sends you against multiple waves of enemies in some hack-and-slashy combat (albeit with up to five people), and although the encounters do get a little more complex as you go, the whole thing still tends to feel a bit mindless. Though, the version of Pikmin that's in here feels surprisingly similar to the real thing, and lets players with Wii remotes take control of oversized Pikmin that the main player on the GamePad can pick up and throw along with the smaller minions. Just about every one of the minigames in Nintendo Land comes with one or more variants that focus on specific challenges or one-off versus modes, which gives you some reason to dig a little deeper even when you've had your fill of the primary mode. And performing well in each of them will earn you more of those sweet, sweet coins you can drop into the Plinko machine to fill your park with.
There's a good possibility that if you're interested in getting a Wii U at all, you'll end up with Nintendo Land anyway, since the game is bundled with the deluxe package that includes the black version of the console, four times as much internal storage, and a two-year discount on eShop games. That whole package is $10 less than buying the basic white Wii U model and Nintendo Land separately, and the good news is, Nintendo Land provides enough rousing minigames--provided you've got the players and the hardware--and a convincing enough case for the new control scheme to make it a worthwhile companion piece alongside your new Wii U.