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Games of 2012: Nintendo Land

Miniature heroes.

It would be easy to dismiss Nintendo Land. It's a mini-game collection, a handful of tech demos, a pack-in with the Wii U's Premium bundle. It's the equivalent of Wii Sports.

Hang on. It's the equivalent of Wii Sports! A quick check of my gaming time for the Wii shows that, six years on, Nintendo's last-generation launch game remains my most-played game on the whole system. I've spent hundreds of hours swatting virtual tennis balls with buddies or strolling along its nine-hole golf greens. It's not too much of a surprise. Years back in my old beer-stained student flat, it got to the point where “Want to play Wii?” when choosing a multiplayer game was synonymous with an evening of Wii Sports.

True, Nintendo Land's lure is not as immediately apparent. Wii Sports acted as the perfect taste test for motion gaming. You knew what you were doing in Wii Sports tennis without having to read any instructions. Compare that with the oddball attractions of Nintendo Land, named things like Captain Falcon's Twister Race or Animal Crossing: Sweet Day, and it's easy to see how they might initially bewilder. Even after having them explained - in a review online or in one of Nintendo's woeful TV adverts - I can imagine questions around the hardware they seek to show off will remain. Do you really want a controller with a screen in, and why wouldn't you want to look at the bigger, shinier picture on the TV?

The answer lies in multiplayer - good old-fashioned split-screen gaming. It's in teams of three hunting down a fourth who's running for his life in Mario Chase, his position hidden on the GamePad display. Or in a group of four friends working together to slash and shoot moblins in Zelda: Battle Quest, the touch-screen allowing one person to cover his enemies from afar with arrow fire.

Nintendo Land's plaza begins empty, but soon fills up with Miiverse friends and unlocked decorations.

With local multiplayer feeling like it's dying out, the raucous teamwork and quickly-formed alliances allowed by the introduction of that second display are simply the best argument for its inclusion in any of the Wii U's first wave of titles. While some third-party ports bolt on an extra map, and remote play remains a neat trick for gaming under the duvet (range permitting), there's no better demonstration of how the Wii U can change your multiplayer gaming experience than Nintendo Land.

Maybe it's because I miss the times spent in the student flat. Maybe it's because, since those days, I've never really adapted to shouting down a headset during online multiplayer. But Nintendo Land brings back the feeling of those evenings with Wii Sports and my friends more than anything else I've played this year.

Like Wii Sports, the attractions do range in quality (every mini-game collection has to have its Wii baseball - this time it's Octopus Dance). But, in general, the level of detail and depth hidden within each offering is startling. No company but Nintendo would re-score what feels like an entire Zelda game's worth of themes for mini-game Battle Quest, or hide double the amount of levels that you're first able to glimpse, available in multiple play styles and merciless Master Rank challenges.

This may be Nintendo's finest mini-game collection ever and, in terms of multiplayer, feels a worthy successor to Wii Sports, eclipsing interim examples such as Wii Party and Wii Play Motion. In terms of single-player fun it outstrips any previous party effort entirely. At a time in my life when I'm not continually surrounded by beer-fuelled friends wanting a bash at Wii boxing, this is perfect.

Like Wii Sports, Nintendo Land must be bought separately in Japan.

Nintendo knows simplicity, and how to make the unremarkable into something enormously addictive. I remember playing Super Mario 64 DS, retreading old ground around Princess Peach's castle, climbing trees, diving through a picture onto that slide - but ultimately spending more time on the game's simplistic but ridiculously addictive touch-based games. Nintendo conjures just as much gratification here with new takes on old formulas, such as the stylus-controlled Balloon Fight or tilt-sensitive platformer Donkey Kong's Crash Course. Tenser moments have rarely been had. More substantial offerings such as Metroid Blast and Pikmin Adventure offer level upon level of more varied challenges, with barrel-loads of fan-service in each.

It feels as though Nintendo is setting out its stall for the next generation, reminding the converted of its beloved franchises and inviting the uninitiated to remember their names for when the true HD debut of each eventually rolls around. Boot up Nintendo Land and you're staring at a sample menu for the company's next five years. New games in the Metroid and Zelda universes are undoubtedly coming, and to whet your appetite Nintendo Land teases a version of those series in miniature.

It's all wrapped up in an enormously slick package and, while Nintendo still neglects to include leaderboards, it is a perfect fit for Miiverse - a feature so good that I can imagine Microsoft and Sony already drawing up their own blueprints. Players are coaxed into sharing their successes, whether that's beating a high score, winning an Achievement-style stamp or unlocking a new Plaza decoration.
 So even when you are without your alcoholic pals, YoshiEggWhisk55 has posted a screenshot of a new area to explore, and there's likely a dozen new modes waiting to try. It's as perfect a local multiplayer package as you're going to see this year, with an engrossing single-player and ladles of Nintendo charm.

It wasn't easy to name a personal game of the year. There are countless games I've played longer than Nintendo Land, and maybe some I've enjoyed more. But Nintendo Land is my pick because, in six years' time, I would not be surprised if this day-one wonder is once again my most-played title for the latest Nintendo system. And because playing it with others reminds me of those times six years ago, when a room full of friends sat around a CRT TV together and played games.