Last month, Nintendo held an event in London to showcase the line-up of near-future releases for its twin downloadable gaming catalogues, WiiWare and DSiWare. The context was exactly as you'd expect: a plush venue with spectacular views of the capital; a marketing presentation with words of reassurance for retail, and an undertone of envy for Apple's success with the App Store; a smattering of news, a few names showing faces (David Braben, Kenji Eno, Dave Grossman) and a star turn from a slick sequel, LostWinds: Winter of the Melodias.
However, a long day of demos later, a picture was formed of a service that's striking out in a very different direction to its competitors. While PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade push sumptuous, big-ticket releases (WipEout HD, Shadow Complex) and tried-and-true arcade gaming (Trials HD, Shatter), touring WiiWare's future felt more like a stroll round IndieCade.
Of all the download marketplaces, WiiWare seems to have its roots deepest in the PC indie scene. There was a lot of lo-fi experimentation on display, and fresh-faced bedroom coders told surprised tales of being approached directly by Nintendo after a showing at IndieCade or the Indepenent Games Festival. Only Telltale Games, promoting the episodic Tales of Monkey Island, and Britsoft old-timers Frontier and Team 17 showed anything that might be called conventional. Even Nintendo itself had caught the mood; in fact, its solitary in-house WiiWare title - You, Me and the Cubes - was probably the weirdest game on display.
For now, we'll draw a discreet veil over the poor showing from DSiWare which, frankly, has already been outclassed by the nascent PSP Minis library. Its only highlights were the already-available and free Flipnote Studio, and an obvious but no less welcome port of Firemint's iPhone essential, Flight Control. Below, you'll find our picks from WiiWare's next few months (or last few weeks, in the case of Cubes). Unfortunately, prices were hard to come by - and release dates were hard to pin down, so don't take any of these as gospel.
LostWinds: Winter of the Melodias
Michael Brookes, producer of LostWinds's sequel, is a jolly man with an easy job. "In fairness, it produces itself," he says, noting that Frontier has concentrated on adding new elements to LostWinds while subtracting or changing almost nothing, since the feeling was that they'd got it exactly right first time (we agreed). The lush platform adventure seems to be working itself out with the clockwork precision and easy charm of a Zelda, starting with all the powers from the first game and then layering on interactivity and intricacy as lightly and attractively as snowfall.
You can switch the seasons between summer and winter at pre-set points, which thaws and freezes water; use the new cyclone ability to move bodies of water around as clouds; conjure snowballs for pressure switches; wind-chill enemies into blocks of ice; melt barriers by carrying fire on the wind; catch cold if you stray too far from heat sources without a protective suit. It's all very satisfyingly logical, linked and thematic, and as highly polished as you would expect. Due at the end of October, this is nothing if not a safe bet.
Worms: Battle Islands
Reasons to pay attention to yet another rehash of Team 17's turn-based warhorse might seem elusive, but how's this: Battle Islands is that rare beast, an online multiplayer game for the Wii with a proper, contemporary feature-set. Alongside the usual Deathmatch, Forts and Racing is the all-new persistent Tactics mode, in which players rank up an island base with extensions that give you special in-game abilities: a satellite dish that lets you see enemy positions, or a runway that gives you a free opening airstrike, for example. These bonuses are also collateral - winners can take one of their opponents' on victory - ensuring no-one gets too far ahead.
There's a single-player campaign following a similar theme, a puzzle mode, cosmetic unlocks from experience points, and extensive customisation including the ability to create custom weapon types. It's not hard to believe this was originally planned as a boxed release, although there's a danger that it might overcomplicate the devastatingly simple formula that has kept Worms running all these years. Expect it in December.
Speaking of devastating simplicity, you can't get any purer a four-bit, four-to-the-floor retro rhythm fantasy than the third in the abstract Bit.Trip series, from Aksys. You steer a black dot around the screen, eating up staves of other black dots which grow yours in size, and avoiding fiendish patterns of white dots. You can bank your points and return to the smallest size at any time, although naturally there's a score multiplier for staying as large as you can get. That's it. Basic, hypnotic and free of motion frippery, hopefully this can overcome the difficulty tuning hiccups of the first two, and it's out very soon.
And Yet It Moves
The puzzle-platformer with a conceptual kink was an indie staple long before Braid came along, and since Jonathan Blow's sensational success it's become an epidemic. Several of them are coming to WiiWare, including this from Austrian student developer Broken Rules, already available on PC. Its regulation design quirk: you can pause your character at any time and rotate the world around him, through 360 degrees, in 90-degree increments.
The puzzle consequences - flipping the world to make boulders tumble out of your way, for example - fall into place perfectly, but the navigational challenges are something of a chore in the current build thanks to two fidgety and counter-intuitive control schemes (tipping a lateral Wii remote or pointing, clicking and twisting to rotate the screen). The classic controller will probably fare better, but it's the scrapbook-and-sketch visual collage that has the most charm. All being well, you'll see it in January 2010.
Max & the Magic Marker
Denmark's take on the puzzle-platformer has a much more conventional, kids-book look but is no less formally inventive. Recalling the iPhone's Trace, you can use the remote-manipulated marker to draw platforms for Max on the screen - or other objects in outline, which then assume a proper physical weight and fall to rest. You have finite ink to use at any one time, but can shake the remote to erase everything you've drawn and refill your mystical pen. The game's physical dimension is the most fun - drawing a platform of the right weight and shape to sit on a fountain and elevate Max to a high platform - but as with And Yet It Moves, the tuning of the controls and level design are less than perfect. Press Play hopes to have it out by the end of the year.
Super Meat Boy
Super Meat Boy, on the other hand, is tuned to perfection, as long as perfection in 2D platforming means crazy inertia and stupendously, unforgivingly cruel level design. Think Super Mario World's Star Road levels, only with more saw blades. A lot more.
This full realisation of a notorious Flash game is one of few platformers to fully ape Super Mario's control ethos, with a dash button, variable jump height and wall-kicks giving tremendous room for free-wheeling finesse. Levels are microscopically short, insanely hard and totally addictive, and the two-man Team Meat has vitally ensured that the restart is so instantaneous it makes Trials HD's look sluggish. A brilliant feature is an end-of-level replay that overlays all your dozens of failed attempts in one red smear of leaping, cuboid meat mascot.
"We want to punish, but we don't want to frustrate," says programmer Tommy Refenes, so you'll only need to complete two of every three levels to move on. One of the most immediate and playable games on show, this is a guaranteed cult hit when it launches in the first quarter of 2010.
Zombie Panic in Wonderland
This shooting gallery hails from Valencia, not Osaka, although not so you'd notice; it's all cherry-blossom, super-deformed manga avengers and zombie sumo wrestlers. The mechanics couldn't be simpler: destroy everything, including enemies, buildings and all level furniture, to fill your "clean-up meter" before time runs out. It's no Sin and Punishment, but it is immediate and basic arcade gratification with jump-in co-op, and at an appropriately low price point it could make a fun diversion come its expected release in December from Akaoni Studios.
Another puzzle-platformer of sorts, notable for its silhouetted, Chinese-lantern visuals, lack of scrolling (when was the last time you played a game with screens?) and lack of a jump button. You're a rolling stone, gathering no moss as you travel through the ethereal landscapes, toggling speed boosts, gravity-reversal and sticky friction powers to negotiate obstacles. With nothing to the game but the controls, it's vital that these feel just right - and they do, but the lack of consistency, with rules and powers being swapped about between screens arbitrarily, is jarring. Just like the other indie platformers here, with the noble exception of Super Meat Boy, NightSky puts ideas and atmosphere before execution. Due December.
And now we get to the really strange stuff. We've already covered this lavish update of the PC and Mac freeware cult in some detail, and it's out very soon. For the uninitiated, it's best described as a turn-based tactical martial arts game in which you manipulate individual joints and muscles of ragdoll fighters, 10 frames at a time, slowly constructing brutally violent, fantastically brief bouts. If you're quick, you can catch your own severed limbs before they fall and use them as weapons.
Nabi promises a more strategic game in which gripping and dismemberment are more important, a new ability to "boost" moves for extra force, the ability to send replay files to friends, and much-improved online matchmaking in a "tournament that never ends". Also, despite the abstract graphics, the most realistic and minutely simulated blood spatter you'll ever see. "That thing is melting," says the Nabi rep proudly, pointing to the Wii in the demo stand.
You, Me and the Cubes
Kenji Eno, noted sound and game designer of Altered Beast, D and others, was so entranced by the initial unveiling of the Wii remote that he cut out and stuck together a papercraft one for himself before begging Nintendo to be allowed to make games for the machine. The result is this slick and delightfully strange puzzle game.
An outlined cube hangs in space. You shake the remote to create little people called Fallos - boy and girl, blue and pink, always a pair - then select landing spots for them with the pointer and throw them at the cube with a flick, aiming to balance their weight so the cube won't tip. Then it rotates, another conjoining cube is added, you throw two pairs of Fallos and so on, until you're balancing a complex superstructure of varied cube types covered in the skidding, tumbling or (if you're skilled and lucky) stably sitting little folk. The aim of each level is to get a certain number of them on the cubes within a 100-second time limit.
It's an engrossing and original concept, with some similarities (in interface at least) to the brilliant Boom Blox. It also has the best production values of any of these games, with Eno's pristine soundscape a particular highlight. We saved the best for last, but Nintendo saved it for first - You, Me and the Cubes is out now for 1000 Wii Points (£7 / €10).