With any major launch, the first-party games have the upper hand. The makers of the system have spent a lot of time with the hardware, and they know its capabilities. So it's a safe bet that if you're looking for Wii U offerings, Nintendo is the way to go.
However, the recent batch of launch titles are unusual. At first glance, "New Super Mario Bros. U" and "Nintendo Land" seem to play it safe. Initially, both don't do anything to impress players. They don't grab you in the same way "Wii Sports" did with the Wii remote. Seeing that game in action instantly showed fans that Nintendo was onto something.
The magic of the Wii U, which hits stores Sunday, isn't as straightforward. "New Super Mario Bros. U" is a standard platformer, while "Nintendo Land" looks like a mixed bag of minigames. The trick to drawing the magic out of both games is to add a player or two -- or three or five.
Stun with a stylus
That's when the Wii U GamePad shines and shows refreshing gameplay changes. With "New Super Mario Bros. U," the new controller acts as support. Gamers don't play as Mario, Luigi or the two toads. Players tap on the screen with a stylus to create blocks or jab at enemies to stun them.
It may not seem like much, but it helps immensely, because this is one of the hardest "Mario Bros." games to come out in ages. Going solo, it's frustratingly difficult; the game asks you to make one impossible jump after another. The GamePad user can save you from a wayward jump and alert your partner to secrets only she can see.
It's especially helpful on tricky stages such as the haunted mansions. But the game pushes communication between players in the same room. That social aspect is the magic sauce that gives life to a routine but lengthy adventure.
"Nintendo Land" has loftier standards to live up to. As the pack-in game with the Deluxe version of the Wii U, it's supposed to be the entryway where newcomers discover what the new console is all about.
Set up like a theme park, the game lets players tackle several minigames in the form of attractions. The single-player fare is a mixed bag. Yoshi's Fruit Cart and Octopus Dance are disappointing, amounting to nothing more than glorified iPad time-wasters. But attractions such as Takamaru's Ninja Castle and Balloon Trip Breeze hint at the potential of the touch-screen GamePad.
Takamaru's Ninja Castle resembles a light gun shooter, except players toss out throwing stars by sliding their fingers across the touch screen. Balloon Trip Breeze lets players push their character across the level by tapping the screen and creating a breeze. They will be constantly looking at both screens to navigate obstacles in the way.
Friend vs. friend
But again, Wii U is a social system; though some of those minigames introduce novel concepts, it's the competitive attractions pitting four friends on Wii remotes against a competitor on the GamePad that are the stars of this show. Mario Chase, Animal Crossing: Sweet Day and Luigi's Ghost Mansion are where the fun lives. (The cooperative offerings such as The Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest aren't that compelling.)
Mario Chase is basically hide and seek. The GamePad player hides in a map and the four rivals track her down. Constant communication is key. Luigi's Haunted Mansion operates on the same concept, except the GamePad player is a ghost that can sneak up and subdue foes while the four competitors can shine a light and fry the spirit. But by far, the best minigame in "Nintendo Land" is Animal Crossing: Sweet Day, where four players grab candy while the GamePad user searches for them.
It has the most depth and strategy, requiring constant teamwork to best the GamePad player who has control of two avatars at the same time. (It's not as hard as it sounds.).
Spend time with a group of friends playing this, and it can change their minds about the system. Nintendo has found a way to crystallize joy, stamp it on plastic discs and sell it. It just takes a few buddies to dig it up from beneath the surface.
'New Super Mario Bros. U'
* * ½
Platform: Wii U
* * *
Platform: Wii U
Rating: Everyone 10+