Let me tell you a bit about what I did last night.
I indulged in some multiplayer gaming with friends. This may not sound particularly unusual in this day and age, but it bears some further thought as to what that means.
“Multiplayer,” as a term, is a relatively recent addition to the gaming lexicon. Early home computers and consoles only tended to allow two players at once — though there were occasional exceptions, such as the first generation of Atari home computers, which had four joystick ports — so if you were playing a game, you were generally either playing solo or two-player. Playing with any more than that simultaneously was simply out of the question until much later for the most part. This was fine, though — you could invite a friend over and play with them, and there were plenty of titles on all the major computers and consoles that allowed this sort of play.
More large-scale multiplayer started to appear with titles like Bomberman, which allowed five players to play simultaneously in its later incarnations, and really got into its stride when the Nintendo 64 hit the scene, with its four controller ports as standard heralding a genuine revolution in “social” play — and by that I mean getting your friends over to your house and playing together with them rather than spamming the crap out of their Facebook Timelines.
This particular breed of large-scale multiplayer was a core part of the N64 experience, but gradually started to decline with the PS2 generation. Sure, there were great multiplayer titles like Timesplitters to enjoy, and the original Xbox came equipped with four controller ports as standard, but the priority for many developers was starting to be on more and more visually-impressive single-player titles — most of the time, split-screen multiplayer meant that compromises had to be made in presentation as there simply wasn’t enough graphics processing power on offer to push around two, three or four instances of the same game engine at the same time at the same visual fidelity as in single player — a problem we still encounter today.
Nintendo carried on doing their own thing with the Gamecube, though. While the Gamecube did play host to some impressive single-player experiences — many people will point to this era as the golden age of Resident Evil, for example — there were some fantastic party games, too, including new takes on most of Mario’s spin-off franchises.
Enter the current era, and suddenly Online is a Thing. “Multiplayer” as a term now means “playing online, often with strangers.” This is impressive if you think really hard about it — playing online opens up the possibility of playing games with people from all over the world, many of whom are too far away to ever be within practical “call up for a night of gaming” range. Voice chat allows us to talk with other people as if they’re in the room with us, and some games even offer video or photo functionality, allowing us to see our opponents as we play.
But there’s something fundamental missing from that experience. Sure, it’s cool to be able to leap into battle against a bunch of braying teenagers in Call of Duty, but the whole “hanging out” aspect that used to be present in multiplayer gaming before online entered the fray has been all but lost in most cases. A few games still offer split-screen modes for local play, but they are becoming more and more of a rarity in favor of online-only experiences.
Except when it comes to Nintendo. All through the Wii generation, Nintendo and a bunch of other developers were still churning out local-play extravaganzas. Many of these were of questionable quality and often relegated to “shovelware” status, but there were a fair few gems that really came into their own when your friends were sitting there next to you, trash-talking and hurling insults at each other. This sort of multiplayer had always been Nintendo’s priority, and it was for this reason that the Wii’s clunky, cumbersome Friend Code-based online system was ultimately completely irrelevant, despite the amount of complaining people did about it. The Wii was never about playing online because it had no need to be — the PS3 and 360 had that pretty much sewn up between them — but local multiplayer was Nintendo’s for the taking. And take it they did.
Not only that, but they have really run with it with the Wii U. Allow me to return to my original point, which was what I did last night. I indulged in some multiplayer gaming with friends. Specifically, we played Nintendo Land. It went down a storm — this despite both the other participants very much erring towards the “hardcore” side of things, being big into strategy games and RPGs on the PC for the most part. The experience of all playing together and competing against one another — plus the innovative “asymmetrical multiplayer” aspect that the Gamepad adds — caused us all to regress to being children. This is what Nintendo has always been about, and this is where the Wii U is going to shine the brightest.
Because, ultimately, this is what it has been designed for. You can complain all you like about two-hour updates and the fact it doesn’t play DVDs, but being an essential set-top box has never been on Nintendo’s agenda — the improved online features, TVii and Netflix stuff on the new console is there largely to show people that they have at least a vague awareness of what is going on in the rest of the gaming world, but the priority is, as it probably should be, on the games and the experiences and memories they can create with friends.
Nintendo Land is an absolute riot. The games are all easy to understand, but hard to master. The Gamepad always brings something new to the experience, and the novelty of asymmetric multiplayer is still incredibly fresh and exciting. And the Nintendo Land games make such good use of it — take the Luigi’s Mansion ghost-hunting game as an example, in which the Gamepad player controls an invisible ghost while the other four players on the TV have to hunt them down using vibrations and light flashes. A brilliant experience, genius in its simplicity yet enormously competitive between both casual and “hardcore” players alike. And you’re right there with each other, laughing away, making jokes at each others’ expense, swapping around controllers so everyone gets a chance to be the ghost, or to be chasing Mario, or…
This sort of thing is what sets the Wii U well apart from the experiences on offer on the other consoles. And it’s something that should be celebrated. So if you’ve forgotten the joy of having friends over, playing some games together in the same room and laughing together without a single mention of the words “lag” or “ping,” then you may just want to check out what Nintendo’s latest console has to offer. You might just find yourself liking it — and it was exactly this reason that led Lucas to declare Nintendo Land his game of the year in our recent feature.