Forget Mario. Don't worry about Donkey Kong. There are two Wii U games that will shape the console's future, and neither stars one of Nintendo's big mascots.
One is designed for hardcore gamers; the other is designed for everyone. One is about superheroes; the other is about partying. One uses the GamePad as an accessory; the other uses it as a centrepiece.
I played both games during a press meeting at Nintendo's offices in midtown Manhattan last week, and I left thinking about how each one fits into the Wii U ecosystem. It's no secret that Nintendo's newest console has struggled in 2013 so far, and with next-next-gen consoles hitting later this year, the Wii U seems set up to plunge. Blame it on a software drought, or poor marketing, or the name "Wii U" making it seem more like the Wii's accessory than its successor — whatever the reason, gamers just don't seem to get it. Smart people know never to count Nintendo out, but at this point the fight seems insurmountable.
These two games though. They're going to matter.
The first game is The Wonderful 101. It's a frenetic action game created by Platinum Games, the company behind Bayonetta and Vanquish. You star as a bunch of superheroes — 101, to be specific — who run around a stylised city fighting off an alien invasion. To attack enemies, you morph your gang into weapons like swords and guns by drawing shapes on the GamePad controller.
The second game is Wii Party U, and it's designed to be played by a bunch of people in your living room. It's a collection of mini-games partitioned into different modes — there's a Mario Party-ish board game mode, a pass-the-GamePad-around-the-room TV mode, and a GamePad-only mode where you put the Wii U's unique controller on a table and use it to play games like foozball.
The Wonderful 101 is important because it's the type of single-player experience that many passionate Nintendo fans want — as an action game designed by well-respected veteran designers, it will likely become a favourite of the hardcore crowd. It also uses the Wii U's GamePad in a particularly interesting way: as a challenge. It's tough and exciting to try to draw shapes on the small screen as you battle aliens on the big screen, and it seems like the type of balance that will be fun to master.
We've seen this type of GamePad-as-accessory design in solid games like Lego City Undercover and ZombiU, both of which are good at showing gamers how the Wii U controller can do some fascinating things: you can hold it up, move it around, draw on it, whatever. The GamePad can enhance your experience, and The Wonderful 101 offers another take on that.
On the flip side, Wii Party U is important because it could be the Wii Sports of this generation, the game that convinces kids and parents across the world that they really do need one of these systems. Wii Sports was easy to understand: you pick up a Wii remote and bam, you can play tennis and baseball and golf just by waggling the stick. It was simple, straightforward, and fun. The Wii U's appeal is much more difficult to grasp before you play it; sure, there's a second screen, but what's the point? Won't it be confusing? Isn't one screen enough?
The first Wii Party U mini-game I played at Nintendo's office was a Charades-like quiz show in which there are four players, and everyone takes turns holding the GamePad and taking a photo of themselves based on a prompt they see on the small screen: "You just sneezed without a tissue," for example. Shortly afterwards, the other players see that photo on the big screen, and they all have to guess which was the correct prompt. The winning guesses get points.
It's this sort of game — this sort of shared experience that's only possible on the Wii U — that Nintendo needs to get in front of every pair of eyeballs they can. Nintendo seems to be aware of this, as boss Satoru Iwata put it in an investors meeting last month: "We are going to release a variety of Wii U software, and with each title, we would like to show how convenient and delightful it is to have the Wii U GamePad controller, and how it changes the gaming experience."
That's good. Iwata knows what he's talking about. And that's exactly what the Wii U demands: games that demonstrate what the GamePad can do both as an accessory and as a centrepiece. Games like The Wonderful 101 and Wii Party U.
We like to talk about how the Wii U is severely under-powered compared to its competitors, and how it won't be able to play third-party next-gen games like The Witcher 3 and Thief, but really, Nintendo was never in that fight, and that war for AAA shooters and bloated budgets and studio closures isn't even worth winning. The Wii U can take over our hearts by carving its own path and letting us play games that we've never been able to play on a console before.
Nintendo Land was a good start, but for me, Wii Party U is the first game to really trigger that "oh!" moment — that revelatory feeling that hey, this GamePad can do some special things. By giving one player access to information that other people don't have, the Wii U can open up all sorts of possibilities: imagine, for example, a Dungeons & Dragons session in which one player, holding the GamePad, can design and direct a campaign for other players on the television.
Last weekend, I had some friends over to play Cards Against Humanity, the amazing party game in which one player, the judge, picks a black card with an incomplete sentence or question, and the other players must put down cards to fill in the blanks. The judge picks card he or she likes best, and that card wins. It's the type of game that could work perfectly on the Wii U, and I'd love to imagine a future where I can invite people over to play something like Cards Against Humanity — and many, many other multiplayer experiences like that — on my Wii U.
The Wonderful 101 comes out on September 15, and Wii Party U is out later this year. It will be exciting to see how the world reacts to both.