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In praise of the Wii U, my son's first console

Nintendo's most misguided machine, in the words of a five-year old who loves it.

What was yours?

Mine was an Amiga 500, in 1989. The 'Screen Gems' pack, bundled with Shadow Of The Beast 2, Back To The Future 2 and the game that terrified me for years, Nightbreed. For my brother, a hand-me-down SNES that quickly lost favour in comparison to the shiny N64 in my neighbouring bedroom.

These machines are more than just circuits and buttons - they're memories, landmarks in our young lives, part of what shaped me, what shaped us. For me, it's that weird picture of a hand holding a floppy disc that sparks that warm nostalgic glow. For my amazing little boy Elliot, he will carry the memory of grabbing a curious hunk of black plastic down from the shelf and jumping into the Mushroom Kingdom or the battle arenas of Super Smash Brothers. His nostalgia triggered by primary-coloured worlds and jaunty music, of learning the intricacies of control systems, uncovering modes, secrets and tricks you or I would probably never have known existed.

For Elliot, his first console will always be the much maligned, uselessly-marketed Nintendo oddity, the Wii U.

1

Elliot, a couple of years ago, enjoying some early moments on Wii U.

Super Mario 3D World

Exactly when he first moved on from baby's iPad games and onto the comically oversized gamepad I'm not sure, but when I ask him what the first game he played on Wii U was, he replies "I think it was Mario 3D World."

His memory is better than mine, so who better to talk through his favourite five games? I've seen Elliot struggle to move past the first screen in Super Mario 3D World as a three-year old, to repeatedly decimating its final boss now aged five. So what's it all about?

"You have to beat baddies, and jump or use your attacks, and then you get past them, and then you try and get to the end, and then you get a new level, and it keeps going on, and in the last one, you go to Bowser, and you beat him, and there's no more levels."

About as succinct a description of Mario as you're likely to find. "You can get a fire flower, you can get a helicopter head, you can get a boomerang, you can get a koopa tail, the main one is cat bell," he tells me when I ask about the power-ups.

It's been wonderful playing this superb game with Elliot. The four-player co-op, with Wii remote compatibility, has meant the whole family has been able to play together at the annual Christmas festivities, while two-player ("when they die they go in a bubble and the other one has to try and get them out") has been a staple of many a rainy afternoon.

What of Elliot's favourite levels, though? "Well, first one is the last one. The last one you have to beat Bowser and it is so easy... bit hard. First time, bit hard. There's much more baddies in that one. And Bowser gets a cat bell. And he turns into a fire cat. He's on a pow block and you have to headbutt it five or six times. And then, the pow block goes down and we get the fairies, and then there's a song, and there's a bit of clicking... and I can click now!"

2

And as he is now, aged five and a half, with his favourite Skylander.

He can click now. And very impressive it is.

Super Smash Bros. Wii U

After a lengthy hiatus in favour of Pokemon Go on Mummy's phone, Yo Kai Watch on 3DS and even a dabbling with Fire Emblem Heroes (microtransactions firmly password protected, of course), Elliot is back in love with Smash.

And while the fighting game community still clings onto the Gamecube's melee and their CRTs, it has to be said that the Wii U version is one of the most extraordinarily complete packages I've ever seen. The sheer volume of content is almost overwhelming.

Elliot's basic outline of Smash Bros isn't perhaps the most descriptive. "I like doing training. It shows you who wins. And I like going bash, 'hua hua'. I fell over. You have to try and kill them, and there's a smash ball."

Who doesn't like going bash, 'hua hua'?

Yet it's watching him delve into the game's hierarchy of menus and digging up all manner of odd ways to play that's proven so fascinating. He's completed the 'story' mode on every difficulty with so many characters that the trophy screen looks like a Where's Wally picture, and he's taken on battles that I'm sure most people don't even realise exist.

"That's the last bit you have to do." Elliot tells me, when I ask him about playing story mode at the highest difficulty. "When Master Hand gets beaten, when it's super hard, Crazy Hand turns into a dragon, and when you kill him, he turns into a straight stick and he gets lots of friends and you have to kill the main one. That's Crazy Hand."

4

Super Smash Bros. Wii U is a monster - the amount of content is crazy.

Master Hand and Crazy Hand are two disembodied, white gloved hands that attack you independently.

"And then it takes a picture of you, and then a black Greninja comes, or the others ones, and when that came it just knocked me out and I was dead. That is the hardest level."

Out of nowhere, he also informs me "I was trying to beat Kirby and Kirby KEPT BEATING ME, BUT THEN HE GOT ONE AND I WENT HUURRR BASH with my hammer with King Dedede and I won."

I wonder if a career in professional Smash beckons.

Skylanders Trap Team

The cynical parent in me, as well as the veteran gamer, can see straight through Skylanders. A simple loot game that locks off sections of content until the player - or in most cases, the player's parent - buys a new toy to be able to unlock it.

But then I remember back to being a little guy myself, how I used to lie awake in bed just dreaming of that He-Man figure I'd seen in the toy shop and how I might be able to get it in a few weeks if I saved up. And that's what Skylanders has been like for Elliot. Coming to it a couple of years late has been perfect too - an army of older toys sits on CEX shelves, most priced under 2 quid and some as low as 25p.

Just the act of buying a handful of new figures and testing out their moves has been a thrill; the game has lasted us well over a year and even his little brother Cody (18 months) loves lining up all the spare Skylanders on a table while his big brother plays.

5

Remember when it was all about Spyro?

If, back in the early 90s, I justified buying figures for myself that came out of melting mini trash bags (remember them?), I can justify a couple of baskets full of Skylanders.

Nintendoland

A Eurogamer favourite, and one of the few games to actually take advantage of the Wii U's dual screen capabilities, Nintendoland was actually a bit a slow burn in this house - a few confusing minigames, that were quickly cast aside for more family time on Smash and Mario.

Yet in the past few weeks, I noticed Elliot playing something I'd literally never seen before in my life. "Pikmin Adventure". It's one of Nintendoland's minigames, and just as Elliot uncovered all sorts of stuff no one ever knew existed in Smash Bros, so too he spent hours ploughing through this pseudo-action-RPG. I'll let him explain it.

"You can be five characters. You can be Pikmin or Olimar or the other pikmin. You travel together and you have to beat baddies. Sometimes there's a time limit - you have to beat the time - and there's clocks that go up. At the end sometimes you have to beat a baddie, and it's easy, and I just can't past the stupid time limit. Because there's a lot of baddies you have to beat, and I keep dying in that bit."

"Sometimes I go on them and get them, but sometimes the baddies get you and eat you and poo you out - and you go to poo. But the other person can see you. Or they spit on you. And I am like the best on that. Not many people have played Pikmin Adventures."

He's right.

3

Pikmin Adventure has gone down a storm.

Mario Party 10

The most maddening of Wii U Games. I bought Mario Party 10 on release, digitally, as I knew Elliot would love the combo of his favourite plumber and the moreish appeal of traditional board games. Within minutes, I came to the horrifying realisation that despite being a Wii U only release, the game will not work with the Gamepad. You actually need Wii Remotes to play it. So, a game on Wii U, and only Wii U, will not work if you only own a Wii U. I'm amazed it was allowed to be released.

After digging through some cupboards and buying some batteries, I set Elliot off on a dice-powered journey that has easily lasted over a 100 hours, into every dusty corner that this piece of software has to offer. Mario Party 10 is a bit of a treat around here, as it requires full access to the family television, abandoning the Wii U's best feature and the main reason Elliot has had so much enjoyment out of the machine overall.

Yet every spare minute that he has been allowed has been spent rolling that dice, running from Bowser, and digging into every menu option the game has.

"There's a Whomp, and you go into a castle. There's lots of minigames. And then you have to beat the baddies, the last one who gets the bit of the bar gets the winner, and they get more points.

"You have to beat them with the things you have. The one I always win in is Peter's bomb something. I don't know what the last word is."

6

Critics were lukewarm on Mario Party's 14th outing, but it's got plenty of charm.

No one on earth has played more Mario Party 10 than my son. I'm confident of that. Not even the developers. And because of this, I now know that the game hides a tremendously addictive high-speed badminton mini-game, that doesn't even appear during the regular board-game mode. "Badminton. Yeah - you have to get it all the way to 21, and then you beat the other person."

These aren't the only games Elliot has loved. Splatoon is teaching him how to use both sticks. He's finally learning to drift in Mario Kart 8. Yoshi's Wooly World is a co-op delight. Super Mario Maker a creative masterpiece. "I made one where you have to get past three Bowsers - and that is the hardest level."

What has been so consistent, though, in the time Elliot has spent with these games, is the feeling that the Wii U is a celebration of multiplayer gaming. It's a curious, misguided machine that Nintendo itself didn't understand, but one that gradually made more and more sense to me as I watched Elliot grow from a toddler to a little schoolboy with it in his hands, and as he's led his entire family into playing games with him.

And those games. They're not 'services', as is becoming the popular term, and nor are they transient experiences, designed to be blasted through and traded in for the next one. Nintendo has designed these products to be ever-present, like a treasured family board game. Something that lasts for years. And they have. Mario 3D World still gets played every week, years after release.

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What a treat to have been able to watch my little boy experience such wonder and joy in the glow of the Wii U's screen. Of course, he's still sprinting around parks, kicking footballs, learning to swim and doing all the things little chaps should be doing too. Unlike my generation, which was taught that gaming was a negative - either a passing fad or a cultural menace - Elliot will grow up holding games in reverence, just as we did with the movies and books that mattered to our parents.

And finally, perhaps a little selfishly, I'm so happy that it's not Minecraft or a mindless tablet game that has held his attention for so long, but meticulously crafted worlds and pieces of design, built by some of the finest creators on the planet. Even as Nintendo moves onto the Switch, which will no doubt result in lost JoyCons for Daddy and a screen scuffed within seconds of launch, Wii U will still live on in our living room for years. Timeless games, a controller and screen that has taken countless tumbles and slips, and a special place in the heart of the most magical little boy (soon to be boys, by the rate at which his brother is catching up).

The Wii U may the laughing stock of the Nintendo armoury, but it will always be his first console. And that's all that really matters.

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