It feels like I have played nothing except Shovel Knight and Mario Kart 8 the last few weeks. After finally getting three stars on each Grand Prix cup, here are a few tips I discovered that were helpful:
- The horn power-up is one of the best items in the game, if only because it can neutralize the blue shell. If you get one early on and you’re not far from the lead, it’s worth trying to get into 1st and just holding onto it to fend off anything that comes your way – “the speed horse” strategy.
- If you’re in 1st, getting new items doesn’t matter unless your current item is a coin, in which case you should use it right away. If you have a banana or a green shell (the typical fare for someone in 1st place), hold onto it! Countless races have been lost because someone thought that it was clever to shoot a green shell backward or lay a banana on the final turn before the finish line. When you’re in first, all items are defensive items – you will need that banana or shell to block a red shell or snipe someone who tries to overtake you at the death.
- Still, always go through the item squares if you’re in 1st place, even if you don’t need one. You never know if there’s someone on your tail that would lose the race if denied a critical item.
- Know where you can chase the lead – not all courses are created equal. The following courses are extremely difficult to come back on if you fall too far back: 1) Donut Plains 3 2) Rainbow Road (N64 version) 3) Dolphin Shoals and 4) Water Park. On the other hand, it’s not hard to make a huge comeback on Piranha Plant Side, Toad Harbor, and Bowser’s Castle.
- Be wary of 2nd and 3rd place CPUs that are directly ahead of you with red shells. They will often fire them backward (which make no sense, but it happens). It’s useful to have a green shell on hand to fire forward and block the red one.
- Banana sniping it a thing. If you’re in 2nd or 3rd, it’s worth it to throw a banana forward since CPUs or even human players won’t always be able to move in time to get out of the way. Throwing bananas backward or using them defensively makes no sense unless you’re in 1st, anyway.
- Mushrooms are often misused. It’s usually not a good idea to just burn them while on a straight stretch of track. They’re most useful for: 1) boosting through a patch of slow territory (grass, stone, etc.) to get to a shortcut, such as on the first turn at Thwomp Ruins or near the end of Piranha Plant Slide 2) recovering right away after hitting a banana or getting hit with a shell 3) making a big turn, when many other players will brake or drift for too long.
- If you see a blue shell heading for the 1st place racer while you’re in 2nd or a near 3rd, use the brakes (slight tap on B). The explosion radius is wide and getting caught in it is as bad as getting hit directly.
- Sometimes there’s nothing you can do in the face of a blue shell. If it is about to hit you, use up any items you have on you since you’ll lose them afterward. Also, if possible, try steering yourself near to a booster strip. That way, once you start up again, you can get up to speed as quickly as possible.
- Drift wherever possible. Beginners often struggle with turns and making comebacks; drifting is the best way to address both of these issues.
- Use the jump button to get a boost when going over a ramp or precipice. It also doesn’t hurt to jump or quickly drift to change course when you see that a red shell is coming up from behind. Red shells can miss for all sorts of reasons, so it’s a good idea to make life as hard as possible on them.
- If you’re in the lead near the end and fear that someone is tailing you, vary your direction a bit so that you don’t create a slipstream from everyone behind you.
- Remember that you if you brush up against someone holding a mushroom(s), you get a free boost.
- The fireball power-up is unwieldy, but it’s devastating if you’re in the middle of the (closely packed) pack coming around a turn. Unleash it and watch the entire field go spinning.
If exclusive original content is Nintendo’s bread, then proprietary hardware is its butter. Just as the stereoscopic 3D of the 3DS has enabled unique experiences such as the lush landscapes of Phoenix Wright Dual Destinies and the unique puzzles of Pushmo/Crashmo, the Wii U GamePad has opened up new possibilities for both Nintendo’s own games and third-party titles.
Broadly, the GamePad has reduced on-screen map and menu clutter. Even mass-market, cross-platform games such as Batman Arkham City and the Assassin’s Creed series have benefited from having a second screen onto which to offload boring but necessary design. The TV itself is then freed up for continuous gameplay, with no more pop-up spam or map micromanagement.
As the Wii U gains commercial traction through blockbuster titles such as Mario Kart 8, there has been renewed focus from Nintendo and other developers on doing more with the GamePad. The controller’s unconventional design has also been a point of contention with industry observers trying to explain the console’s tepid reception pre-Mario Kart 8 – it surely adds to the Wii U’s price while seemingly being unnecessary (top-notch games such as Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze don’t even use it).
Still, the GamePad has been well-utilized so far. Perhaps it hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves because of the Wii U’s slow uptake. Here are some of the games and apps that make hay with Nintendo’s tablet controller.
Shovel Knight is a Kickstarter project that became an immensely satisfying send-up of 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System gaming. From its limited palette to its soundtrack, Shovel Knight nails the 8-bit era’s distinctive aesthetics.
In my review, I praised Shovel Knight for being pitch-perfect while adding latter-day touches such as theatricality through animation and cutscenes. It also makes better use of Miiverse than any game I’ve played so far for Wii U.
As you move from room to room, the GamePad automatically updates with Miiverse posts (categorized as “Diary”) that include comments and tips about the current room. Some are just peanut gallery schtick about how hard/easy the boss is, but others provide info such as how many hits it takes to defeat the mini-boss and where the hidden passage is located.
The GamePad also provides inventory management. Overall, the GamePad provides nice 21st century differentiation for a game with its head in 1988.
The best of the Wii U launch titles, ZombiU is a fiendishly hard first-person shooter/survival horror hybrid. It took me months to finally clear the normal campaign, and I have yet to try survival mode (in which the game ends for good if you die once; I died 55 times in my first successful playthrough).
ZombiU uses the GamePad like a Swiss Army Knife. It can be held up to the TV as a scanner for clues and enemies. It serves as the scope for the sniper rifle. It is also the interface for entering passcodes and breaking locks.
Ubisoft made the GamePad an indelible part of ZombiU. Even in asynchronous multiplayer mode, it serves as one player’s map for dispatching zombies.
Lego City Undercover
Open world games stir up a certain anxiety in me. It’s probably why I never got into Minecraft and why I have always struggled to stay engaged with the Assassin’s Creed installments. It took Lego to win me over.
Lego City Undercover is an open world Wii U exclusive, sort of like Grand Theft Auto with Lego. You play as a police officer tasked with patrolling Lego City. The GamePad is your stand-in for your character’s communicator.
As such, the GamePad serves as the main screen for communications with headquarters. Plus, it doubles as an evidence scanner. I wouldn’t expect any less from one of the Wii U’s best exclusive titles.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
This game has been ported to a gazillion different platforms, and its stark futurism and realistic violence aren’t exactly Nintendo hallmarks. All the same, its Wii U incarnation is the best available due to the GamePad perks.
Deus Ex HR is filled with menus, lists, maps, logs, and to-do lists. The GamePad is the perfect medium for all of these features. It helps you manage the finer details while not losing sight of the gameplay.
The Wii U version also features enhanced boss battles so that you can scrape by even without a first-rate weapons arsenal. The extra content between Hong Kong and Singapore is also includd.
Not a game obviously, but Netflix shows how the GamePad can be useful in other contexts. Netflix is one of my (and many others’) most used non-game Wii U app, and it takes advantage of the hardware.
The Netflix Wii U app is hardly a paragon of performance and reliability, but the GamePad options make up for these shortcomings. The GamePad screen shows you the title of the film, its Netflix community star rating, the cast, the blurb, and how much time is remaining.
If anything, the Netflix app could probably go further, much like how Shovel Knight turned Miiverse into something worthwhile and useful. Reviews, links to cast and other details in IMDb? All of that would be welcome.
A love letter to 8-bit gaming
It has been nearly 30 years since the Nintendo Entertainment System debuted in North America and no other console since has so dominated the culture, aesthetics, and market share of video gaming in its respective era. The NES not only had scarce competition, but its distinctive capabilities – and modest specs – ensured that it would leave a mark. After all, what other console in history could exert such influence and be so recognizable as to appear in a Ghost Busters movie?
As the children of the 1980s and early 1990s have come of age, 8-bit nostalgia has flourished. A while back, I looked at Mutant Mudds Deluxe for Wii U, a delightfully straightforward, unabashed throwback platformer. Nintendo’s current generation consoles have become ecosystems for genres and styles seemingly from other times, whether pixelated side scrollers like Mutant Mudds Deluxe, HD games such as Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze that reprise the retro difficulty of the NES and SNES, and visual novels such as the peerless Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward.
And now we have Shovel Knight. The platformer brought to Wii U and 3DS via Kickstarter is a gorgeous, endlessly playable love letter to 8-bit gaming.
Shovel Knight digs the details
Shovel Knight has almost scholarly attention to the aesthetics of 8-bit gaming. The NES’s color palette is instantly recognizable in the game’s gorgeous underground caverns, crisp blue skies, lush forests, and lively towns. Players may find themselves thinking of classics such as Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, Mega Man, and especially the Wizards and Warriors games.
Speaking of Mega Man, composer Manami Matsumae contributes music here, along with Jake Kaufman. The soundtrack is pitch perfect, both on its own merits and as a nod to the annals of 8-bit gaming. I found myself endlessly humming the theme from the first stage in my head.
The tunes are nice microcosm of Shovel Knight’s overall approach: Exceptional, encyclopedic 8-bit vocabulary, yet an experience that rises far above mere homage. Its modernity can be felt in the control scheme, especially the jumping, which is much crisper than in most NES platformers. The cutscenes, dialog, and exploratory sequences in the towns, while indebted to games such as Ninja Gaiden: The Dark Sword of Chaos, have a cohesiveness and theatricality that is of more recent vintage.
The cerulean knight
The basic gameplay is inspired. Shovel Knight is a knight who starts with a shovel rather than a sword. The shovel can unearth diamonds, swipe enemies, or be used a pseudo-pogo stick, a la Scrooge McDuck in Duck Tales for NES.
It takes a little while to get fully accustomed to the ins and outs of Shovel Knight. The pogo behavior was tricky at first, since it’s required to cross some chasms (a classic NES pitfall) but doesn’t quite work like it does in Duck Tales or Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, the latter of which imitated the former’s trademark feature. However, the controls are tight and simple overall.
Difficulty is well calibrated. It masterfully emulates the platforming perils of its NES predecessors, but gives the player a break through Shovel Knight’s impressive jumping abilities and robust health meter (no one- or two-hit deaths a la Ghosts and Goblins). The boss battles are tough – I really enjoyed learning the ropes against the Death-like Specter Knight.
Finally, the game is deep, with plenty to collect and explore. Playing the Wii U version, I appreciated how it grouped items neatly on the Game Pad and used Miiverse to provide a community diary of each room. A must-have for any Wii U library.
What’s the appeal of pixelated 8-bit graphics and linear gameplay? Well, maybe they’re an escape from Internet-only dystopian shooters (seriously, how many of these can the average gaming bro play through). A respite from “free-to-play.” A break from “Read Phone Status” permissions. They’re decisive proof that progress isn’t something that just moves forwards. It goes backward all the time (see also: the move away from albums and toward standalone singles and streaming music).
I mean, this says it all. And I would remiss to mention that I am so looking to Shovel Knight for Wii U/3DS at the end of this month.
Until then, I’ve been tiding myself over with Mutant Mudds Deluxe for Wii U. “8-bit” is a monomer here, though, as the game draws inspiration from the SNES’s color palette (plus the blonde haircut and glasses of protagonist Max is more than a little reminiscent of Jeff from Earthbound).
Mutant Mudds Deluxe sets out to do just a few things and it does all them all as well as Scrooge McDuck bounces on a cane. Max has a jetpack and a water cannon. His jump never feels quite high enough, weirdly – maybe it’s the sheer necessity of having to jetpack-blast your way up through all the CGA-Lands (cute IBM reference) that makes the normal jump seem unimportant to the game. In this way, the game resembles 8-bit classic Bionic Commando, with its deemphasis (well, downright obviation) of jumping in favor of claw grappling.
There’s unlimited ammo, as you would expect from a golden/silver age Nintendo platformer. Difficulty is sufficient – tricky moving/disappearing platforms, weirdly positioned enemies – but not back-breaking like Castlevania III or Defender (or as latter-day gamers call it, Flappy Bird).
You can tell that this game began on the 3DS (sans the “Deluxe” moniker). Its usage of depth-of-field effects is clever, but feels awkward on Wii U, where there’s tons of real estate that feels wasted by shrinking Max into the background. But the widescreen effect does bring some major improvements over the mobile version, which would often not show enough of the screen for you to avoid having to make a blind jump.
At only $10, Mutant Mudds Deluxe isn’t cheap compared to the F2P garbage out there. But like the astonishing Out There, it feels like a bargain for how much craftsmanship is crammed into it.
Everyone is aflame with commentary about Nintendo’s recent dismal projections of Wii U sales. I won’t go into details – if you’re reading this, you probably already know that the company expects several million fewer Wii Us (that is one weird-looking plural) sold through the end of this fiscal year. 3DS projections were also lowered slightly.
The Wii U has not been a success, but why has it struggled? I tackled this question a while back, largely discounting the specs issue while giving some credence to the possibility that marketing was at fault. My hunch, though, was that the 3DS – the world’s most successful dedicated console – was cannibalizing the Wii U. Nintendo’s portable has all of the company’s important IPs represented, better third-party support, and a lower price. Basically, a 3DS provides the comprehensive Nintendo fix, and the Wii U brings nothing else to the table for Nintendo’s audience except HD graphics and a sadly underutilized controller that permits asymmetric gameplay.
The Game Pad: A sad tale
The name “Wii U” is awful, and Nintendo itself has done little to show off or exploit the unique capabilities of its own system. The Game Pad has been orphaned, and its issues are indicative of the console’s problems as a whole.
The best software tailored to the Game Pad includes the third-party The Wonderful 101, ZombiU, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and Assassin’s Creed 3/4. In some cases, these games have gone to great lengths to show off the possibilities of a touch screen controller – The Wonderful 101 lets you draw patterns and navigate entire indoor sequences with just the Game Pad, for example. But the Game Pad has also shown great ability to trivialize painful gameplay mechanics, such as map navigation and inventory management. This is why I mentioned ZombiU (in addition to its terrific Game Pad vs Pro Controller multiplayer) and AC3/4 – the Game Pad is a natural way to get clutter off the TV and into the controller.
This is why I think arguments such as “Nintendo makes bad hardware” miss the point. The hardware is plenty capable, but its strengths aren’t in demand by demographics such as hardcore gamers (for whom online services and graphical capabilities are more important) or casuals (who do not care about hardware at all). Part of the issue is probably mobile devices, as the typical fallback argument goes – billions are being channeled into ripoffs such as Clash of Clans and Candy Crush Saga. And the XB1 and PS4 have given the hardcore exactly what they want in the form of sophisticated online gameplay and x86 processors, so Nintendo gets squeezed in a way. Nintendo has tried to cater to both markets while not having completely what either of them wants.
Game Over? Not yet
But I don’t think all is doom and gloom just yet. Nintendo’s financial position is solid, giving it the cash and time to figure out what’s next. And I think the company can turn this challenge into an advantage, if it looks at things right. Here’s what I mean: The disruption from tablets and smartphones is important but at what point do these endpoints stop being mobile devices and just become, well, devices? Many of them have processors clocked at > 2 GHz, with displays to shame any HDTV or PC, not to mention faster data connections than many PCs or consoles. I think Nintendo should look at the 3DS/Wii U with a similar attitude – the 3DS is already basically a mobile GameCube, and that’s only the case because the company ridiculously lowballed its specs. With more devotion to power, it could have been more than a mobile Wii – i.e., a mobile Wii U. What if the company just merged its consoles into one line?
Doing so would solve the cannibalization problem I highlighted. At the same time, making something that can give gamers a Nintendo fix on the go and in the home – maybe it support HDMI, along with an updated, smarter StreetPass – would fit right in with the underrated transition of mobile hardware into do-everything-hardware that is just as good on the bus or in the lobby as it is in the conference room or at the desk. Of course, the challenge would still be carving out a niche independent from the Swiss Army Knife functionality of Android/iOS devices.
Rising to the challenge
But Nintendo has shown a great knack for innovation – and I don’t use that word lightly as a synonym for “new VC-funded photo app.” They’ve innovated for the past 30 years, and many of those innovations have failed, from the Virtual Boy to the Famicom Disk System to the Wii U – failing spectacularly is often a sign of real innovation, innovation for which many consumers aren’t ready. Others have succeeded – the N64’s joystick controller, motion sensors on the Wii, dual-screen on the DS. And that’s not even mentioning StreetPass, which as a real-time, proximity-based social network was years out ahead of the “Internet of Things” or iBeacon.
Moreover, Nintendo usually has its pulse on the future, but its insularity often means that it arrives at jarring conclusions, some of which it can’t explain or market to would-be customers. At other times, the sheer novelty of their creations sells itself, as was the case with Wii Sports. Still, I think that a company that has already dabbled in something as cool as StreetPass and two-screen gameplay can find some niche in the Increasing Complex Hyper-Connected World (TM) or whatever “the world” is being called now. There are more gaming endpoints available than ever before, but as they are iterated with better specs they’ll probably merge with the functionality and form factor many of our existing devices and stop being a discrete category. Rather than despair at this likely state of affairs, Nintendo should take heart and create something that bridges gaming needs on-the-go and in the home.
3 things Nintendo could do to get started
In the meantime, I think there are a lot of areas Nintendo could work on to lay the groundwork for its future. My wish list:
- Stop tying downloads to hardware
- Create a comprehensive account system, while keeping online services free (one of the Wii U’s underrated advantages over its competitors
- Continue ignoring PSN/Xbox Live – imitating competitors won’t help Nintendo get rolling again, no more than Mac OS licensing helped Apple keep up with PCs in the 1990s
Nintendo isn’t destined for failure, no more than Microsoft was after the first-gen Xbox struggled mightily to get traction. But they’ll need to do a lot of things smarter in the short and long terms.