Wii U: Hunting for the star of the launch line-up

Asymmetry and a focus on local multiplayer suggest great promise for Nintendo's new box of tricks.

Console launches can be tense affairs, can't they? First there's the worry about getting home from a midnight opening without being mugged by the bigger kids. Then there's the fear that the arrival of expensive new hardware will magically coincide with your rent going up and your wife walking out, landing you on the streets with an old paper bag for a house and no electrical sockets to plug your brand new Fairchild Channel F into.

More importantly, though, there's the software line-up. You've probably got a limited amount of money to spend - if you don't, incidentally, have I ever mentioned that I'm a bone marrow donor and I love receiving gifts? - and you want to make sure you end up with Twilight Princess rather than Red Steel. Nintendo showed off quite a few of its launch titles in Frankfurt earlier this week, and with Red Steel still fresh in my mind, I wandered around trying to spot potential winners - and also eating some of those weird menthol boiled sweets I can only ever find in Germany. Tangy!

Let's put aside the ports and the cross-platform stuff for the sake of this piece. The likes of Darksiders 2 and Mass Effect 3 look great, but the true star of any launch is going to be something console-specific, right? When Nintendo's involved, you can bet the true gems will probably be self-published, too, and sure enough there are two titles you should keep an eye on.

1

New Super Mario Bros. U

New Super Mario Bros. U is the known quantity here: the name might suggest some delightful Mushroom Kingdom higher education sim, but in reality it's good old side-scrolling multiplayer Mario at its most sprightly and chaotic. The art looks a little better in HD than it has on the Wii or a handheld for my money, and that's only partly due to the higher resolution. The backgrounds now seem stylised and chunky where the early games could come off a little cheaply, while the characters are all wonderfully colourful.

The main twist this time around is Boost Rush mode, which lets the GamePad player add new platforms to the landscape for other players - clutching more traditional controllers - to make use of. They can also use the stylus to jab away at enemies and free newborns from their bubbles. It's Nintendo speed-running at its most devious, too; the more coins you collect, the faster the screen auto-scrolls. Lovely.

Elsewhere, challenge mode mixes things up with optional, um, challenges, that should help keep the basic levels fresh, and there are new power-ups like the Flying Squirrel suit waiting for you. It's a gliding aid, basically, and if you're familiar with either Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World you'll be right at home with it. If you're not, you should probably play those before you play New Super Mario Bros. U. The lore's very important with this series, and you want to make sure you get the continuity right. It's like Lost, basically. They're all dead!

2

Nintendo Land

It's dependable stuff, but Nintendo Land might be better. Like Wii Sports, it's a selection of oddball asides that are designed to show the new hardware at its most creative, but it's built around a theme park rather than a spa island, which means it's already scoring serious prestige points with losers like me. Each attraction's delivered with a fabulous handmade art aesthetic, too: characters are made from thickly stitched wool, and game worlds are built from blocks of wood and swathes of wrinkled fabric.

The attractions are mini-games at heart, although most of them have been built up into decent enough campaigns in their own rights. With 12 on offer, you're going to be kept busy, but early winners include Balloon Trip Breeze for solo players - it feels like Nintendo's spin on those auto-runner smartphone apps, as you keep your Mii afloat with gusty swipes of the stylus, collecting balloons, finishing off foes, and staying ahead of the ever-scrolling window - and Mario Chase if you've got friends knocking around

This is a brilliant multiplayer affair, and it suggests there's serious invention - or at least a glorious Pac-Man Versus homage - to be found in Nintendo's asymmetrical controller set-up. If you're the player with the GamePad, you turn your back to the TV screen and have to lead Mario on a giddy path through a complex maze using the wide view afforded by your controller. If you've got a Wii Remote in your hand - held lengthways - you have to work together with your colleagues to catch Mario, with the added complication that you can only see a small section of the screen at any one time. Smart patrol routes and regular communications are the key to success here, and it's one of the more hectic local multiplayer options yet seen on a console that seems rather beautifully positioned to bring back the glory days of couch-based conflict.

3

Nano Assault Neo

Elsewhere, Nano Assault Neo looks like an entertaining downloadable game for day one. If you've played Super Stardust HD, Shin'en's twin-stick blaster is very, very similar, but it exchanges the arid wastes of outer space for the sticky globules that hopefully don't actually lurk inside the human body. You're some kind of teeny-tiny molecule-bot, in other words, and each level is set on the surface of a lumpy blob of viral nastiness.

Your object, inevitably, is to shoot anything that moves, and the GamePad allows you to pause the screen to rotate the map, or re-arrange a series of satellite guns you can clamp to your avatar. Satellite guns can be lost in collisions, but you can upgrade your weaponry at the store and bolt new elements on. The whole thing's very fast and very hectic and very colourful - and if you don't mind that it's also very derivative, you'll probably find an awful lot to enjoy here. Local multiplayer promises to be good, too.

4

Rayman Legends

But it's Ubisoft that might offer the biggest surprises of launch day. This is a tidy state of affairs, since the publisher was also responsible for Red Steel, so this is possibly the time for a little much-needed closure. Rayman Legends provides more of Origins' glorious 2D platforming, for starters, but the GamePad makes it seem fresh and surprising all over again.

This is because the GamePad player controls a new little critter whose job is to assist the other adventurers in their platforming antics. At the simplest level, this involves tickling enemies to incapacitate them or touching collectables to double their value, but as the game ramps up you'll be moving ledges back and forth, slicing ropes to open up new parts of the environment, and even rolling Rayman and Co. through giant tilt-mazes by spinning complex wheels back and forth. It's mesmerising to watch and nerve-trampling to actually take part in, and the odd musical level ramps up the tension even more as monsters chase the limbless hero through a range of jury-rigged music sequencer environments in which one mistake means death.

5

ZombiU

Rayman's been on form for a while, of course, which is why it's probably ZombiU that has the most impact of the French publisher's Wii U output. At E3, I'll admit that I wrote this off as a Left4Dead-alike, whereas in actuality it's far closer to something like a first-person Dark Souls.

It's a brutal and rather grimy splatterfest, then, in which you're left to explore a moody and depraved version of London, fighting off lumbering brain-eaters, scavenging for weapons and trying to stay alive in a world where a single bite can do you in for good. The game makes truly brilliant use of permadeath, in fact, as each restart sees you sent back into the action as a new survivor dispatched from a safe house, with none of your hard-earned loot to protect you, and an even chance that you'll encounter a few of your previous lives in zombie form on your travels. Such a punishing design gives the moment-to-moment feel of the game that same Dark Souls weight: every decision could lead to disaster, each darkened corridor could spell your doom.

It's more than a mere clone, of course, even though it wears its influences fairly proudly - right down to the fact that you can leave messages on walls to aid or infuriate other players. Happily, it turns out that it's the GamePad that gives ZombiU its distinct identity. While many titles try to gloss over the fact that it can be a bit distracting to switch between the action on the big telly and the menus unfolding on Nintendo's new controller, ZombiU positively embraces the situation, refusing to pause the action as you root through your inventory or check your map, and leaving you horribly exposed when you hold the device up to the screen to scan the environment for handy clues.

Zombies, theme parks, and the chance to scud across the surface of a lump of bacteria - the stars of the Wii U launch are nothing if not eclectic, I guess. While bitter experience with the DS and the Wii suggests there will probably be plenty of bad ideas to go around as developers struggle to get to grips with yet another weird Nintendo console, hands-on time with the first wave of games should hopefully leave you quietly excited for the future - and eager to get home and plug everything in.

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