If you ever get invited to meet someone in an windowless trailer that has a gorilla decal and out-of-state plates, you might not be as excited as we were recently. In fact, for legal reasons, we should probably strongly advise you against agreeing to such a thing. Unless, that is, it happens to be reps from Nintendo asking you to come preview what will be some of the holiday season's biggest games for the Wii and DS. We got the chance to get our feet wet with the same demos that were at this year's E3 and had a blast checking out the new titles as well as updated installments to some of the touchstone classics of our youth. Here's the breakdown:
Donkey Kong Country Returns (Wii) Release Date: Nov. 21
The Pitch: Donkey and Diddy are back and ready to save their jungle home in another quasi-2D adventure.
Number of Players: 1 or 2-person cooperative play.
How it looks: The game's visuals are spot-on, updating the saturated colors and hi-def (for the time) cartoony feel of the original to be on par with the better graphics capabilities that the last decade and a half have given us.
How it feels: Nintendo's always excelled at platformers and the game feels good to play. Like with the new Super Mario Bros., cooperative play adds some extra inter-player abilities, and the motion-sensor in the Wiimote is used to up the fun of controlling your digital ape.
Who's Going To Like It: This game will have broad appeal, from old gamers who have fond memories of the original installments to kids who think monkeys are cute. It's hard to say from the demo how big the scope of the world is, but we would guess that the challenges are going to be diverse enough and the visuals appealing enough to keep everyone entertained no matter the skill level.
Kirby's Epic Yarn (Wii) Release Date: Released
The Pitch: Kirby and his pals have been stuffed into a magical knit-sock that has turned them (and everything around them) into balls of yarn.
Number of Players: 1 or 2-person cooperative play.
How it looks: Adorable. The design team behind this game must have had a lot of fun coming up with all the different visual puns of working in a fabric world. Kirby's online an outline of what he used to be, so gone is the bottomless stomach, and in its place is a multi-purpose yarn outline. Some of the fun is to see how Kirby's outline changes shape for different tasks: a car to speed up, a parachute to slow his fall, and on special occasions he can combine with the second-player to form elaborate machines.The palette is all kid-friendly pastels, but it works and doesn't come across as too cloying.
How it feels: Compared to Donkey Kong Country Returns, the controls came across as a little slowed-down, but we didn't mind. Everything about the game is subtle and soothing, and the pace matches it.
Who's going to like it: This comes across as a game for younger kids, so mature gamers might not be running to the store to grab it off the shelf, but playing through it, we got that same feeling we get from watching Pixar movies, that mixture of nostalgia and wonderment that helps you to remember you were a kid once too. Since you can't really "die" in the game, the team has made sure that the yarn-world is fun to explore on its own. The learning curve is low and we're guessing it doesn't get to any astronomical level of difficulty.
Disney Epic Mickey (Wii) Release Date: November 30
The Pitch: Disney's greatest rodent icon picks up a magic paintbrush and explores his own past to right wrongs (or not).
Number of Players: 1
How it looks: We had seen some press on this before getting to play it and we were curious if it was really that dark -- it is. There is an eeriness to the game that's unsettling, because it's not what we often associate with Mickey Mouse (at least not his more contemporary incarnation). Think "Sorceror's Apprentice" from Fantasia. We couldn't get much information from the reps beyond the details of the demo, but it seems like the game will be a blend of open 3D worlds and linear 2D "film-strip" levels. The 2D looks great and feels immediately classic. High-end 3D isn't the Wii's strong suit and the worlds look murky in their muted palettes.
How it feels: The 3D worlds require more in the way of controls. The Wiitmote functions as an aiming-apparatus for your paintbrush and you move with the nunchuck add-on. One thing that the game stresses is choice, and you're given many different options for interacting with the world and progressing through the story. Paint is given as your medium for construction/friendship, paint-thinner for destruction/enmity. The uncertainty of consequences helps to add to the eeriness of the visuals and they complement each other in nice ways. In the level we played, other characters were constantly turning "bad" and you couldn't so much kill them as temporarily win them over to your side, which felt more meaningful than a lot of the common video-game "kill this thing" instruction. We're interested to see how deep the full game dives into these kinds of complexities.
Who's going to like it: We have to say this one is up for grabs. If the game makes good on its "epicness," it could be a real touchstone in the Wii catalog. With the pedigree of the project's head game designer Warren Spector (best known for designing PC game Deus Ex), we're hoping it turns out that way. The game definitely feels more geared toward mature gamers, in terms of the history it's exploring of the Mickey Mouse character, as well as the themes it's grappling with. How quickly such gamers will find new affinity for Mickey, whose image has been polluted so thoroughly at the hands of merchandising, remains to be seen as well.
Wii Party (Wii) Release Date: Released
The Pitch: Get your friends and family together and play some games on the TV instead of the table.
How many players: Up to 4.
How it looks: Like the Wii Sports games, the visual style is pared down to simple shapes and signifiers.
How it feels: Goofy, silly, fun. The team has tried to come up with as many different ways to use the Wiimote as possible for a variety of different types of games. There are nice touches throughout (the fake language spoken by the announcers/referees for example), but, all in all, the game is only going to be as fun as the people you play it with -- and there does seem to be a lot of potential for that to happen.
Who's going to like it: This is one of those titles Wii is using to spread there message of "video games are for everyone." If you like playing games with big groups of people, this one's for you.
Various Games for the DS
We didn't get as much time with the DS games, unfortunately, but we still wanted to share our notes.
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Professor Layton and the Unwound Future (released) Point-and-click detective game with beautifully rendered animated cartoon sequences to advance the story. For the young (and patient).
Art Academy (release date: Today, Oct. 25) Drawing/painting application that offers many features to express your creativity. No-mess, travel-friendly, and unlimited potential. A solid choice for the avid doodler.
Super Scribblenauts (released) Solve puzzles by adding objects to the scene. With the same impressive and innovative input as the original Scribblenauts, you get to type any word and that object will appear. This time around you also get to use adjectives. We had a blast adding a "friendly werewolf" here and a "sick baby" there, not to mention all the "humongous hammers" they all carried. This is the game that drew us the most.
Check out more photos of the Nintendo Airstream on the next page.