When someone spouts the idea of multiplayer, a large number of video game players would suggest Nintendo titles in a gaming night's playlist. Even those who shy away from Nintendo consoles in general can at least find solace in a Mario tale or two. Despite the success of the Mario Party series and Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games over the years, Nintendo struck gold when integrating Mii characters into games like Wii Sports and Wii Play. There's nothing quite like competing against friends and family on-screen using self-made characters, whether it's a heated game of tennis or a calm bout of fishing.
From there, it was time to introduce these players into even more concepts, playing off lessons learnt in Mario Party into another new series, Wii Party. A wealth of mini-games plus real-world concepts helped cement the game as a much loved title to play amongst both young and old, perhaps making for a more accessible experience than the flagship Mario games.
With the new Wii U console and GamePad controller, developer ND Cube is back to try and bid for the already crammed living-room experience with sequel Wii Party U. Can the tried-and-tested formula win over the tablet generation and bring back community gaming?
Nintendo capitalised on the advent of casual and family gaming by launching Nintendo Land alongside the Wii U, a pack-in game which introduced Mii characters into set-pieces for popular franchises like The Legend of Zelda and Animal Crossing. Its main focus was to showcase just how the GamePad works in tandem with other players who'd be using the Wii Remote for what Nintendo call "asymmetric" play: one player with specific view on the GamePad screen, whilst the others have a different perspective on the TV.
With Wii Party U, Nintendo a blend ideas from the original with concepts established in Nintendo Land. When loading up the new game for the first time are greeted with a wealth of new attractions to try, both with the GamePad and Wii Remote in mind. There's a surprising amount of content to take part in, whether it's going at it solo or with up to four friends.
Visually, Wii Party U does burst full of colour and a surprising amount of detail for a more family/casual orientated package. The art direction and graphics are impressive; nicely crisp and retaining a Nintendo look and feel whilst leaping into HD. It's presented well, and doesn't really need to be a cinematic, ground-breaking experience, but has exceeded expectations from a presentation standpoint.
The experience is divided up into three distinct modes - TV Party, House Party and the new GamePad Party. The first, TV Party, will be familiar to those who've played through a Mario Party game before: a set of game boards, like board games, each with their own set of rules and goals, but with the same core setup - roll a dice and complete in a set of mini-games. The first, Highway Rollers and GamePad Island are the more standard selection, a quick play experience with competition in mind. Highway rollers focuses on the core Wii Remote experience, aiming, swiping and waggling the controller in all sorts of wacky concepts, whilst GamePad Island introduces more asymmetric approaches.
The latter selection deviates from the "roll and win" approach, and involves a dollop more strategy in play. Mii Fashion Plaza is a particular highlight; a fashion parade where players a judged on their outfits after moving around a game board filled with spaces based on a particular look. It's here that pieces are unlocked, for example a Mario hat, a Roman Warrior's vest top or a clown's shoes in order to build up a costume in time for judging. Mini games do come into play, though more sparingly in this mode, with the main focus geared towards collecting clothing and trying to steal a desired piece from another player. The concept is more rewarding that it may sound, though does become slightly derailed as everyone inevitably shuffles towards the Mario/Princess peach look (which scores the highest), rather than exploring the other options.
The Balldozer is another one of those different boards, and acts as a seaside arcade cabinet where coins would be inserted and, depending on where they land, could push out more coins into player's eager palms. Instead of coins, it's balls, and the number of balls are distributed based on how well each player performs in mini-games. It's another enjoyable concept, rewarding more opportunity for those who do well, but heavily reliant on luck when comes down to the overall winner.
Finally, Teammate Madness is the last of the bunch and again involves those elements of strategy and a little luck. It's perhaps the most compelling of the lot, letting more experienced players battle it out. Each player is given a set of Mii characters with numbered vests as a team. After winning mini-games, those on the bench can be swapped out, and it's down to creating teams that are much like Poker-hands; specific sets of numbers to earn points - the better placed winners in a mini-games have more team members to exchange. It's a rewarding mini-game, and perhaps more suited to older players, keeping the pace between each mini-game session.
It's these shorter play sessions that bring the board and the games closer together, where it isn't simply rolling a dice block or two before the next chance to show off those Wii Remote skills.
As with past Party games, the mini-games themselves range from thoroughly enjoyable to mind numbingly simplistic and lacklustre. Fortunately, after playing through each in turn, the good outweighs the not-so-good when it comes down to Wii Party U. There certainly is enough variety to provide an array of short challenges for both young and old; but the difficulty level is fairly shallow for more experienced players.
The standout mini-games from the selection include "Cage Chomp", where players follow plus or minus cards being shuffled in order to avoid being eaten by a large fish, "Jumping Target", a cross between darts and trampoline, plus "Assemble Bots", where robots are pieced together within a time limit. The more compelling mini-games are the ones that involve a little splash of skill and thought, rather than going in blindly. Some of these include "Twisted Flight", where two sides of a helicopter are wound up separately and need to be balance in order to gain enough height, and "Speed of Sight", where patterns on passing cars need to be memorised.
With these, there are the usual handful of less interesting and dull duffers including a bland game of musical chairs, a remote waggling knitting game and a frustrating motion-controlled ball maze. Generally though, the main selection is varied and enjoyable enough to not grate on the player too much during the TV Play modes, being short and snappy enough to maintain the pace.
Beyond the standard mini-game modes is something more geared up towards getting players off the sofa and physically interacting with the game, the GamePad and each other. From a bizarre button-pressing take on Twister, to an amusing "Name that Face" camera game, there are short but enjoyable experiences that aren't challenging, but more of a fun addition to the main mini-game experience. Most do require at least three players to actually stir up some excitement though, given the nature of the turn-based approach to most of these modes. "House Party" isn't quite as ground-breaking as the games found in Nintendo Land, but are still a blast to play with a group of friends.
Finally, new to Wii Party U is the inclusion of GamePad games that are played entirely on the new controller. It's a digital take on classic table-top games like fuse-ball, or a miniaturised baseball table. These aren't exactly the selling point for the game, but really should be considered as extras, shorter games that two players can play without necessarily using the main TV. "GamePad Party" is a useful and fun addition, but nothing to particularly shout home about.
A large library of mini-games mixes a blend of clever, enjoyable ideas and less-exciting and dire experiences. Fortunately for Wii Party U, the majority of the game is woven from the good cloth and offer short bursts of family fun without alienating the player. It's accessible, but without too much hand-holding.
Bright, bold and fluid, Wii Party U makes good use of the hardware, creating the familiar Nintendo look and feel, whilst upping the detail and design to a more current flavour. It's not a cinematic experience by any means, and doesn't need to be, but does show a fair bit of care and attention in its design.
The soundtrack is as chirpy and Nintendo-like as could possibly be, crafted well for each of the games available. It echoes remnants of the Mario Party series in its approach. The sound isn't bad, or standout, but does the job well.
Wii Party U at its core is a party game. Mario Party could easily be tackled by a single player, but Wii Party U does demand more of a friend approach to play. There are single player modes and replay value though some high-scores, but its true value does come through the multiplayer element. There's certainly a lot more content this time round, and the game does make good use of the GamePad and TV Party boards to vary the different options.
Wii Party U offers a solid amount of fun, compelling experiences for family, friends and the solo player to enjoy on the GamePad and Wii Remote. It's survived the upgrade into HD, melding well established ideas with morsels of innovation. It isn't without its flaws in some of the duff games, but is a well-rounded package to consider for Wii U.